Tuning in

Leaves at creek

There are many reasons why someone chooses to take up a meditation practice, but an underlying motivation might be a desire to either tune out, or to tune in. While some meditation traditions encourage their practitioners to aim for ‘special’ states which help them to tune out from everyday concerns, mindfulness meditation is very much about tuning in – being attuned to life as it is right now. Musicians know all about tuning in – being in tune with their own internal physiological and mental processes during a performance, as well as being aware of and tuning into the musicians around them.

I remember a woodwind tutorial at the Victorian College of the Arts, where we spend the entire two hours practising the opening four bars of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. We were working on playing in tune with each other, which is much more complicated than simply playing your own line in tune. For example, your note may need to be slightly lower if it forms the minor third of a chord. We were also trying to blend the sounds of different instruments into one chord, bringing out the melody and bass line more than the middle parts… For every note you played, you had to consider your place in the harmony, the tonal colour, and the musical aspects of each chord.

Being in tune with ourselves and those around us is also very helpful in interpersonal relationships. Research has shown that being attuned to their internal body sensations helps therapists be more in tune with their clients, thus leading to more positive outcomes in the therapy. When we are stressed and rushed, it’s often easy to make assumptions about what might be going on for others, without taking the time to notice more subtle clues. For example, we may feel upset that a friend we’re having coffee with doesn’t seem very interested in our stories, without noticing a deep fatigue beneath the happy smile she’s trying to put on for us. Or someone at work might be a little short with us, which upsets us, but if we are observant we might pick up the signs of stress they’re under, and feel more kindly towards them.

As the example of the woodwind tutorial shows, tuning in to others is a skill which requires considerable discipline, focus and practice. However, it is also a very joyful and fulfilling way to live. People who practise mindfulness over some time, such as during the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, often talk about feeling more aware of what is going on within them as well as with people around them. With mindfulness we learn to tune into more subtle signals, which is a wonderful gift we can offer to ourselves and others.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a time when you are with a group of people, and imagine you’re trying to become ‘in tune’ with them, as if you’re playing music together. What do you notice about yourself and how you relate to the group?

Anja Tanhane