Wandering Minds

I recently did a meditation course and one of the things they said was that the natural state of the mind is to be thinking. If you ever sit and just stare out the window you may enjoy several seconds of blissful blankness, but this will always eventually be interrupted by a thought.

Everyone – myself included – experiences this natural brain activity when listening to music. When I attend a concert, there will be long stretches where I listen very actively and attentively. I watch the conductor, I listen for the structure and the pacing, I listen for phrasing from individual musicians, I listen to balance and blend, etc. etc. etc. But there are also stretches where I think about where we can go for a drink after the performance or what time I have to wake up tomorrow. This is perfectly natural. It happens less when I know a piece well than when I am hearing something unfamiliar. This is because in a new work, the brain tires from processing so many novel stimuli, whereas when I know what’s about to happen in the music, it's like re-watching a favorite movie and thinking ‘Oh, I just love this scene' or 'This next bit is so great!’ (Familiarity breeds enjoyment.) 

I recently went to two concerts at Carnegie Hall on consecutive days. This was unusual because I generally space them out, but there was a visiting orchestra I wanted to see (it was the Boston Symphony, which I have adored since living in that city for three years.) I emerged from those concerts with a great sense of wellbeing, physical and mental, though I was a little fatigued from the intense concentration (the repertoire was Shostakovich 10 and Mahler 6, both of which are very draining emotionally.) I realized that the experience of putting your phone away and concentrating on the music - as it unfolds in real-time - is very similar to meditation. It gives your mind a break from the tyranny of thought. And this is profoundly rejuvenating.

I have long said that classical music, and particularly symphonic music, can be a powerful antidote to the relentless pace of the modern world. I now have first-hand anecdotal evidence to support my claim!

The take away from today is the same that my yoga teachers and meditation mentor have said to me: your mind will naturally move through states of attention and wandering; embrace both as natural and healthy. When it wanders, gently guide it back to the music. And then the more you listen, the more your mind will enjoy being present in that experience. I promise that herein lies something really significant to add real quality to your life.    

Kirsten Hicks