Many people think of me as a harmonica guy. I can understand that. I’ve taught more than a million people to play that lovely and expressive little instrument. Playing and teaching harmonica was a joyful pursuit for me (and until 1985 a great way to meet women, my favorite and most compulsive pastime up to that date).
But at 8 pm on January 30, 1985 I had an epiphany — care of Jack Kornfield and Stephen Levine — that lead me to study mindfulness and meditation, and to develop teaching methods that help others to do so. The first — and most crucial — step in developing a mindfulness practice involves learning to focus one’s attention onto the breath. And there is no easier or more entertaining way to begin a breath-focus practice than learning to play the harmonica…mindfully.
There’s a new way
Do you ever have cravings — for food, fame, money, sex, alcohol, internet, drugs, or for less “popular” ones? Do these cravings seem unskillful, unhelpful, or downright unhealthy to you? Let me tell you about what I call “The Desire Response.”
To paraphrase one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs (an appropriate thing for a guy who teaches Mindfulness Through Music), “You Can’t Shouldn’t Always Get What You Want.” Yes, it sounds a bit punitive — but sadly, it’s true.
Now, as research emerges that breath focus techniques can be used to work with issues around wanting and craving, I’m inviting you to dive deeper with me.
This new research indicates that pathways of brain cells (called “neural paths”) similar to those that underlie fear and anger also underlie desire and addiction. After studying this research, I’ve begun using breath focus techniques (as taught through the harmonica, as always) to work with issues of unhelpful cravings, applying Harmonica-Based Mindfulness techniques to what I call the “Preference/Desire/Habit/
Here’s why: Focusing on the breath triggers a stress-reducing neural path that short-circuits another neural path: the ancient fight or flight response. The fight or flight response floods your body with adrenaline, and prepares you to fight or to flee. The fight or flight response is basically the physiological cause of all fear and anger (which of course are the main causes of stress in our lives). And it now seems that this same breath focus strategy can work to short-circuit the neural paths of…desire!
Here’s how you can start using the breath to short circuit your cravings:
1) While sitting comfortably, pay attention to whether you are inhaling or exhaling.
2) Once you can do that, say (silently, to yourself) “innnnnnnnnn…one” on the next inhale, and “ouuuuuuttttt…one” on the next exhale.
The long “innnns” and “ouuuttts” should be said (in your head) long enough so that the innnnnn or ouuutttt and the breath number last the length of the entire inhale or exhale.
3) Continue on until you have silently talked your way through four complete breaths.
4) After you’ve practiced steps 1 through 3 for a minute or two, bring a thought of a low level desire into your mind. Not perfect health for life, or getting the dream job, but the desire for a brownie, or a wish for an easy commute today.
5) As soon as you’ve brought the desire thought into your mind, put your full attention onto Steps 1 through 3 above, and repeat them two or three times (for a total of 8 or 12 breaths). If you lose your breath count before you get to the fourth breath, just start again on “innnnnnnn…one” without self-criticism or annoyance. As I said in an earlier blog, “Failing at Meditation” is good for you (as long as you don’t give up!).
If you do this exercise, you’ll probably find that your desire for the thing you desire has receded slightly, at least while you were doing the breathing exercise. Of course it will come back — and that’s your cue to go back to the breath!
On September 6th, 2014 at the Open Center, I’ll be adding these new techniques to the mix of fun, musical interaction, and entertaining mindfulness instruction that comprises the constantly evolving Mindful Harmonica classes that I’ve been teaching at the New York Open Center for these past years!