Zen and the art of playing the guitar

Zen – a word sometimes heard, but only rarely explained. Those who practice Zen say that “Zen is what cannot be explained” – not really helpful. So what is it, what does it have to do with art, and what with playing the guitar?

Basically Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism. It is not a religion – you don’t have to believe in any gods or in Buddha. Instead it has something to do with a particular state of mind. It is this state of mind that is the ultimate aim – it is finally the way to what Buddhists call enlightenment.

Take a look at the following three pictures that all have to do with Zen.

MK picture courtesy of lukas

So, what do these have in common? The Zen mind is characterized by clearness, simplicity, and mindfulness. The monks who work in a Zen garden do this to practice concentration, combined with a certain kind of relaxation. They concentrate on all the details in their garden, on the sand, on those tiny pebbles, on the plants. Concentration is also essential for the sword fighter, one tiny moment of unawareness might result in his death in a fight. And the guitar player – not all, but at least the one pictured here 😉 – performs a piece of art where also each tiny detail matters, everything is important: each single note can be made to sound perfect by concentration, the attack matters, he volume, the vibrato, the song itself of course, simply everything.

Just like the Zen garden must not look overcrowded but open and simple instead, a piece of music should be clearly structured and should have enough open space, so better leave out this killer guitar solo, leave out that complex rhythm fill, leave out things that are not required and disturb the peaceful flow of the music.

Zen focusses on the things “as they are” and concentration is the gate to being aware of the world around you. Never think about the past, which is over anyway, never think about the future, which is totally open and outside your control. Instead live in the now, in the very moment.

One essential way to build up such concentration is meditation. Meditation basically combines relaxation and concentration to enter a different state of mind. All Zen masters practised meditation for thousands of hours in their life. What about our guitar player? Am I to say he also meditated a lot in his life? Well, there are thousand different kinds of meditation: pay attention to your breathing, pay attention to your interior, or to each step you do when walking slowly around, to everything around you, to the right way of standing and holding a sword, or to sit for hours and play the guitar. It is the concentration, always combined with relaxation, that matters. And yes, practicing your guitar in a particular way can be regarded as meditation, and I am sure it can have similar results as conventional sitting meditation.

Modern psychologist have a new term for this state of mind, they call it “flow”. Doing some kinds of work can under certain circumstances lead to this flow. You feel one with the world around you, your thoughts stay in the focus on what you are doing, and you feel perfectly happy.

The next time you practice your guitar you might also concentrate on things you normally are not aware of, like your body posture (very important for your energy flow and thus for your ability to concentrate), your breathing, (even and deep breathing leads to relaxation which is required for more concentration) or technical things like the perfect vibrato, more dynamics and attack control, and not on things like getting faster or louder.

Keeping up the concentration level seems to be very hard at first, so you might say it is impossible to be aware of all these things all the time. However, you might find out that the longer you concentrate, the easier it suddenly becomes to keep up concentration so it is definitely worth the effort and does not only help you to play guitar better but also to live a happier life. So …

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