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Music, Mindfulness and Recovery

By Angus Whyte

In many 12-step addiction recovery programs, the practice of a musical instrument is considered to be a top-line behavior. In this article, I’ll discuss the relationship between music and mindfulness, and describe how I incorporate the mindful practice of guitar scales into my addiction recovery program.

Music has the power to heal and transform. It can make us laugh, cry, dance, twist and shout. It can lift us up when we’re down, calm us down when we’re amped up, help us cure a broken heart and help us understand things from another person’s point of view. It can cross barriers of language, culture, gender and race. Music is widely considered a uniquely human occurrence, and many people view music as direct evidence of the existence of God. At the very least, most everyone has had some sort of spiritual experience with music, and many religions praise their deity or deities directly through music. From Gregorian chants to Hindu Gamelan to foot-stomping Baptist Sunday mornings, from American rock ‘n’ roll to Jamaican dancehall to Indian pop, from the Spanish guitar to the Chinese flute, religious or secular, music is part and parcel of the human experience.

Another aspect of music that is beginning to be understood: the practice of a musical instrument can be incorporated effectively into a mindful approach to addiction recovery.

Top Line Recovery Behavior: Guitar Scales

Early in the morning, before breakfast, while I drink coffee, is one of the best times of my day, especially in terms of recovery. There’s something about sleep that brings me back to ground zero; it’s an equalizer. I feel a clarity and sense of purpose that I rarely feel during the rest of the day. For this reason, it’s a great time for me to reflect, to journal, and to meditate on my recovery program.

It’s also my favorite time for mindfulness practice. Mindfulness can be thought of as “… a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” (Davis and Hayes, 2011) For the last two years, I’ve used the mindful practice of guitar scales as a morning meditation. It clears my head, focuses my mind, decreases my levels of anxiety, and prepares me for the day.

Here’s how I do it:

I get my guitar, sit on a stool and take a moment to focus on my physical position and my posture. I breathe deeply, relax my shoulders, arms and fingers, and give my mind a moment to settle. I turn on my metronome and listen to the steady rhythm for three or four breaths. Then, I begin. Slowly, and carefully, I play through the major scales, beginning at the bottom of the neck, and moving up the guitar. I concentrate on one note at a time, and, to paraphrase the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, I focus all my attention on moving honestly from one note to another. I give each note its due; no more, no less. By the time I’m halfway up the neck, I begin to feel relaxed; everything slips away, and I’m able to concentrate solely on the notes.

In the Moment

This is when the music becomes meditation; this is when the practice becomes mindful. I see myself sitting there, playing. I don’t get mad at myself if I miss a note, and I don’t get overjoyed when I play an entire scale perfectly. If I feel my shoulders begin to get tense, or I begin to rush, I simply stop, listen to the metronome, breathe, and begin again.

At the top of the neck, I stop, breathe, roll my shoulders, shake out my hands, and then begin the minor scales, playing my way back down the neck to where I started. I play three to four different types of scales, both minor and major, going both up and down the neck. The entire practice takes about 20 minutes, and for those 20 minutes, I’m fully in the moment—not worrying about the future, not stressing about the past—I’m just there.

The notes wash over me, healing me, calming my mind and soothing my nerves. The scale becomes more than just a musical scale, and the practice becomes more than just a musical practice. It becomes a healing meditation, one that helps me calm down, gain perspective, and see the world from a new point of view. The scale is no longer just a scale: it’s a ladder to my higher power, a path to the light that shines within, and with every scale I play, in the words of the Indigo Girls, “the closer I am to fine.”

There is still hope.

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