On dojos, mindfulness, and music education

LisaDr. Lisa Martin is an Assistant Professor of Music Education at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate music education courses. Prior to her appointment at BGSU, she taught middle school band and orchestra for nine years in Illinois and Colorado. Her research interests include music teacher identity development, assessment practices in music education, and music teacher evaluation. Dr. Martin received MBWP Teacher Certification in 2018.

My journey toward openness started from a point of complete judgment.

And online dating.

I met him for coffee. We exchanged our life synopses, and when he began to speak of his deep passion for martial arts, I stifled the instinct to roll my eyes. Martial arts? No, thank you. I surely would not get on with someone who valued something like martial arts. It was needlessly violent, plus the Cobra Kai guys were douchebags.

Though I was struck by the passion with which he described his practice, its mindful components, and his deep respect for his Sensei, I was more put off than attracted by his interest. We finished our coffee and exchanged pleasant goodbyes. I agreed, “Yes, let’s do this again sometime.” I watched the words escape my mouth and knew they were not true. Martial arts was too weird of a thing. I never called him back.

A month later, the online dating gods delivered me yet another martial artist. Terrific, I thought. This one, though, was actually a Sensei himself, and our long conversations about his journey and practice as a teacher piqued my curiosity. After all, this guy shaped his whole life and career around martial arts, and the gravity of that felt uniquely significant. My aversion to martial arts evolved into an intense inquisitiveness. Maybe martial arts were worth exploring. Maybe I might impress this guy if I could punch things. Maybe I could at least try it.

I found a nearby dojo and set up my first class.

I walked into the dojo, and Sensei greeted me with boundless, charismatic joy. The other students were smiling, chatting, greeting each other with respectful bows and hugs as they prepared themselves for class. The energy in the room was bright and calm all at once. My nerves and skepticism yielded to a curious sense of peace and openness.

And I began to study martial arts.

As someone who feels relatively athletic and coordinated, I was humbled by how the practice challenged both my body and mind. I gave myself up to the practice from the first moment, becoming wholly engaged. Perhaps the most significant aspect of that first evening, however, was how class began – not with a warm-up, not with stretching, but by sitting.

Sitting. Completely. Still.

I could not recall the last time I pressed pause on the world swirling around me. I wish I could say it was comfortable, but comfort implies ease, and I struggled to keep my mind clear and focused on my breath. Over the several minutes our class meditated, I perhaps experienced only a few moments of stillness. But those few, brief moments? They were completely exceptional.

What was it about the act of stillness that brought me such peace? Could I do this more often? Could I turn those moments into minutes? Could being still make some difference in my life that, until now, I was not even aware I craved?

As I continued to study martial arts, my interest in mindfulness and meditation evolved. In our dojo, stilling our minds was as much of a focus as developing our bodies. At first, I practiced only with my class, but over time, I found myself sneaking mini meditations into my daily life. I was not sure I was doing it “right,” or “enough,” but it certainly made me feel more at peace with myself, so I kept doing it.

And though I was introduced to mindfulness in a classroom of sorts, it never occurred to me that I might pull mindful practices into my own classroom. Through some late-night Internet rabbit-holing, I stumbled upon a summer workshop on mindfulness-based wellness and pedagogy for musicians offered at Indiana University Bloomington.

I signed up immediately.

As a music teacher educator, I was fascinated by the opportunity to discover how I might meaningfully pull mindfulness into not only my classroom but also into the culture of my department. Musicians experience the gamut of unique, intense pressures and demands on time. How could I develop my own personal practice while also learning how to share mindfulness with my students and colleagues? And there was so very much to share – the pause, the stillness, the clarity, the awareness, the openness, the absence of judgment, the measured calm, the wonder. I felt such gratitude for each of these evolving dimensions within my presence of mind, and with that gratitude came a pure desire to give.

The workshop was the most satisfying kind of intense, and I went home each day somehow feeling both exhausted and refreshed. We explored and practiced foundational elements of mindful practice, challenging ourselves to tackle the uncomfortable and unfamiliar with loving kindness. We learned how to connect with our breath and our bodies, cultivating an understanding how, with time and practice, mindful states might yield to more established traits within ourselves, shaping our approach to the world around us. We engaged in various types of mindful practice – cultivating our awareness, deepening our self-compassion, and exploring difficult emotions.

Throughout the workshop, we considered how we might apply these practices in music teaching and learning, journaling about our experiences and connecting our wonderments to the classroom by developing lesson ideas and contemplating various pedagogical approaches. In doing so, it became apparent just how much judgment could exist in a classroom. How could I reshape my approach to cultivate a generation of music teachers that were more open, more curious, more willing to be vulnerable?

When the following fall semester began, I was eager to find out.

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