Before You Sing, Sit! : A Meditation Primer for Singers

Like the public at large, singers are increasingly turning to spiritual practices such as meditation to improve their health and well-being. Meditation has been on the cover of Time magazine. The Oprah Show, and on many of our minds as we live in a world of material wealth yet often feel that something is lacking. To quote author and teacher Eckhart Tolle: “They are looking outside for scraps of pleasure or fulfillment, for validation, security, or love, while they have a treasure within that not only includes all those things but is infinitely greater than anything the world can offer.”

Meditation can offer a way to look within and find that treasure.

Many of the abilities necessary for meditation are already in a singer’s tool kit: awareness of the breath, concentration over long periods of time, and healthy posture. Even what Buddhism calls “noble silence” we are familiar with as “vocal rest.”

Aspects of meditation that may be less familiar include detaching from one’s thoughts and letting go of the ego. What follows is a very brief introduction to some core Buddhist principles, and an introduction to one form of meditation known as vipassana (or insight meditation).

But why wait? Right now, sit comfortably, close your eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths. There! You’re already meditating.

(The non-English words that follow, which will all be defined for you, are from Pali or Sanskrit, the ancient languages of India.)

If you agree with the Dalai Lama that “the purpose of life is to be happy,” your interest in meditation may spring from a desire to end your suffering and be happy. In Buddhist terms, enlightenment is the end of suffering, the attainment of freedom from hatred, delusion and craving. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The path to the end of suffering is to see the truth (dharma) of all things. But what is that truth? The three basic characteristics of reality as taught by the Buddha (literally “The Enlightened One”), who was born as Siddhartha Gotama in northern India in 563 B.C., are “suffering,” “impermanence” and “not-self.”

Here are some examples of how you might see these realities in meditation. As you meditate, you cultivate awareness of the present moment.

You won’t have to look hard for “suffering.” You might feel physically uncomfortable. You might be worried about something you have to do later or should have done earlier. You might be hungry or bored.

“Impermanence” may reveal itself as you observe your thoughts, emotions and sensations come and go.

“Not-self” is a bit trickier to describe. When you have thoughts, you will learn to be aware of them. In this sense, you become “the watcher.” This begins a process of de-identification, or what I referred to before as letting go of ego. This means that while you are still having your thoughts, you also have some sense of detachment from them, and some awareness that there is something deeper than your thoughts.

For singers, most of us learn eventually that it is a miserable existence to view ourselves only as “the voice.” If we are so identified with ourselves as singers, then any time we have a cold, lose a coveted role, or our voice changes, we are miserable. Similarly, we can expand that concept and understand how identifying too heavily with any aspect of the self, (body, status, income) will cause suffering because—as we’ve learned from the second basic characteristic, impermanence—things change. If you are less identified with these things, you are less caught, more free, more enlightened!

Practicing meditation is similar to practicing basic scales to sing an aria. As you practice the simple (but not easy) skill of observing the present moment without judgment, you are in essence practicing the movement that takes you away from the external, material definitions of the self, towards the deeper truth, the treasure that Eckhart Tolle referred to and what he defines as your “true wealth, which is the radiant joy of Being and the deep, unshakable peace that comes with it.”

That, in a nutshell, is what is meant by “not-self.”

If you’d like to give it a try, here are some things to consider.

Time

The time of day you choose is a matter of personal preference. Many people choose first thing in the morning before the mind becomes more cluttered. Others feel too rushed in the morning and choose another time based on work or family commitments. What is most important is regularity. Sitting at the same time each day helps support the practice. Also, you will need to decide how long you want to sit. Many teachers suggest 30 minutes a day, explaining that it really takes that long to settle in or “arrive.”

On a personal note, when I began meditating, I found that amount of time intimidating, and I was afraid of failing, so I committed to a mere five minutes a day. The time became so precious to me that I gradually increased it.

Place

As with the time of day, choosing a specific place to meditate can be helpful. Some people use candles or incense, or create an altar with photos of teachers, statues of the Buddha or treasured items.

Posture

Meditation teacher and author Jack Kornfield puts it this way: “You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel. There is enough pain in meditation without adding to it!”

Choose a comfortable position that feels stable and balanced. This might be on a cushion (a special meditation cushion is called a zafu) or in a chair. If you sit cross-legged on the floor, it is advisable to have your knees be lower than your hips, so sit on as many cushions as necessary to achieve this. If you sit in a chair, sit forward on the chair, keeping your back away from the back of the chair. In any position, keep the spine as straight as possible and allow the arms to rest comfortably on your thighs or in your lap. If you feel a strain on the neck from the weight of the arms, try placing them on a cushion.

Some styles of meditation have particular hand positions or mudras, but this is not required. A caution about pain: Some pain or discomfort is unavoidable, but certain kinds of pain, such as searing pain in the knee or persistent numbness, are to be avoided. If changing positions becomes necessary, simply do so mindfully. Eyes are closed.

Getting Together

Despite the current popularity of the topic of meditation, when you undertake the practice you are, in many ways, stepping out of the mainstream of a more materialistic, less spiritually minded culture. In Pali, the word for community is sangha. Having a community of people to sit with regularly can be a wonderful way to feel supported in your practice. See the sidebar for details on finding a sitting group near you, or consider starting one on your own.

Now that you have chosen the time, place, posture and duration of your meditation, what do you actually do when sitting? In the practice of vipassana, or insight meditation, you observe whatever arises. As a way to ground your awareness in the present moment, you can practice breath awareness (anapanasati). You may choose to pay attention to the nostrils as the air comes in and out, or you may make the abdomen your focal point. As the breath goes in and out, silently note: “In. Out.” Or, if you are paying attention to the abdomen, “Rising. Falling.” (Singers: This is not a breathing exercise. Don’t try to change or improve the breath. Simply observe.) That, more or less, is all there is to it.

There’s just one more little thing … the mind! Some studies estimate that we each have between 60,000 and 90,000 thoughts a day. That is roughly a thought a second. When we sit down to meditate, we bring our minds with us, and they often don’t come quietly. So, what to do as thoughts arise? Again, one can use a simple noting process to label the thoughts: “thinking,” or “planning.” You can do the same thing with emotions, noting: “sadness,” or “anger.” Or with physical sensations: “tingling,” or “pain.” The point is to watch the thoughts without being carried away by them.

One teacher used the analogy of watching a train go by. Your thoughts are the train. Try to watch them go by without hopping on the train. If you find you have been lost in thought, that is a moment of awakening. Skip the recriminations about what a bad meditator you are and simply return your attention to the breath. Continue this practice for whatever amount of time you have allotted.

Meditation is a practice. Every time you return your attention to the breath, you are cultivating awareness of the present moment, rather than memories, predictions or judgments. Some call this staying with the “immediate felt sense” of the moment. This process helps create a sense of spaciousness in the mind that can ease suffering and allow for a happier, more conscious life.

Meditating may seem like an activity apart from daily life, but the purpose of meditation is not to become a good meditator but rather to awaken, to become a more conscious human being, less driven by habit or delusion. Eventually, the practice of mindfulness can be brought into every activity, singing included.

Good luck with your meditation, and remember that as a singer you have a head start: You already know the importance of practice. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.