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Zen and the Art of Harmonica

by David Harp

Zen and the Art of HarmonicaSome people might consider the harmonica an unlikely vehicle with which to explore and transcend that mysterious and often mutinous entity known as the human mind. But as we’ll see in this article, the unique qualities of the harmonica are particularly well-suited to those in pursuit of a healthy, integrated approach to life. From its direct relationship with the breath to the fact that you can’t play a wrong note, the harmonica offers a pocket-sized key to meditation and mindfulness.

Harmonica Meditation

The Yoga Sutras (verses 1.33–1.39) recommend a nearly unlimited menu of potential objects for meditation, including "whatever you choose" (yatha abhimata). Yoga positions, mantras, alternate nostril breathing—it’s not what you choose to focus on that brings the reward of a "stable and tranquil mind," it’s how diligently you work at maintaining that focus.

By its very nature, the harmonica makes it really easy to keep one’s mental attention focused on the process of breathing, which is, of course, the mainstay of many meditative techniques. The standard harmonica can produce 20 different musical notes: 10 on the in breath and 10 on the out breath. Although a lot of musical instruments can do that much or more—the piano has 88 notes—the harmonica is unique for two reasons. It’s the only musical instrument that can produce sound on the in breath. And its notes are arranged so that it is simply impossible to play notes that don’t sound right when played together.

Randomly try and play the piano or strum a guitar without regard to precise finger placement, and you’ll produce what musicians call a "discordant" sound—notes that sound bad when played simultaneously. But, cover as many holes of your harmonica as you like with your lips and breathe in or out, and you’ve got a rich, delightful, "chord"—notes that were meant to be played together!

Since all of the in notes and all of the out notes sound fine when played together, only full mental attention on the rhythm and pattern of inhaled and exhaled breath is important for playing the harmonica. And it’s easy. Play a steady "in–in–out–out" rhythm, and you’ve got the sound of train wheels rolling down the track. Play a long in followed by a short out, a short in, and a few beats of silence: "innnnnn–out–in–rest …" and you’re playing a simple but melodious Chicago-style blues "riff." Should your attention leave the breath for even a fraction of a second, you can instantly hear that you are no longer playing your train or your Chicago blues, and are reminded to return your full focus to your breath.

Cognitive Psychology Meets the Breath

Why do meditative traditions focus on the breath? It’s true that this serves as an aid to training the mind, but the real connection of breathing to mindfulness is a bit more complex and based on mechanisms in the brain that go back hundreds of millions of years.

Throughout the history of life on earth, all living creatures have needed mechanisms to escape danger. Over time, the sympathetic nervous system has developed to serve this function. When danger is perceived, an automatic reaction called the "fight-or-flight response" is triggered. The sympathetic nervous system floods the brain and body with adrenaline and other chemicals, digestion stops (to increase the energy available for muscular action), and muscle tension increases—all to help a creature respond with action, by fleeing from the danger or trying to fight it off.

The fight-or-flight response is a lifesaver—if you’re a frog faced by a heron, a cave person faced by a sabre-toothed tiger, or a pedestrian facing a runaway cab. Unfortunately, a thought alone can trigger the fight-or-flight response (in human beings, at least). Imagine your least favorite politician, or picture your boss walking up to you with a pink slip, and guess what? Your blood pressure goes up, your digestive ability goes down, and your neck and shoulders tighten. The thought that has triggered a fight-or-flight response is then interpreted by the brain as an emotion, either fear or anger.

So the same body-brain process that would have saved an ancestor’s life now often makes ours less pleasant, especially since most of us have repetitive thoughts that can trigger a fight-or-flight response dozens of times a day. No wonder many have high blood pressure, bad digestion, and pains in the neck!

Luckily for us, the parasympathetic nervous system has the task of undoing the fight or flight response. When you’ve leaped out of the mad taxi’s path, you heave a great sigh, and gradually your blood pressure lowers, digestion restarts, and muscles release their tension. The "relax and release" (R&R) response has kicked in.

In situations in which a painful thought has triggered a fight-or-flight response, consciously triggering this R&R response will short-circuit it almost instantly. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of us have not learned to trigger the R&R response at will. And the easiest, most effective way to trigger the R&R response, understood by meditative traditions for thousands of years, is intense mental focus on the breathing process. So that’s why breathing matters.

In my workshops, we often practice bringing a painful thought into the mind—one that would normally produce the emotion of anger or fear—and then, as we feel the fight-or-flight response kicking in, consciously forcing ourselves to play a train song, the blues, or a folk tune. This refocusing of mental attention from painful thought to intense focus on the breathing process through the harmonica triggers the R&R response, short-circuiting the fight-or-flight response. Instead of anger or fear, an alert, relaxed, meditative state results.

The Yoga of Harmonica

Beyond these immediate emotional benefits, playing the harmonica also can be a powerful yogic practice. When we become more able to control the slings and arrows of outrageous thought and emotion, deeper levels of mindfulness become possible.

Harmonica-dharana (concentration, one pointedness) leads us to harmonica-dhyana (single flow of ideas in the meditative state) and then, with diligent practice, zeal, and love for the instrument, to harmonica-samadhi (which athletes might call "playing in the zone" and blues musicians might call "playing from the gut"). In this delightful state, only the music exists, and one can, for brief periods, overcome the obstacles of mind and memory, and even achieve, with luck and grace, an advaitic (non-dual) awareness for a second or two. And fortunately, one doesn’t have to be an experienced player to reach these states. As one participant in my workshop put it after playing for only a few hours, "Sometimes it feels as though the harmonica is playing me!"

The Blues-Rock Sangha

The harmonica is also ideal for group meditation practice, for three main reasons. Firstly, it’s easy to hear when the group’s inhales and exhales are coordinated. Secondly, what psychologists call "entraining" (the group coordination of bodily processes, such as breathing) takes place, producing a powerful bonding effect, so that a harmonica sangha (community of practitioners) quickly results.

Lastly, after learning to play simple blues, rock, and folk music, the whole group can then begin to form a variety of smaller groups: duos, trios, quartets, and larger ensembles. Forming and playing in these individual bands, which change and morph from session to session, provides an ideal laboratory for studying, practicing, and honing interactive mindfulness skills. Some of these include the ability to refocus attention onto internal process at will, dealing with difficult persons or situations, and being able to see the whole of a group as more than the sum of its parts, including one’s own part. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s great mindfulness practice in action, and it sounds great!

Harmonica Bliss

As it was once said, "All roads lead to Rome." Almost any vehicle, if properly used, can transport us through the lower levels of learning to control the brain’s response to fear or anger, through the middle levels of concentration and meditation, to even, with diligent practice, the highest levels of non-dual awareness. And so it is that the humble blues harmonica is an entertaining, expressive, and effective choice of vehicle—not as an end in itself but as a means toward the cultivation of mindfulness in the context of this blooming and buzzing confusion known as life on Earth.

David Harp, MA, has written two dozen books on harmonica, music, and mindfulness and holds the current world’s record for "Most People Taught to Play Harmonica at One Time" (2,569). His most recent book is Neural Path Therapy: How to Change Your Brain’s Response to Anger, Fear, Pain, and Desire.

© David Harp 2007. Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Kripalu Online.