I have never mindfully practiced the habits of a Zen monk, exactly. However, the more I read about the habits of Zen monks, the more I realize that I learned a lot of about their ways of life while I was in music school.
There are many things I love about the habits of Zen masters; the simplicity of their daily lives, the concentration and mindfulness of every activity, and the calm and peace they find and maintain in their days.
Why would we want to live more like a Zen monk? I think everyone could use a little more concentration, tranquility, and mindfulness in their lives, don’t you?
I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered to work very well in my daily musical practice that align with Zen-like living. I am no Zen master … I’m not even 10% of the way there. However, I’ve found that there are certain principles of musical practice that can be applied to any life, no matter who you are or what your occupation is.
Here are some tips:
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” - Shunryu Suzuki
- Do one thing at a time. Musicians single-task, they don’t multi-task. First scales, then etudes. When you’re washing dishes, just wash dishes. When you are eating, just eat. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating (this one is really tough for me). You will accomplish more by focusing on one task.
- Practice deliberately. Brain study has shown that slow, deliberate practice wins every time. Do not rush your tasks. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. It takes practice to do this, but it helps you focus on the task, and the task will be completed more efficiently every time.
- Finish your tasks. Focus completely on one task, and don’t move on to the next task until you’re finished. Give yourself a time limit for your tasks (“My goal is to type this paper, and I will give myself 1 minutes to do so.”). If you must move on before you’re finished, make sure you set the first task aside in an organized way (a folder, a note on a pad, etc.)
- Do less to accomplish more. Instead of practicing entire pieces of music at once, many musicians will focus on getting 8 measures perfect. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. Don’t fill your day with endless to-do lists. Pick 2-3 tasks and complete them really well, instead of doing a lot of things mediocre.
- Take breaks. Musicians do well when they practice for 20 minutes and break for 10. Taking a break allows your brain to absorb what has been learned and recover. Don’t schedule things close together — instead, leave room between things on your schedule. This relaxes you a bit, and leaves space for when one task takes longer than you planned. Our schedules sometimes look great on paper, but in practice creates stress.
- Have a routine. Musicians have routines for many things they do, from practicing to performing to meditation. Routines give us something to “latch on to” — if it’s important enough to have a routine, it’s important enough to be given your entire attention, and to be done slowly and correctly. You can create any type of routine that makes you feel comfortable, but make it a daily practice.
- Set aside time daily for your tasks. There are certain times in the day a musician designates for certain activities; specifically practice. For a non-musician, there is a time for showering, a time for work, a time for cleaning, a time for eating. Many times, I forgo eating if I am busy, much to the chagrin of my health! If it’s important enough for us to do regularly, consider designating a time for it.
Zen monks and musicians stay in the present and tend to live simple lives, at least while practicing. Hopefully these tips will help you bring some zen-like moments to your day!