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Taming the mind with music

Natanyel Bohm-Levine sent us what he wrote for his application to Oberlin College in Ohio, USA:

The Buddha, on the essence of his teachings, said that sentient beings must learn how "to tame this mind of ours." My dad, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, often tried to get me to incorporate Buddhist principles in my life.  I, however, did not understand the Buddha’s teaching until my summer at the Berklee College of Music, where I changed my understanding of what having a tamed mind actually means, and how it can help me become a better musician. In turn, I made quite an important discovery: playing music, for me, is a sort of meditation. 
At the start of the five-week program, I was placed into a class full of pianists much more proficient than I. When for the first time it came my turn to play, all I could think of were the seven other pianists behind me, sure to be scoffing at my comparable inexperience in the jazz idiom. Ending the tune, I turned to the teacher, who said, "Your mind seems to have so many ideas. Try to relax and repeat an idea before moving on to the next one--remember to leave space." 

While I didn't instantly have an epiphany, I later understood that the teacher gave me advice on how to "tame my mind." Musical improvisation involves the creation of ideas under a set of guidelines, which ideally leads to music that a listener can follow and enjoy. When it comes to improvising, having many ideas is necessary, but it is even more important to filter out all the superfluous thoughts that may distract me while I play, and ultimately detract from the music. Consequently, improvisation is quite a difficult and focus-intensive feat, so by simply allowing myself to absorb the art, the music relaxes and frees my mind, leaving room for my other senses to come into use. Allowing my ears to be the supreme judge of the music, and not my thoughts, has been an important eye-opener in my relationship with all external distractions.

Since the Berklee program, I have found that whenever I stress, I can rely on the act of pressing down keys to immediately empty my mind, absorb the music, and calm my entire body. Recognizing the profound effects this mental state has had on my music, I have tried to retain some of the meditative aspects of improvisation in my everyday life, implementing it as a sort of philosophy. As the son of a Buddhist who happens to be a jazz musician himself, I have felt a certain gratitude to my father for shaping my artistic and spiritual sides. We have a connection through our shared ability to improvise, a process we go through every time one of us sits at the piano. Because of my father, the words of the Buddha have come to mean more to me than any ordinary phrase, even after hearing them over and over again. A tame mind has become tangible: a realistic state to inhabit, a place where my mind can be free.

Natanyel Bohm-Levine is a student at Oberlin College & Conservatory, where he is pursuing a double degree in Neuroscience and Jazz Performance. Throughout high school, he attended several meditation retreat weekends with his father Bill Levine, who is a student of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche.