Nov 202013

Have you ever heard of a “memory leak?” It’s a classic problem in programming computer software.

A memory leak occurs when an application doesn’t let go of memory when it is done using it. For example, an ATM shouldn’t try to keep information about all customers that have used it in the past week. It only needs to hold the current customer’s information. Once a person logs in, makes a transaction, then logs out, the transaction is stored permanently in the bank’s systems. The ATM is done with that customer, so it should free its memory and wait for the next customer.

If the ATM isn’t programmed properly, it might not free up all its memory after each customer transaction is finished. Over time the machine has less and less memory until it starts to run slowly or crashes. The memory seems to leak away. It’s there, but the flawed programming doesn’t use it efficiently.

A person doing artistic work can have memory leaks too. A human “memory leak” is a common cause of the sluggish, stuck experience known as a “creative block.”

Often A blocked writer starts getting ideas when he frees up his brain’s memory capacity. The grocery list, the dog’s facial appointment, and the sequence of episodes in the first four seasons of his favorite TV show take up valuable brain power that could otherwise be used for creating and editing. The grocery list can be written down, so it doesn’t need to be held continually in his mind. The dog’s appointment can go on the calendar. And, well sometimes trivia about TV shows really isn’t very important, is it?

A musician waiting to go onstage holds a tremendous amount of cognitive and emotional information in her mind. “I’m nervous. I want to make a good impression. Did I forget anything? Why is the light so odd in this place?” That information is powerful. It sends messages to the body such as, “Be alert! This is a vulnerable situation.” If the fear response escalates, she may experience Shaky hands, sweaty armpits, and a dry mouth. She may feel stiff, stunned, and blocked, wondering why things are always so scary onstage.

If she can free up some brain power by letting go of the “worry” information, then her mind and body will have resources available for making music and connecting with her audience. However, if her mind holds onto those “I’m scared” feelings and thoughts long after they have served their purpose, she will not move efficiently from a defensive state to a confident one.

Here are some simple things you can try to reclaim some brain power when you feel blocked:

  1. Take long, deep breaths
  2. Write down to-do lists
  3. Watch less TV
  4. Take a few minutes to do nothing
  5. Replace a worried thought with a hopeful one
  6. Start your creative work earlier in the day
  7. Write your appointments and reminders in a calendar
  8. Take a nap
  9. Avoid trivia
  10. go for a walk or a run
  11. Make time to daydream
  12. Change your routines regularly
  13. Spend time with an animal
  14. Go to bed a little earlier
  15. Fall in love with your creative endeavors
  16. Say encouraging things to yourself every day
  17. Keep working even when you don’t feel like it
Oct 132011

Paying attention to your physical senses is a helpful way to calm the mind when your thoughts are stuck in worry mode. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting can help bring the mind into the present moment. Sometimes thoughts of the past or the future become overwhelming, and focusing on the present moment can help calm your mind.

“Breath focus” is an exercise to help you focus on the present. Most meditation practices use breath as a central theme or core activity. Breath focus is an easy tool that is based on many of these meditation traditions and practices.

To do breath focus, you simply pay attention to your breathing. You don’t need to try to breathe in a certain way. Just breathe, and watch all the little steps involved. Feel the air entering your nostrils. Focus on the air passing down your windpipe. Listen to see if your nose, mouth, or voice box is making any sound as you breathe. Feel how slowly or rapidly you are breathing in and out. Feel how far the air goes down into your body. Perhaps your breath is shallow right now, and the air is going a little way into your chest. Maybe you are breathing more deeply, and the air is filling your lungs and pushing down to your abdomen. Look down and see how your chest or abdomen moves with your breath.

Focusing on your breath can engage the senses of feeling, hearing, seeing, and smelling. Practice the exercise for a minute or two at home when things are quiet. You should find that your thoughts calm down a little as you put your attention on your breathing in the present moment. When you are comfortable doing this exercise at home, then you can try it out when stressful or nervous situations arise.

You can expand the exercise to other activities besides breathing. Try focusing all five senses as you pour and drink a glass of juice. Listen to the sound of the juice leaving the bottle. Feel the coldness of the bottle. Think about smell, taste, color, sound, shape, motion, and temperature as you raise the glass to your mouth and drink the juice.

A few moments focusing on the present can help your mind when it is stuck worrying or fretting. Doing an exercise like breath focus can strengthen your ability to quiet and control your thoughts when worry and nervousness are stealing the show. Try the exercise for a few days, and leave a comment to let folks know how it worked for you.

