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Meditation, Meet Guitar Practice

File Under: Love Guitar

Let’s dig in a bit. Let’s put aside the overviews and figure out how to apply the Love Guitar perspective to the nitty gritty work of learning new music on the guitar.

First off, what’s meditation?

Meditation comes in many forms from many different traditions. Whether or not you’re personally familiar with meditation, here is a simple definition of meditation that will allow us to approach our guitar practice as a meditative practice: Meditation is a process whereby the practitioner cultivates pure awareness and consequently disidentifies with the stream of thoughts passing across the mind.

One of the main aims of meditation is to create spaciousness in the practitioner. Thoughts may continue unabated, but if there is a larger spaciousness to hold the thoughts, then the experience the practitioner has in the face of the mindstream is of watching the thoughts flow past without identifying with them.

Why would you want to meditate? For a million and one reasons, but among the more important are: you will experience reduced stress and heightened relaxation; cultivate the ability to remain unflappable in the face of life’s challenges; develop positive virtues like compassion, love and kindness; and experience deeper peace in each moment.

I have seen many a guitar player trip over their own negative thinking when they try to learn to play the guitar. Often, being a guitar teacher is tantamount to being a psychologist–I go from helping someone learn to play scales to helping someone remain firm in the face of mounting despair, frustration and self-doubt.

The thing is, if you aren’t identified quite so tightly with your thinking, you’ll be happier. You’ll also be able to weather the ups and downs of learning to play the guitar much more successfully. And, triumph of triumphs, the lessons you learn through cultivating patience and presence while practicing and playing the guitar easily translate into larger life lessons applicable in every moment you’re alive.

So how do you approach your guitar practice like a meditation practice? How do you squeeze all the positive insight possible out of the time you spend on the guitar?

Wake Up When You Touch Your Guitar

The first important principle to begin applying to your work on the guitar is: Strive to become MORE AWAKE every single time you touch your guitar.

If you really want to ascend to the heights of Guitar Mountain, then you’re going to want to cultivate a stimulus-response relationship to your guitar whereby even just looking at your guitar brings you more into the moment. Music always occurs RIGHT NOW. I’ve never successfully played any note other than the one I’m playing. While I do need to be aware of where I’ve come from and to where I’m going, that awareness always occurs in THIS MOMENT just as I’m playing THIS NOTE.

Realize this, and embrace it: your guitar is a powerful tool for awakening. If you approach it with reverence, it will reward your efforts.

I once read an interview with Zakir Hussein in which Mr. Hussein hinted at how in his Indian Classical tradition, he would never even touch his tabla without first washing, saying prayers and focusing on his intentions. (This interview just might blow your mind. Check it out here. One of the best musical interviews I’ve ever read.)

I’m not saying the guitar needs to become your new religion, but I am saying that if you want to gain entry into its musical secrets, it really helps to approach your guitar with respect for its power. Instead of treating it poorly, treat it with respect as the powerful tool that it is.

Over time, if you cultivate this habit, you will find yourself entering a heightened state of awareness simply by picking your guitar up and getting ready to play. This is a very good thing.

Slow Down

If I had a nickel for every time I said this…

Basically, the secret to playing well is practicing slowly. Sure, sure, there’s tons of music that you can get away with learning without ever actually going into the details and mapping them out superslowly, but if you’re interested in climbing to the heights of Guitar Mountain and you’re also open to your guitar practice fueling your overall personal growth, then slowing down is your secret weapon.

Ah, but maybe we need to define slow. By slow, I mean REALLY SLOW. Slow is a range–from not moving to barely moving to moving so slowly that it practically drives you insane at first.

If you spend at least a little time in each and every practice session working very, very slowly, you’ll find yourself getting better faster than you ever dreamed possible. I’ve written about this elsewhere in case you need reinforcement of this message.

Breathe

Breath awareness serves as the foundation of many meditation practices, and the same can hold true for your work on the guitar.

On top of all the musical work you’ve done on the guitar, have you ever played through a piece while holding your attention entirely on your breathing? You’ll need to have the piece worked up to a high level in order to be able to shift focus from your fingers or the music to your breathing, but once this becomes possible for you on any given musical piece, I definitely recommend you watch your breath as you play your music.

What will you find? Your breath carries clues about your overall emotional state as you move through your musical movements. If you tense up, you’ll notice your breath changing–maybe you’ll stop breathing for a moment, or you’ll breathe in suddenly or your breathing simply won’t be rhythmic.

If you can watch your breath and keep it slow and rhythmic the entire time as you play through a piece, then chances are you’ll have that piece in the bag. Your breath is a powerful ally–watch it and see.

This is all, of course, Just The Beginning

I could create an entire course on how to meditate through guitar practice. For now, try these three points of entry on for size and see what happens. Just knowing that your guitar practice can serve as a form of meditation practice can take you a long way toward opening up to the full transformative power of Love Guitar.

I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered about the connection between meditation and guitar playing in your own guitar journey. Let me know in the comments!

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Matt Coffman, String Love Guitar
Matt Coffman
Guitarist • Guitar Teacher
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