There are times in our lives when we experience a moment with full awareness. All of our consciousness is focused on where we are and what we are doing right now. I like to think of this state of being as Fully Engaged. Needless to say we could achieve great things if we could assume this state at will. What do we experience when we are fully engaged?
- We don’t feel the need to be anywhere else or to do anything else.
- There is no need to hold back on our energy.
- We are not in conflict as to how to proceed.
- Other, more mundane concerns are put aside.
- We don’t regret the time spent.
- We are doing one thing, without any attempt to “multi-task.”
- There is a feeling of being alive.
- We achieve results that are beyond normal expectations.
What it Isn’t
There are plenty of ways we orient ourselves that can block awareness and peace; becoming aware of these “dampers” can make it more likely for us to get where we want to go. Here are some thoughts and actions that move us away from engagement.
- Anxiety and worry: By their nature these are things we cannot address at the current time. We run scenario after scenario of what might happen, experiencing the consequences of each plan we create. While it makes sense to anticipate and plan for the future, doing this constantly can create a state of nervous system arousal we call “stress.” For me, by the time a real situation has come around, I have worried about it and lived it in advance so many times it is almost anti-clamactic.
- Moving on to the next thing: Again, planning ahead is a good idea; but if we are already mentally going through the motions of our next activity all the time, we are not fully engaged in the present moment. Modern life forces us to attempt this juggling act starting at a young age. We are so concerned about being unprepared that we miss the whole experience of what we are doing.
- Daydreaming: This is the “positive” form of imagination, but it still takes us away from the here-and-now. While this can be a great way to generate new ideas, it doesn’t focus on the present. Many creative types find it hard to suppress or redirect this, for fear of losing ideas.
- Detachment: Enough trauma, pain and experience, and we develop tools to disconnect from the rub of the real. We need this as protection, but this loss of innocence can cripple our life experience.
- Familiarity: As we live our lives, we less and less find ourselves in any new situations, and we begin to operate on mental “auto-pilot” with our awareness barely idling. While it conserves mental energy, this state can become a habit, making it difficult to come fully awake. In my opinion, many of the degenerations of the aging mind are caused or exacerbated by this process.
- Medicating: or as Frank Zappa called it “herbal refreshment.” Mostly drugs and alcohol are a method of increasing the detachment we need to handle our lives (duh…) and lower our anxiety. However, the downside is that we don’t fully experience anything. One famous rock star only realized he needed a hip replacement after he had quit drinking. The numbness was that strong.
In order to get the idea of full engagement, let’s look at some times in our lives when we notice this state:
- When we travel to new places: Ever notice the colors, smells and sounds are magnified when we first arrive in a new place? Even a day later this starts to wear off. Obviously the place didn’t change, we did.
- Trauma: Not that we ever want this, but when something bad happens, we often encounter a heightened awareness. We think clearly, and our memories are formed very strongly.
- Experiencing something new or unexpected: Perhaps seeing a concert, getting a new instrument, meeting a famous person, experiencing a historical event. This is why everybody says “I remember where I was when…”
- When we are in love: The new romance is a classic moment when life is focused on now. Sometimes we even mistake the awareness and aliveness we feel at this time for feelings we have for our partner.
- Our children: Parents will tell you that moments we have with our young children are fully engaged. This is because the focus is outside of our internal thoughts.
Achieving the State
Myriad books have been written about getting into “the zone” and achieving awareness. Religions, especially Buddhism, are centered around this kind of state. Needless to say there is no one answer, but for musical purposes, there are some habits we can try to develop.
- Set aside time early each day to plan, worry, anticipate and visualize. This “business” time will take some of the planning and stress out of your practice and performance. If you find yourself worrying or planning while practicing, remind yourself that you have done this already, and gently return to your focus.
- Meditation, prayer and contemplation are ways that we can condition our mind to clear itself of background noise. These techniques will take a little time to show their effects, but they definitely will make a difference.
- Working on one thing at a time: When practicing, try not concerning yourself with the next thing to work on, whether the current passage will prove useful, or how many things need to be done after this.
- Allow yourself to daydream every day, and keep a journal of your ideas and dreams. This way your creativity can flourish without detaching you from focus. When your mind wanders, remind yourself that you have a time set aside for this.
- Make your practice unique: Try something you normally don’t do as part of your practice. This can help break the numbness of familiarity. I try looking at the ceiling instead of the music or my hands, noticing the sensations in my hands, using a different rhythmic pattern as a metronome, questioning the fingerings I am choosing, etc.
- When you perform, focus on something other than “I hope this goes well” as this pulls you into imagination, anticipation and worry. Instead, focus on the sound you are creating, the sensations of playing, and the overall musical experience of the song, or any element of the final result.
It is definitely a life-long voyage to develop the mental focus we are after, but at least we can get moving in the right direction by becoming aware of our mental habits.
What do you do that helps put you into a fully engaged state? Do you have times when you feel completely in the moment?