by Brandon Nappi, founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute
With heart thumping and hands shaking, I gazed into the guitar store from the safety of my car with equal parts longing and panic. After several years of playing, I was shopping for a new guitar. Something primordial stirred within me reminiscent of the ancient gym class horror of being the last person to be picked for the dodgeball team. I feel like a phony amateur and am convinced that upon entering this temple of rock and roll, I would be instantly exposed for the loser guitarist that I was. Even after years of practice, I was no closer to a shredding guitar solo than the day I began. Even playing chords was cumbersome and awkward.
I conjured my best game face—the way I imagined a guitar god would. I mustered a brisk walk through the front door with an artificial mix of confidence and apathy. I was all business. Several tattooed long-haired dudes and the lone girl with heavy eye make-up and bolts emerging from her cheeks all ignored me. I took a deep breath as I entered the holiest of holies—a back room with special humidity and temperature controls to keep the guitars happy. Phew! I was alone. I could play in peace.
I looked around to find a room wallpapered with incalculable fine guitars to play with. A rush of excitement and awe flood my body. I lock eyes with Spanish treasure, a $5000 Ramirez comically beyond my budget. This hand carved cedar and rosewood sculpture smells something like beeswax, woodshop and a cathedral. The strings are tied off at the bottom with an elegant double twist. The sides slope and curve with proportions that reflect some ancient perfection. I hold it to my chest and press my fingers into the ebony. A broad E chord leaps from the cedar and the deep vibrations resound through my gut. The chord is both completely familiar and strangely new as if some kind of sonic information had been recovered from a wiser alien race. Before the last note disappears into my ribs, another customer enters the holiest of holies. He’s half my age and twice as good—I can just tell.
I try to ignore him and play a familiar and simple classical piece that I learned in the first year of my playing. I’ve played the piece a thousand times with my eyes closed, but this time, my hands begin to shake. The six strings suddenly seem like six dozen and my fingers are lost in a tangle. Suddenly I’m sweating out my fingertips at the mere presence of another person hearing my playing. Notes buzz and sour in a train wreck of self-consciousness. Yet another customer enters the guitar sanctuary and I imagine their eyes and ears upon me with hot lasers of judgment. Suddenly, I am like Cinderella at one minute past midnight. I’m unravelling quickly. I return the Ramirez and abandon ship leaving the store feeling like I had committed a crime.
As I reflect on this episode from my past, I am thankful that this memory has become my teacher. I now realize that the entire scene was imagined. While the fear and anxiety pulsing through my body was quite real, the projected judgment and ridicule from my fellow guitarists was purely a fiction of my own creation. The mind manufactures drama weaving stories from the threads of habituated assumptions, familiar illusions and common insecurities. This fiction passes as reality and we suffer.
What I forgot that day was that playing the guitar is first and foremost play. Play is something you do purely for the sake of doing it. The sheer delight of the activity is itself the reason for the activity. For each of us, there are countless expressions of play that bring joy simply by engaging in the activity: signing in the shower, doodling, skipping stones, petting a cat, hugging a loved one or memorizing a Led Zeppelin guitar lick, just to name a few personal favorites. Sadly, play is something we relegate to childhood. At some point in our twenties, activity that supports a simple child-like joy becomes a childish luxury we cannot afford in our mad pursuit of happiness and stuff.
I walked in to the guitar store that day as an amateur in the truest sense of the word. Amateur derives from the Latin word amare which means to love. To be an amateur at something means to do it, not because you are getting paid to do it, nor because you are extraordinarily skilled, but because you love to do it. Why was I so apologetic for being an amateur, someone who was in love with playing the guitar? Because in that moment with other guitarists around, I was no longer playing for the sake of loving to play, but to achieve a certain result. I was playing to impress. In truth, I was playing to not make a fool of myself.
The ego defines the self through performance and achieving an imagined ideal. It strives to protect a fragile self-image attempting to look smart, good and right. What I wish I could pass along to that younger terrified guitarist is one single word that has the power to dissolve the illusion and drama. Two letters are potent enough to cut right to the heart of the matter and awaken the dreamer from his nightmare.
They might think I am a terrible guitarist. So. They might think I shouldn’t be playing a $5,000 Ramirez. So. There are 12 year olds who play better than I do. So. What others think and how they evaluate us is completely beyond our control. It simply doesn’t matter.
This ‘so’ is not the ‘so’ of indifference or aloofness. This is not the path of self-indulgence. It is simply the acknowledgment that life is not served when we are lost in the trap of what we think others think. It’s a courageous admission that the constant evaluation of how our actions might look or appear to others does not serve us or them. This ‘so’ is the liberating declaration that we do not need to protect or defend ourselves. This is the ‘so’ of mindful non-attachment. Perhaps others are judging us or perhaps they are not. Perhaps others revile us or perhaps they celebrate us. Praise and blame, it’s all the same, as the saying goes. With valuable energy diverted from constant editing, we have newly available resources to channel our lives toward authenticity and compassion. What healing balm can we bring to this wounded reflex to protect and defend the ego? What practice could support our showing up to live with honesty, courage and authenticity?
In play we rediscover the sense of doing something for the sake of doing it where the field of possibility becomes unencumbered by projection and commentary. As we begin a new year, let’s practice playing. You might want to even make a list of the ways in which you want to play this year–throw a snowball, go ice skating, paint, sing, make a paper airplane, throw a football, throw a party, dance, try something new. Give yourself permission to do something without attachment to results.
It’s been many years since this day in the guitar store, but I make it a practice to pop in whenever I can and play guitars far beyond my budget. If I’m honest, I still get a bit nervous before heading into the temple of rock and roll with its pantheon of tattooed and pierced music gods. Occasionally, for a moment I’ll think to myself, “Maybe they think I’m foolish playing this silly song that I learned in my first year of guitar studies.” And then, like a shredding Hendrix solo announcing a new moment in the history of humanity, I hear the word that radiates possibility and freedom:
Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, authenticity and compassion in everyday life. Brandon and his wife Susan will lead the retreat, “Walking the Path Together: Mindfulness Weekend for Couples,” May 6-7, 2016. All couples are welcome.