Since my diagnosis, when I picked up my flute, the fear of experiencing dystonic movement was sometimes overwhelming. What I referred to as the “dystonic movement”, or the habitual clamping down, seemed a response to that fear. Through my work with Finnish flutist Eeva Heikkila, I looked carefully at the fear itself, named the fear as a thought, and then noticed the physical habits that accompany that thought. What if, Eeva suggested, instead of trying to change the muscular response to the thought, I tried instead to change the thought itself?
To illustrate, imagine yourself preparing to speak in front of a large group. You might try to feign confidence and find your back straightening, your head thrown up and back, and your legs stiffening. Dwelling on a dejected thought might elicit the opposite physical stance and muscular reaction characterized by rounded shoulders and a drooping head.
Physical habits and responses can become so automatic that they are connected seamlessly to a thought; the two become intertwined. It has been difficult to determine which came first – the attitude or the stance? Does the thought inspire the posture or does the posture enhance the attitude? Or, in terms of my retraining, does the fear of experiencing dystonic movement generate the clenching, or does the clenching inspire fear?
The cycle of muscular tension built around the dystonic movement was difficult for me to break. It seemed to begin with a trigger like taking my flute out of the case, thinking about playing, or even hearing a great performance. The flute itself triggered an emotion, most commonly, fear, that the dystonic movement would happen again. The fear then triggered the muscular clenching. This cycle (flute, fear, clenching) became so habitual and routine that eventually I began to tune out the fear, and noticed just the trigger (flute) and result (clenching). With Eeva’s help, I began to wonder if I focused on the element that was most in my control and least in my awareness (the fear or the thought), I might be able to change the outcome (the clenching).
I began to think clearly and confidently about changing the thought. Since our muscles can engage in response to a thought, they must also release in response to a thought. This concept has been freeing because I seemed to have more direct control over my thoughts than I did over my muscles. With this in mind, I began to play the flute with a new attitude of an interested observer, which allowed me to approach the instrument without fear. The internal dialogue might sound like: “It’s interesting how my third finger seems to act involuntarily. How does it feel different from the other fingers?” or “It’s fascinating how the thumb responds to the third finger movement.”
I am able to step back, change the thought, and notice a resulting change in the physical. Practicing as an interested observer through this kind of exploration, has given me much more control. This process – allowing a thought to change a physical habit – seems to be exactly what is needed for me to continue progressing on the instrument.
Taken from an article originally printed in the Flutist Quarterly and Notes of Hope
Title from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind