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On Sunday I was driving my family up to my parent’s house to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. As always, when I want something to listen to in the car, I was listening to Radio 4. It being a Sunday morning, Desert Island Discs came on. The guest was violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Time for some honesty here. Classical music generates very little excitement in me. Perhaps it is due to the dogmatic enthusiasm of others who declare that it is the only music of choice for the genuinely intelligent. Maybe it is because it conjures up mental images of Tom and Jerry chasing each other around a house (or sitting together in a corner gently weeping if it’s a melancholy piece). Anyway, there is a disconnect between the way I feel about it and the way I’m told I’m supposed to feel about it, so normally I would reach for the off-switch.

I’m pleased I didn’t.

Eight minutes in, after a particularly bleak piece from Shostakovich (which made Tom and Jerry skulk in dark corners thinking murderous thoughts about one another), there came this as Benedetti explained her mindset during a performance:

“I’m trying not to think. I’m desperately trying not to think. The minute your thoughts start to formulate they can distract you.

If you imagine you’re on stage for maybe twenty-five to forty-five minutes and you constantly have the lead part, the solo part; always technically very challenging. You’re trying to be loud enough to soar above the orchestra all the time. There’s so many things to keep a control over that the minute you start thinking it can be the beginning of the end. So I just try to stay in the moment and try to have as much of a spiritual experience as I possibly can. I’m trying to life my whole being and my whole intention to the highest place that I can and then allowing everything I’m doing physically to follow that.”

I like that. I like that a lot.

There is a huge distance between thinking and concentrating. Thinking is noisy and messy, concentrating is calm and clean. When we are in a meeting with others, listening to their point of view and working together to formulate answers, we are thinking. When we are off by ourselves and devoted to fulfilling a specific task we are concentrating. Both are wonderful things, but both are very different.

When you spend time every day sitting and breathing, you are encouraging your mind to concentrate. As you do this, you will notice thoughts bursting in unexpectedly. With practice it becomes easier to let the thoughts pass and return to concentrating on breathing. Over time you’ll notice that tasks that require concentration, whether it is reading through a contract or producing a perfect hollandaise sauce, become easier to complete as distractions can be ignored.

Anyway, have a listen to the original show. Let me know what happens to your own mental Tom and Jerry during the Shostakovich.

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