Benefit From Adversity

Practicing Buddhist and physician Alex Lickerman challenges readers to reflect on a “completely different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult” in his book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

He writes, “Victory over the obstacles that confront us isn’t as much about liberating ourselves from adversity as it is about obtaining the greatest benefit as possible from having encountered it.”

What if we could let blessings dominate the experience of our difficulties, even as we face them? It’s a nice idea, but how do we make this possible in the moment we are dealing with those challenges? For me, the answer has been meditation.

Bessel van der Kolk shares his research about meditation and neuroplasticity in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: “Being able to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and then take our time to respond allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.” 

Of all the retraining processes with which I have experimented in the past fifteen years, meditation has been the source of the most profound transformation to my experience of focal dystonia. Because of my meditation practice I have greater physical control of the remaining symptoms, a broader emotional perspective, and an increased ability to “hover calmly and objectively” over my movement choices. An impression of an increased amount of time in each breath allows for a sensation of a suspension of time, a “different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult”, and even, in the moment, an ability to examine and experience the benefits that come from adversity.





My Experience is What I Agree to Attend To

With a goal to have muscle release rather than tension become my habit, I often begin my practice with an exercise repeating whole hand release. I play a succession of resonant notes, completely taking my fingers off the keys in between each note.

The release then becomes part of the muscle training. I play with shorter and shorter whole hand releases, until, eventually, without a rest to release, the sensation of release is still there. I can then play consecutive notes without taking my fingers off the keys and continue to feel release as the dominant sensation.

In his Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard writes “…[a] task must monopolize all our attention and present a challenge commensurate with our abilities. If it is too difficult, tension sets in, followed by anxiety; too easy, and we relax and are soon bored.”

Ricard addresses one of the hardest things to be aware of (and admit!) through the retraining process: “…the task must…present a challenge commensurate with our abilities“. It is so difficult to reevaluate that level of commensurate challenge. Not only is my current level completely different from my pre-diagnosis ability but it is different moment to moment through the retraining process. The key is to tune into what is possible in that moment, to “agree to attend” over and over.

Title from William James The Principles of Psychology

Scheduling Triage

“One of the challenges with email is it makes you accountable to other people’s priorities and what they think is urgent,” writes American author and Twitter employee Claire Diaz-Ortiz.
My schedule diet culminated with taking email off my phone. For many years my habit of treating every email request as an emergency left very little time for any “awarenessing”, either in a concrete way (going to yoga class, making time for meditation, or walking to work instead of driving) or a more subtle way (cultivating whole body awareness in every activity). I put others’ priorities ahead of my own.


As a DMA student at Stony Brook I was often happily overwhelmed with music I had to learn, but do remember a day in my practice room where I flitted from piece to piece with the following dialogue floating around in my head:

“I need to work on the Boulez; my recital is in a few weeks…but, I have a concert tonight – I should work on the Mozart quartet…but, that Bach d minor Concerto is next month and I want to play it from memory… but maybe I should be spending more time on the orchestra parts for the rehearsal tomorrow…but..”. I alternated between scores on my music stand without getting anything accomplished.

Later that day I took charge of the stack of scores and made a chart on the wall sorting sections of pieces and movements into categories: ‘A’ for passages I wasn’t yet able to play, ‘B’ for sections I needed to review or speed up, and ‘C’ for passages that were ready to perform. From that day on in my practice I began each day with my ‘A’ list before moving on to the ‘B’ and then the ‘C’ lists.

Using that same approach I’ve recently put myself on a schedule diet. Very very few messages in my email inbox are an emergency; none are on my A list. I’ve decided to make my A list “awarenessing” (either in the concrete sense of making time for yoga, meditation, walking) or the subtle sense (cultivating whole body awareness and noticing the quality of my breathing). The B and C lists then get done with more ease, efficiency, and joy.

“Let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives, and set our priorities on the basis of that.”  – H.H. the Dalai Lama

It is Impossible to Learn What We Think We Already Know

Although this quote immediately invites us to examine what effect ego may have on our work, we might also consider how the idea can teach us more about our physical habits of holding tension. Borrowing directly from (and continually inspired by) Barbara Conable’s How to Learn the Alexander Technique, I often describe the process of inhibiting tension using her model of moving from X to X on a trajectory of tense to free.


A goal of getting from the tense X to the free X is unrealistic. Rather, at any moment in the day, regardless of your activity, consider traveling even a small distance towards the free X.

Barbara writes, “The model is a reassuring one. It saves the misery of the Am I There Yet? question by crediting a range of experience, and it focuses attention on strategies for reliably negotiating the student’s current range on the continuum. It promotes an ideal of gradual experimentation and libration rather than of Getting There.”

But what if we were also training ourselves to move that tense X further away?


What if we could retrain our bodies to move where “free” is, thereby experiencing more and more efficiency in movement, awareness of gravity, and balance in movement?

What does this mean for the practice room? Whether dealing with focal dystonia or not, we can all continue to search for and to be open to finding an even freer physical experience in order to execute our musical intentions and to be open to more direct and profound musical expression.

It is impossible to learn to play freely when we think we already know how to play freely.

Title from Epictetus

Making the Unknown Known: Metaphors for Movement Part 2

The ultimate metaphor for movement (see Metaphors for Movement) is moving like someone else. My goal, to move in a poised, balanced way and find more and more freedom from dystonic movement, is being met, in part, by choosing the right models to imitate.

Dr. Joaquin Farias, director of the Neuroplastic Training Institute Toronto, describes borrowed movement in his TED talk How Your Movements Can Heal Your Brain, “When the neuro software is not accessible in the brain, you can transfer it by mimicking another person’s movement and make them yours. When your brain accepts the transfer, a neuro-plastic change will start. It’s a reorganization of the whole brain. And in the end you will not be able to see the difference between the movements you have lost and the ones you have just installed.”

Imitation teaches the body more possibilities for movement, in the way that mimicking phrase structure, vibrato, or color can allow more expressive possibilities in our playing. We need to listen and observe with extreme attention in order to imitate. Once these new borrowed movements become part of our repertoire of movement possibilities we can build them back into our own habits.

In the same TED talk, Dr. Farias says, “What amazed me most is that when the movements and the neuro software is not accessible in the brain you can transfer it from another person. It looks like movement is learned and modulated socially.”

This is significant news not just for those suffering from focal dystonia, but for anyone wanting freer and more fluid technique, or more expressive whole body gestures when they perform.



Metaphors for Movement

I was so fearful I had developed focal dystonia I delayed seeking help for almost a year. When I finally gained enough courage to see a specialist I had an infuriating appointment with a performance injury specialist at a musicians’ clinic who, after hearing my story and watching me play, diagnosed me with “having lost my creativity”.

I was stupefied. How was it possible to diagnose someone with losing creativity (let alone in a 15 minute appointment)? Was that even a real diagnosis? How did he know I had it to lose in the first place?

But the statement stayed with me. Even if he was trying to be funny, was there an element of truth behind the idea?

Now, 16 years later and looking back, I can see in myself what he may have seen in me. I certainly had lost an ability to move fluidly. My movement was jerky and stuck; there were so many places of muscular holding and chronic tension. I had lost a spontaneity and freedom in my movement which must have seemed automaton-like. I needed to regain an effortless, poetic idea of movement and began that process by retraining my movement using metaphors.

Thinking about movement using metaphors (my arm moving through resistant water, a gesture the texture of peanut butter, my fingers floating on the flute like a feather) allowed me to, first, observe my own movement habits, and then redefine them. These small changes led to bigger ones as I was then able to notice and imitate effortless movement I observed in others. (see A Healing Community)


Moments of Glad Grace

Examining the “why” (and not just the “what”) of our practice habits is important. Of course, when we begin to commit to a regular, serious practice as young students, the process of establishing predictable “whats” (the amount of time in the practice room and a routine of working on tone, technique, intonation, articulation, études, excerpts, and pieces) is a crucial element to success. After many years, though, my practice sessions were tenaciously tied to the “whats”, the time and the routine, and after fulfilling those daily requirements, to a feeling of reward. As my mind equated logged hours with success I minimized my emphasis on the music itself.

After a particularly fanatical week in the practice room logging 6 to 8 hours a day, I went to a lesson excited to present to my teacher the results of all those hours. I played through my concerto. Robert’s first comment was “You’re not playing much right now, are you?”. I was devastated he couldn’t hear the intensity in my approach and interpretation and felt the need to defend and protect my work. “I’ve been playing 6 to 8 hours a day this week!” “I don’t mean practice, I mean communicating musically with other people. You need to get out of the practice room and play some chamber music.”

