For some time I've been interested in the practice of meditation, most particularly as it relates to playing music. I, and many other musicians, feel that there is a similarity of states between that of meditation and that of a musician performing "in the zone." This "zone" is a state of being completely in the moment, no longer beset by the petty, everyday concerns and distractions that go through our heads each day. It is only in this zone that the highest level of artistry is possible. I believe that at that level, the illusion of separation begins to dissolve; separation between people, and between every part of the universe. It is this state that allows the artist to tap into something larger than his or her limited concept of "self." I do not follow any particular religious tradition or practice, and I don't really have a specific belief in what I've heard described as a "personal God," but I do believe deeply that there is something bigger than "me" that I manage to tap into when I get to that "zone." As a result, to me, performing music, at it's highest level, is what you might call a "religious experience."
Anyway, I have been concerned for a long time with trying to find ways to tap into that "zone" more consistently and efficiently. One of the things that's helped me is the practice of meditation. Most people brought up in the western world tend to think of meditation as something foreign, or, at worst, something scary that weirdo cult members do, but this is an inaccurate perception. Since I was a teenager, I was always interested in eastern philosophy and, in particular, meditation. But it seemed like whenever I read a book about meditation it would be written in very flowery, mystical language that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Finally, that summer of 1996 in Guam I brought a book with me that a friend of mine had given me years earlier called simply "How To Meditate" by Lawrence Leshan. The author of this straightforward text approaches the subject of meditation from a western, scientific perspective that made immediate sense to me. He discussed the various types of meditation; I was suprised to learn that he considered prayer to be a form of meditation. At any rate, the type of meditation that appealed to me the most was simple breath counting, which is from the Zen tradition. As Leshan describes the pracitice, the meditator sits quietly, in a comfortable position, and counts breaths (a cycle of inhaling and exhaling is considered a "breath"), from 1 to 4. After the 4th breath, merely start over at 1 and repeat. The idea is to clear the mind of all else besides simply counting breaths and being aware of the breaths, and the numbers. It's a lot more difficult to do than you might think if you've never done it before. Leshan suggests starting with 15 minutes, eventually expanding to a half hour or more. For a more in depth discussion, I highly recommend the Leshan book.
I have also taken a simple, repetive guitar exercise and used it as a sort of "mantra," or a repeated word or phrase used by a meditator as an object of focus. I play the exercise over and over for a set amount of time (say 15 minutes, a half hour, or whatever). I set a timer or alarm to tell me when to stop. I close my eyes, and try to empty my mind, in effect "becoming" the exercise that I'm playing.
This practice has two benefits aside from the meditation aspect. One is that you start to train yourself to enter the meditative state while playing, and two is that repeating the exercise so many times in a row will really cement the actions into your muscle memory.
I found that the discipline I learned from practicing the breath counting meditation allowed me, over time, to enter the "zone" more readily. However, there are also a lot of potential distractions in a performance situation that aren't there in the private of my living room. Based on my experiences I'd say it's pretty unrealistic to expect to be able to enter into some sort of trance-like state when you're playing until you have gotten to a certain point in your playing where you don't have to think about things consciously anymore. In other words, the meditative thing is probably one of the last things to happen, after you already have all the "fundamentals" down cold. With that said, I think it can still be beneficial to do whatever you can to promote that state when you play even if you're still having trouble negotiating II V Is or whatever. It may be beneficial to practice playing something that you ARE really comfortable with, even if that means just playing over one chord using one note, and work on acheiving the meditative state while doing this.
Also, at least the way I am, I always figure the comfort level I have at home alone in my practice room is several layers removed from all but the most optimum playing situations. If I'm playing in a bad sounding room, with a loud drummer, in a high pressure situation (Joshua Redman walks in, heh) it's going to be almost impossible for me to rely on that level of comfort that I'm used to in the practice room. I just accept that that's the way it is. Sometimes I'll get lucky and everything will come together, and maybe I'll even have a transcendant experience that's better than the practice room, but I can't count on that or expect it. What I can do is "overprepare" so that even if I'm playing several "levels" below what I feel like is my best, it's still going to be a certain minimum level. i.e., if I am going to try to perform Donna Lee at 200bpm, I work on it at home until I can play it consistently and cleanly at 250. Also, Bill Evans talked about a figurative "switch" that the jazz musician learns to flip everytime it's time to perform. After you've disciplined yourself over time to enter that "meditative" state when performing, the idea is that the above mentioned distractions won't have any effect. I've gotten closer to this ideal in the last few years but I've still got a long way to go.
I should also mention a more physical form of meditation that has also helped me; yoga. These days many people are starting to do yoga as a way to get in shape, but the basic concept of the practice is for it to be a form of meditation. Any repetitive activity can be used as a vehicle for meditation; yoga tends to lend itself to this use well because of it's relatively calm nature of holding postures, but I've also used running as a form of meditation. Of course, physical activities that promote fitness tend to lead to an overall more healthy state anyway; I've found a definite connection between physical health, mental health, even spiritual health, and keeping tension in my playing to a minimum.
Ground Zero Revelation/ Sound / Dealing with Getting Nervous
Introduction / Technique / Meditation