Zen, work and midlife

I’ve always been into “Asian stuff,” studied martial arts, have more Chinese movies on DVD than an average Blockbuster, whatever. I’ve always known about Buddhism – academically – but for whatever reasons these things happen, I’ve started to actually practice over the last months, and it’s been very good for me. It’s not as though I’ve achieved some kind of enlightnment or reached some sort of “state,” but for as subtle as the process is, it seems to be causing big ripples.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of the work I do to make a living. (That’s comically understated to take it easy on anyone who doesn’t know me who reads this.) I’ve had what most people describe as midlife crises since I was roughly 16. This time, it’s going a little differently, and it’s partly because of the still-novel practices of mindfulness and meditation.

First, I sleep better. I’m a “mind is always going type” to frequently ridiculous degrees, and taking that down a notch, even when it’s only a little successful, has been a big deal. And when I sleep better, I’m more effective at my day gig, and that leaves me with a tiny bit more energy at the end of the day for “other” stuff. (Like everything else in my life – music, family, photography, reading, sleeping, shopping, walking the dogs, cutting of various nails and hairs.) And that leads to small, but important, footholds on improving all those other areas. And by improving some of those other areas, I’m more likely to feel like I’m moving toward improving how I make my living, and the circle is complete.

Second, when I confront stresses, trying to be mindful helps to circumvent my usual overthinking and amplifying of the stress. Rather than taking a molehill and spiralling it into that proverbial mountain, I’ve gotten a little better at stripping away the emotions and looking at things for what they are. “What’s REALLY happening here?” If I’m stressed about work, maybe it’s about a hard deadline, and the deadline itself isn’t stressful, it’s the knowledge that if I don’t make it, I might get a gentle scolding that I don’t want. Since I never, ever, miss deadlines, it works out that I’m spending energy worrying about nothing. Right here, right now, I have a cup of tea, the sun’s out, I hear birds, and it’s all good - moment right here is pretty damned fine. So I can let go of the future stress a little more easily and take care of the present a little better, which leads to an even smaller chance that the bad or stressful outcome will ever come true. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle, it works out very well.

With music, it’s helped me buckle down and start and finish stuff. I protect myself from certain things by being too perfectionist to ever let most stuff I work on be seen by anyone. Now, I’m getting a little better at shutting out the games I play with myself and instead participating more completely in the process of working on music. And when it works, I’m happy enough to see myself getting stuff semi-finished that I don’t really consider or worry about how it’s “seen” by others. Sure, I can go back and fix things I hear later, but letting things out there as they are vs. sitting on them until they’re totally perfect is a big difference for me. Sure, it would be great to come up with some stuff that people found out about and liked. But I start stuff for myself, so maybe there’s enough incentive in there to finish it for myself, too. I never would have controlled whether someone liked what I work on anyway, so I’m not letting myself put energy into somehow trying to make sure anything I do is likeable.

My latest stuff sound boring? Weird? Unfocused? Too focused? Too jazzy? Not jazzy enough? Too busy? Too slow? Too fast? Could be, any of it. But I do know that with anything I’ve posted, I had fun making it, and that’s a pretty good place to come from. If I write an opera next year, or score a Hollywood feature, or play piano at a bar, or create a ringtone for the local drycleaner, the stuff I learn now will have had some role in shaping future-me, and anyway, it’s pretty hard to worry about doing the things that your self is telling you to do.

By working to create even the tiniest bit of extra space in my life, important, good, new things seem to be sprouting almost on their own. The strangest thing about it is that it’s all been here all along; peace, mindfulness, life. It’s like spending 20 years looking for the greatest book ever written, and when you finally find one that meets your criteria, it had been one that was on your own bookshelf, unread, the whole time. Nothing has actually changed in my life, everything that was good before is good now, everything that was bad before is still bad. But the small shifts in how I relate to it all have felt monstrous, and I can’t wait to see what this week, next week, next month, next year, and 10 seconds from now bring into my life.