Getting out of the practice room and into chamber music rehearsals flipped the emphasis – away from the technical logging of repetitions and toward the music itself. Those sessions constituted my “moments of glad grace” which allowed me to wake up, again and again, to the joy and importance of music making.

title from When You Are Old and Grey, W.B. Yeats

Loving the Distance

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distance continues to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.

Rainer Maria Rilke Letters*

This distance feels like the same space implied in a namaste bow at the end of my yoga class. I am not bowing to a person, I am bowing to another being, whole, against the sky.

This distance creates a respect for the authentic self in front of you, regardless of what you think you know about them.

This distance is needed in observing focal dystonia in ourselves. Having compassion and respect for your own whole self changes the process of observation. Being as kind to yourself retraining as you might to a young student learning something new (see Beginner’s Mind) allows us to love that “infinite distance” and give us permission to see ourselves as whole.

* Rilke’s words are introduced and discussed in a beautifully written book by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting.

Feedback Loops

Depending on our past experiences we have different levels of sensory sensitivity. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk recounts stories of patients who have experienced severe trauma. In many cases “they could not feel whole areas of their bodies. Sometimes I’d ask them to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands. Whether it was a car key, a quarter, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding – their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working” (from The Body Keeps the Score). My observations post-focal dystonia diagnosis were similar (see Mind Rich, Body Poor).

During retraining I’ve increased my sensory awareness gradually and deliberately. I raid my daughter’s craft baskets for stickers with varied textures and stick them to my flute keys. I attach bumpy, thick stickers to the G# key (for the left hand pinky) and then work fingerings that don’t involve that key, all the while paying close attention to the sensation of the pinky resting on the G#. This attention on a non-working finger seems to have increased my ability to release the whole hand as well as any dystonic movement. It’s a “sensory trick” that provides a feedback loop for my habits of tension. The release then becomes part of the muscle training, and just another habit (but a positive habit!) built into the process.

Dr. Joaquín Farias explains this further in his “Limitless: How Your Movements Can Heal Your Brain” when relating the experiences of his patient, Diego, who was diagnosed with cervical dystonia. Diego’s spasms could be interrupted when “pressure was applied to the left cheek or temple”.

“Areas of the body that are not properly perceived cannot properly be controlled (due to the neuromodulatory deficit) leading to spasms and tremors. When Diego could recognize this area of his body (the muscle in the silent zone) he could control it better. Neurostimulation improves neuromodulation. Those so-called sensory tricks are not tricks. They are pure stimulation…which when masterfully and persistently performed, wake up silent pathways, leading to movements which have been disallowed for decades…The second the muscles awakens, it is ready to be used. Its continual use reestablishes its function.”


Observing Symmetry

If you’ve experienced an injury to one arm and had to favor that limb in movement by holding it close to the body, you may have noticed that often the injury is healed long before the holding habit is done. For many years I “protected” my left arm and hand in that way, even though there was no pain involved in my experience of focal dystonia. Yoga has given me the opportunity to even out my left and right sides. The careful attention to symmetry in yoga sequences awakened my habit of holding, of protecting my left hand and arm. Practicing symmetry in yoga has affected my sense of symmetry on the flute. I no longer feel as though I have a “dystonic side”, even with my flute in my hands.

I wrote about my initial experiences healing a movement disorder with movement during a Feldenkrais class in the Flutist Quarterly (Fall 2011),

“While seated, the practitioner asked us to turn our right hands in circles with the palm on the floor and to be aware of the subsequent movement made by the hand, arm, shoulder, spine, and head. After twenty minutes we moved on to the left side. I was shocked to find that I could not move my left hand. It felt stuck on the floor. I couldn’t figure out how to move my shoulder or spine. This was the first time that I ever noticed any difficulty of movement (any dystonic movement) away from my flute. I sat for a while stunned by this small discovery. I finally relaxed enough to allow the movement I felt on the right side to guide the movement on the left side. Essentially, I allowed my right side to teach my left. We were then asked to pick up our flutes and try some simple scales. I was shocked again by the results: I played with more control of my left hand than I had since before the diagnosis ten years before. It felt as though my left arm and hand were part of my body again.”

Reading now, five years later, allows me to reflect on how little difference I now sense between the left and right sides. In fact, not long ago someone asked about my experiences with focal dystonia. As I was describing the process to them I, without thinking, gestured with the wrong hand. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when my “dystonic” hand felt foreign to me.