10 tips for good songwriting mental health
The author of the book ‘Staying Sane In The Music Game’, Brett Leboff, shares some tactics for controlling your head
When you learn to write songs or play an instrument, the best way to work is within a defined set of boundaries. You have learned a lot about your craft as a musician and, in order to do so, most likely learned within structure – the rules of music theory, technique and how best to learn new tricks. Once you knew these, you could mould and bend the rules and be creative. I think the same should be true for our day-to-day lives as musicians and creators. So, imagine if there was a suggested structure for assisting daily life as a creator; a set of rules to help keep your mental health thriving and feeling happy within your unconventional life as an artist.
I have recently written a book offering exactly that, Staying Sane In The Music Game, which will be available in May. Using mindfulness practice and lessons learned from my professional career, I propose a new structure and methodology for how you – as a musician or artist living on the edge – can keep in control of your mind and career.
So, here are my 10 top tips for staying mentally healthy, taken from ideas discussed in the book…
1. Remember the phrase: ‘You are not your thoughts’
The idea that you think your thoughts are to be believed as they are a part of you and that they are YOUR thoughts is, in my opinion, absurd. I believe thoughts are coming and going all the time. So, you are not your thoughts, but you may own a thought. Picture the scene: you are walking through life on a stoney beach, there is beauty to the left of you, all you see is the expansiveness of the sea, the colour of the sky, hearing the sounds of the crashing waves. As you walk on the beach, you see a stone that speaks to you, it is heavy, you walk with it for some time in your pocket. You don’t really like this stone, but you have decided for some reason, almost unconsciously, to walk with it. A little further down the beach, after some considerable time, you find another stone, this one heavier than before and you put that one in your pocket. You are feeling heavier. Before you have even given yourself a chance to consider how heavy these stones are, you see another stone and you are drawn to it. This stone is, perhaps, even larger than the one before. Without thinking anything more, you pick up the stone and add this one to the others stones in your pocket. This is almost becoming habitual now!
You continue picking up stones, putting them in your pocket. Sometimes you have a handful of stones that you pick up and drop in quick succession. Instead of looking at the beautiful ocean, listening to the sounds of seagulls, waves and seeing the sunshine, your gaze is entirely fixed on stones, picking up, pocketing, picking up, inspecting. You have been continuously picking up a stone and putting them in your pocket for a long time now! The stone is in some way a part of you (it’s in your pocket) but it is not actually you – you can drop them at any time! You can look at the sea, breath and enjoy the view, whilst noticing the stones on the floor and acknowledging them, without picking them up and holding them, or putting them in your pocket! You can even pick up a stone, look at it and observe it, ‘understand it’ and then put it back down again! Same with a thought, for a brief time it is a part of you, but once you realise you don’t need to identify with it, you can drop it and only then, it is truly separate from you. Remember the phrase: ‘We are not our thoughts’.
As a musician, you don’t even realise you have been meditating for years and are really good at it. Now you can use it as an amazing tool to consciously enter ‘the zone’ without and before you pick up your instrument or creations. I know this word is enough to turn anyone off, but it is quite simple really, as a concept: concentrate wholly on something, one thing, focus absolutely intensely, without trying to change anything. As you are focusing only on one thing, observing, without trying to change anything, you are practising how to bring yourself to a state of inner peace. It is a practice that quietens the mind, and the more you do it the deeper you can go. Wise masters and people have been practising this for thousands of years. It is a natural state for humans to access; it is a place of peace and quiet, a total escape from mind chatter. As I said, you have already been doing this and I predict that your entry into ‘the zone’ will be swifter and easier than those who have not been there much before, if at all!
