Zen and working as a musician

Zzen and working as a musician

It is a challenge be a professional artist. Finding good opportunities to perform, collaborating with other artists, navigating competitive and narcissistic personalities, creating a following for your art, all takes work and dedication. What helps keep me on the right path is a small dose of zen.

In zen, there is a teaching called the four worldly dharmas. These include two extremes that, if unchecked, can keep you in a state of suffering. The four world dharmas are as follows:


The idea in zen is that both sides of the equation creates suffering and weakens our art. We all want to be on the left side of the equation, and avoid anything to the right. We all want pleasure, gain, fame and praise and we want to avoid pain, loss, anonymity and shame. The problem is that both extremes are a trap that keeps us on the wheel of suffering.

As a professional musician, I see this happen all the time. Musicians want to get the best gigs, crave praise for their work, desire to become well known as great artists, and have all the pleasures that come with it.

The problem is that we can’t possibly always be in a state of always getting what we desire. Even if we did, our egos would never be ultimately satisfied, and we would become very arrogant!

If we receive pleasure, sometimes we will get the opposite. If we are able to secure a great gig, the next time we might lose a gig to another artist. We might be loved and adored for one performance, and the very next day, ridiculed for our work. The ego is never satisfied for long, and you can bet something will come up to cause you to become hooked again. Maybe your friend gets called for the concert you deeply wanted to be a part of.

In other words, we cannot win at this game.

There is, however, a way to be free of all this. I believe, with a strong commitment, the practice I will describe will make you a stronger, more resilient and more grounded musician.

If we get hooked by one extreme, we can use our awareness to feel that bound feeling and experience the state fully. We can say to ourselves, “Yes, I’m hooked again” and bring compassion into the mix. After all, this is a very human experience and it is something that all of us have to navigate in our lives. With awareness and practice we can “drop” the ego clinging that causes us to suffer and expand into a more full expression of who we are.

In this way, we can become less invested in outcome, and more invested in what matters. We are free to perform and let go of the expectations and comparisons that rob us of our natural joy. We can return to a place of equanimity, enjoying each experience for what it is, relax and let go of any need to control or maintain an image. We can work with others and not feel threatened by their presence, but be happy for them when they get the spotlight.

In my own experiences, I have struggled with these this often. When I was a younger musician, I wanted to be a great guitarist. I was inwardly competitive and wanted to be the best in my college. The problem was that I had a friend who was very talented. We spent many years performing together and going to music school together, and at every turn, he would get the primary spot and I would come in second. At first, I felt frustrated and resentful. After studying zen more deeply, I came to know the root of my suffering and how to let it go. I realized that I was feeling shame for not measuring up. This underlying force was robbing me from feeling competent and confident in my own musical abilities. Through practicing meditation, I eventually let go of trying to be the best, and instead ,made a commitment to be the best that I could be. As my practice deepened, I found that being the best wasn’t really what I wanted. Being free from the bonds the held me back was what my heart desired most.

As an musician, it is extremely freeing to step into a new perspective. To practice zen and music allows for more pure and selfless creation of art and helps deepen relationships with yourself and others. I hope you will try the practice out yourself and see where it leads.

Posted in music, musician, practice, zen.

One Comment

  1. Yes they should teach it. If we didn’t know what we were really doing in music school at 18, we surely know even less now – now that the number of opportunities to be paid for a professional level of instrumental proficiency are so much fewer. There’s no longer much point in schools treating music as a trade; might as well teach its value as a form of meditation and self discovery

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