Self-Care for Your Brain: Building Resilience with Music and Meditation

WHILE THE LIFE of an activist can be meaningful, it also has many challenges. We often witness, directly or indirectly, the realities of human rights violations, the complexities of bureaucracy, and the absolute indifference (or even hostility) of the privileged. Cultivating resilience is just as critical in the fight against injustice as the action itself. To be an effective instrument for change, you must protect your most precious resource: you.

Feelings of pride, distress, alienation, and inadequacy all give rise to philosophical dilemmas regarding the human condition’s complexities. While we may be more aware of mental health issues today than in the past, this does not necessarily make it easier to process traumatic experiences. Given that trauma varies between individuals, we respond differently to traumatic experiences depending on our subjective experiences.

Trauma can lead to anxiety, paranoia, loss of self-esteem, loneliness, and depression. Not all who confront a traumatic experience will inherently be traumatized, but stressful experiences will ultimately manifest themselves in one way or another. Unfortunately, many of us are deeply uncertain about how to process negative emotions. Two strategies to aid in processing emotions and practicing self-care are mindfulness meditation and music therapy, which have both recently been the subject of seminars from the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education.

Mindfulness Meditation

As studies increasingly show, meditation can lower stress, anxiety, and depression, and cultivate mental calm. Mindfulness or insight meditation (vipassanā) is a practice intended to develop a deeper awareness of our inner self. Breaking the ego’s illusions and exploring our internal function can generate a transformative state of consciousness. A meditator learns to observe sensory perceptions, examining physical and mental content and responses to stimuli. These sensations can be reactions (cravings or aversions) from one of the five senses or thoughts themselves.

To begin meditation, a practitioner starts by engaging in Anapana or mindful breathing. Breath is fundamental to this practice. We use this as our anchor. There is no need to visualize images or utilize mantras, such as counting. When the practitioner becomes aware that their mind is wandering, they simply return to the breath, breathing deeply and naturally through the nose, bringing awareness to any sensations on the nostril area. By taking time to breathe consciously, we can cultivate the ability to let our anxieties surface and pass away on their own rather than intensify them through our negative feelings. This utilization of breath can be illuminating as we experience how much the mind wanders. A wandering mind is a common challenge for beginning meditators. It is not a matter of avoiding these wandering thoughts but acknowledging that they are taking place.

Building a meditation practice has become increasingly accessible through numerous apps and podcasts. Beyond individual exploration, you can further your practice by taking a course with a qualified instructor or attending a retreat. Practicing with others in a mindfulness community may allow more success, as there is a sense of collective accountability through community practice.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is the therapeutic and evidence-based practice of music interventions to achieve objective goals with a licensed specialist. Music has been with humankind since the beginning of our evolution; it is a universal component of all cultures and societies. Many hypotheses offer differing concepts of what music is or is not. Some interpret music as an innate talent present in only a few exceptional individuals. My opinion is that, like with language, all human beings possess music within themselves; it only takes a little bit of grounding work to cultivate.

Cultivating resilience is just as critical in the fight against injustice as the action itself. To be an effective instrument for change, you must protect your most precious resource: you.

Music is a distinctive phenomenon that stimulates both the right and the left cerebral hemispheres and enables us to access mental spaces that we traditionally cannot reach through conventional discourse. It allows access to human imagination, thus allowing for analysis of abstract concepts. There are attributes inherent in creating and listening to music that provide valuable insights into the preconscious mind (neural information available for cognition residing beyond the active consciousness). Further, the experience of music, both passive and active, can positively affect our health, consciousness, cognitive functioning, perception, and attention.

Music is connected to our communal evolutionary needs while simultaneously investigating our individuality. It is a powerful stimulant that can give rise to powerful emotions. Through this knowledge, we can examine music’s healing qualities to fortify our sense of self, strengthen our ties to our communities and process our relationships.

An accessible way to use music in a therapeutic capacity is through a curated listening experience. Create a 30- to 60-minute playlist of music that connects positively to your past, considering any notable moments in your life (nostalgic memories, milestones, personal encounters with a loved one). Have this playlist ready anytime you may need an emotional recharge. Set aside some time, and listen in a comfortable place, with or without your eyes closed, practicing deep breathing. Consider the characteristics of the music. Why is this music important to you? Do any thoughts arise while you listen? This playlist functions as a retreat to experience and observe what is on your mind, facilitated through music deeply personal to you.

It is essential to be aware of the relationship between the many facets of our lives (activism, profession, personal) and how they impact one another. Rather than compartmentalizing each domain, we might see them as part of a larger whole. Music listening can manage the shift from one domain to another by signaling that work is over, and you can shift your mental energies. Find a piece of music that motivates you, encourages relaxation, or whatever particular nuance you may need to move from one part of your day to the next. You can cultivate the energy from the music and use it to develop your quality of life when engaging with your families, communities, and the world.