My commitment to a meditation practice came about as a response to my stage fright, oddly enough. After I left graduate school I had stopped playing the violin entirely, and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of decades. I was just too busy, and besides, I did not need any more stress in my life than I already had. Eventually, though, I hauled the instrument out of a closet, sent it out for repairs, and tuned up the strings.
I was miserably out of shape, but after giving it some regular, gentle practice I was surprised to find at least some of my technique beginning to return. My husband suggested a simple piece for me to play during the prelude in church. People have a tendency to catch up with their friends during this time, which helped keep the nerves at bay, but they perked up and listened to me that first time because no one had had the faintest idea that I could even play.
I had no idea how it would go. I touched the bow to the strings, and within seconds realized that I was shaking. I worked with the situation, let things gel a bit, and carried on. After the fact I had reason to feel encouraged: after all, I hadn’t played in public in many years, and now I had actually done it. My listeners were amazed and impressed, and so I decided that I would make a point of acclimating myself to performing. I recalled my fear when I first tried singing solos, as well as my nerves teaching classes. Repeated exposure worked in those cases, I reasoned, so repeated experience playing in this low-stakes setting should have the same effect.
Over the years that followed I played church services, I joined the local orchestra, and I even played for a couple of weddings. I became part of a flute, violin, and piano ensemble at church that performed for less formal services once a month. I learned new music, becoming acquainted with the organ and violin repertoire (not large, but wonderful). What I found was that again and again, I would improve to the point that it seemed my nerves were almost gone, only to have them come roaring back the next time I tried to play. Obviously, the violin was nothing like singing or lecturing for me.
Then I hit on another possible solution: I would try the viola. I thought that a new instrument with which I had no fraught history would trick my brain into thinking that I could make mistakes without shame. I learned a new clef, a new arrangement of strings, and a new, longer fingerboard. I congratulated myself that I was improving brain function by forcing myself to undertake something challenging in middle age. Unfortunately, though, the instrument was in essential respects the same as the violin, with all the same liabilities.
By the time I began playing viola I had begun taking beta blockers for my nerves. At first they seemed to be the answer to all my prayers, until they stopped working. I increased the dosage and the pattern repeated. I realized that continuing on that path was dangerous, so I settled on a dosage that seemed reasonably effective and stuck with it. Playing with the pills became my new baseline, following the same pattern as playing without them had been in the past.
At Christmas time in 2010, I played a nice little romantic piece on the viola in a small church service and felt good. The very next time I played, however, I forgot to take my pills. Maybe I was subconsciously feeling sufficiently confident that I thought I wouldn’t need them; who’s to say? I was doing the slow movement to a Brahms sonata, an exquisitely beautiful piece, but from the outset everything fell apart. I was completely blindsided, then frantic, then plunging ahead just trying to contain the damage. Afterwards I felt a toxic mixture of shame, bitter failure, frustration and grief. I retreated to a room in the church basement where I paced the floor, wringing my hands and crying, and then I thought of Daniel Ingram’s book. I thought, why not try it? What do I have to lose? And so I resolved then and there to undertake a meditation practice.