3. Try shadow work
It is important at this point to mention ‘shadow work’. It originates from a shamanic tradition of healing. I have partaken in it and found it a cosmic practice that transformed my life experience. The concept is, that we all have our shadows, these are attributes that we have grown with and developed throughout our lives. In some cases, we have only aided their development. We are mostly fearful of them, we do not want to believe that we are capable of bad things. But, as humans we are capable of evil and bad things. We try to hide our shadows, use the ‘ostrich technique’ of putting our head in our hands. Well, the issue with this is that when we ignore something that is real, it grows, and when it grows and we continue to ignore it, then it becomes a monster. Try and think of the most mundane things in your life, like the dirty washing pile in your room! Then think about driving along with hardly any petrol in the car or van. Any example of ignoring something that you know is wrong will only turn into a monster eventually. This is the same with the shadow. So, shadow work is about admitting our issues, knowing we have problems. We all have faults, we all have issues. Once we come to terms with that, and have the bravery to actually look at our shadows, examine them, we take them metaphorically from behind us, where they can control us without our awareness and bring it/them right in front of our eyes.
4. Be grateful
Gratitude is one of the most important practices that you must make a part of your daily life. There are lots of ways in which you can do this; I recommend a classic tool that psychologists have been recommending for a while now. Every evening when in bed, write a list of things you are grateful for. At the beginning to make it easy, you can start with only three. These can be as simple as ‘I have a healthy body’ (which, by the way, is absolutely amazing and must be appreciated. Unfortunately, we often take this for granted and only realise when someone close to us no longer does, or if we ourselves suffer health issues). This should be done every evening before bed and morning as you get up. Try and increase the list by 1 item every few days.
Appreciate that you are not all-powerful, there is some kind of force in the world, a cosmic power that we all tap into at one time or another. Speak out your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams and ask for help, imagining that there are the spirits of guides there to help you. Ancient wise people would head out to a forest and speak their thoughts, hopes, dreams, ask for help, cry, dance, sing to a higher power – imagining there were spirits out there that were all-knowing and all loving. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, this is an extremely beneficial task and a lot cheaper than therapy!
6. Don’t be a victim
It will not help you succeed. The; I should, I could, I would, Why not me? attitude will not help you succeed. I understand your struggles because I have been there too. I have been in those situations and I have fought my way through those situations and often still have to. I have worked with many professional musicians who have managed to overcome these challenges and the one thing that links all the musicians who are successful and have managed to break through, is that they have overcome this sense of victimhood. The ones who have managed to sustain long careers believe in something much bigger than themselves. They believe that they are only a part of the magic that has been created. They believe that they are able to tap into an energy that is unexplainable. They are able to bring their true creative flow from inside out and express themselves fully (speak their truth through music) with no blocks. They are not victims.
7. Be unapologetically you
Tell people you trust secrets that you normally do not have the guts to. You can practise, by just choosing to tell one person something you wouldn’t normally tell anyone. Go on, just tell them, they will be honoured. I can almost assure you that as long as it is about you and you are not going to violate them, then they will be honoured to hear and will not judge you for it, rather respect you and look at you as brave, so tell them! Tell them when you are sober, not when you are paralytic! You don’t want to have to keep repeating yourself. The caveat to this is that when you tell people, you must tell them with acceptance, not from a place of victimhood. If you speak about all the darkness that you are experiencing from a place of victimhood, then you will end up being the lonely messed up person in the corner of the party. Oh, but how wonderful that the only difference between that person and you, is that you are willing to accept the unfortunate things that have happened. You own them.
8. Avoid drugs
Now we move to the boring ones you have heard a million times, but only because they are truth! If you have mental health issues, stay away from drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.
Exercise of your choice, where you are using as many limbs and stretching as much of your body as possible. And at least 20 minutes of intense exercise where you heart rate is pushed up and you break into a sweat.
10. Build community around you
So you feel bad, you’re in your own head? Everything is too much? The last thing you want to do is be with people, right? Actually though, there is always someone you can call or go and be with. You may not ‘feel’ like it, but at these times I say it is more important to reach out than ever before. The wider point here is to face your fears head on and not bury your head in the sand when you are worried about something. Being with people and not being scared to discuss your fears and weaknesses can be a complete game changer!
Brett Leboff is a musician, teacher, manager, coach and Head of Artist Development at Diplomats Of Sound. He is the author of a new book, Staying Sane In The Music Game, which will be released in May 2018. Find out more at stayingsane.org