Check out the “Mood Surfing” tele-class recording on my resources page for a demonstration of breath focus and other exercises for calming the mind.

Oct 062011

“Monkey mind” is a common saying for jumpy, nervous thoughts and feelings that cause one to feel uneasy or anxious. Perhaps you have experienced monkey mind when trying to sleep at night but you can’t stop thinking about an argument you had earlier in the day. Maybe you find yourself waking up in the morning pacing around the house talking to yourself as you worry about a tense conversation with someone you don’t like. Our feelings and inner chatter can run around inside us like a frantic monkey, making quite the mess.

Here is a simple exercise called “centering” that you might find helpful for quieting your mind. This exercise is my stripped-down version of a practice known as “centering prayer.” I have removed the spiritual and religious parts to make a simpler exercise. If you are curious about the more complex Christian practice of centering prayer, check out books by Fr. Thomas Keating.

Here are the steps:

  • Start by sitting in a relaxed position. Slow down your breathing, and try to relax your body.

  • Think of a simple word to focus your attention on. I like using words such as “quiet,” “calm,” “relax,” “peace,” or “sleep.”

  • Say the word silently in your mind and wait. As a thought, image, or feeling enters your mind, you will do two things: Do not resist, and do not retain.

  • “Do not resist” means you will allow the thought or feeling to arrive. Think of it as something floating along down the stream of your thoughts. Even if it is an unpleasant feeling or thought, allow it to enter.

  • “Do not retain” means that you will let the thought float away down the stream. You will let go of it and wave good-bye.

  • After letting go of the thought or image, return to your word. Say it again silently and wait.

  • As more thoughts arise, repeat the same steps. Do not resist, and do not retain. Return to your word and speak it silently.

This exercise will help you strengthen your ability to let go of persistent impulses and inner chatter that trouble your mind. Try doing it for a few minutes at a time when you feel calm and comfortable, to get used to quieting yourself. If you practice it every day, you will become better at quieting your thoughts when you are in an emotionally charged situation.

My Resources page has a recording of my “Mood Surfing” tele-class where I demonstrate several thought and breath exercises for calming the mind.

Was this centering exercise helpful for you? Leave a comment to let me know your experience after trying it once or twice.

Jul 192011

In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green has a great chapter on integrating the analytical and intuitive sides of the musician’s mind.

Some musicians play from intuition, searching for expressions of beauty, passion, shock, sadness, and joy. The intuitive performer sometimes sounds sappy, gushy, corny, or sloppy because pitch, rhythm, and consistent control are not his foremost concern.

Other musicians are analytical, focusing on playing the notes correctly according to the marks on the page. The extreme form of the analytical musician functions like a musical robot, turning out sounds mechanically while suppressing all creative, human, emotional output.

Most musical kids grow up in the analytical path. They are scolded for inventing noises and improvising on their instruments. Band practice is about playing the correct notes and watching the director. Some kids sit there hardly making a sound so they will not get yelled at.

The intuitive kids are the ones who teach themselves how to play guitar or piano because they are fans of so-and-so. Sometimes there is a pride in being sloppy and untrained. I have met musicians who brag about not being able to read music and not even knowing the names of notes.

The struggle between intuitive and analytical can lead to performance problems. For example, imagine a musician is very intuitive when practicing. She enjoys practicing, enjoys exploring the music, and feels satisfied with her progress in getting more comfortable with her material. But when a performance comes along, she suddenly feels panic. Her analytical mind starts taking over, fueled by a sudden nervous surge of on-stage excitement. “How does that piece start?” “How fast should I play that thing?” “Am I playing that high part in tune?” It’s like having a committee meeting where one important member is brought in at the last second for a vote, but that member complains, “I don’t know what we’re voting on!”

Performance problems can come up for the analytical musician as well. SShe practices precisely, plays with sharp focus, good timing, and the correct articulations. When a performance comes along, she faces her intuitive mind, aroused from its hibernation by on-stage excitement. “What are all those people in the audience going to feel?” “Am I really ready for this?” “What if I sound boring?”

When practicing, notice which area you tend to emphasize. Are there ways to balance the analytical and intuitive sides in your practice?

Think about one of the music teachers you have had. Did that teacher have an emphasis on analytical or intuitive? Or did the teacher show a balance between the two, providing both structure and spontaneity?