When I was about 7 years old, I started playing the piano. I really wanted it so that my parents would eventually buy me one. It was a beautiful shiny black piano.

My playing turned out a little different than my parents had hoped. I lost my initial enthusiasm pretty quickly and after 3 tough years in which I didn’t exactly shine with diligence, I stopped playing completely. Because no one was playing it anymore, it grew out of tune with time, and when someone sat down to play from time to time, it almost hurt the ears. In the end it was just a beautiful and regularly polished piece of decoration that failed to serve its actual purpose: to be played. 

That’s actually the mission of every instrument: to be played and to express what the player puts into it. An instrument that is no longer played, however, still expresses what the player puts into it (or doesn’t put into it).

Sometimes it is simply misused as a beautiful façade and sometimes not even that, then it just lies somewhere careless and unnoticed in the corner. No matter what, it definitely always gets out of tune over time because the player has completely lost touch with the instrument.

I believe that the way we relate to our bodies is one to one comparable to caring for and playing (or not playing) an instrument. Our body is indeed an instrument. 

Let me share two stories, which illustrate what I mean.

I ran what I call a “resilience lounge” with one of my client teams beginning of this year. In your own pace you went through 10 different stations giving you some food for thought, the opportunity to sense and tune into and experiment with the ingredients of ‘resilience’. The team shared their most important personal insights in a common reflection afterwards. I remember one very touching statement of a participant in particular. “I realized that for all my life I have been in my mind and literally cutting off everything starting beneath my head: my body, my emotions, my sensations. I function and I function well. But my overweight is my protection zone, it allows me to keep myself at distance from myself and from others. But if I am really honest, I am not feeling well in my skin, I am running into major health issues and I am not feeling connected to myself. I have never taken care of my body nor listened to it, I want to change that.” 

So, she had banned the piano to the cellar for years and let it gather dust, she neither polished nor played it, so that it got completely out of tune over time.

The second story is my own one.

I have always had an intense and active relation with my body. And I always thought that I was in a good connection with it. I have been doing sports since I was little. Ballet, track & field, horseback riding, volleyball, skiing, hiking, running, I literally spent all my youth on the tennis court (it was the Steffi Graf and Boris Becker era). During my sport studies biking (racing and mountain bike) got my favorite and as I entered into work life, I also discovered Yoga for myself and got into sailing. 

Ever since I can remember sport has been my remedy for everything. I got myself hooked on wearing myself out physically until I was tired and happy. And all my life was about performance: faster, higher, more. I loved pushing myself beyond my own limits. I ran my first marathon in my mid-twenties, crossed the alps with the mountain bike, sailed the ‘round Gotland’ regatta double-hand and, and, and. Well, it wasn’t always pleasure. I remember that especially the training for a marathon was quite tough and took me a lot of discipline. Anyway, I just went on autopilot and pulled through my training schedule, independent of how I felt. Small ailments were simply ignored. If you want to achieve something you have to fight yourself through, right? At least that was my credo. Fighting myself through. The same was true of my work, by the way: fighting myself through. In the first fifteen years of my working life I worked 24/7. And don’t get me wrong, I loved it! I was simply thrilled to be always on and performant. 

I maintained this life style for forty years until my body decided enough was enough. It was a disc prolapse which fell me down from one day to another. This was the moment when I realized that I was mistaken, I obviously didn’t have a real connection with my body at all. I had misused my instrument quite heavily all my life. 

In fact, I hadn’t used my body as instrument, I had instrumentalized it to function and perform. I hadn’t played it, I hadn’t listened to it and certainly I had ignored any dissonances.

I had mechanically pushed myself over my limits. So, at the end the body of my piano got a severe crack, and this was the moment when it finally got my attention.

So, an instrument needs to be “polished” regularly so that the instrument body remains functional on the one hand. We achieve this by keeping our body healthy through a well-coordinated orchestration of exercise and regeneration as well as nutrition. 

If the instrument is in a badly maintained condition, then sooner or later this leads to a disfunction and dissonance.

It’s really important to find your own balance in this and to understand that neither too little nor too much polishing is helpful.

Secondly, the instrument needs to be played regularly because that’s what it’s made for. Our body is the vessel through which we connect to the world with our senses. As we “play our instrument”, meaning as we listen to the wisdom of our body it’s important to notice all the sensations who, no matter how subtle or intense, are deeply connected to how our mind and emotions work. For example, when feeling stressed thoughts are racing, the breath tends to be shallow and the shoulders tense, sounds familiar? But who is in charge here? Do feelings produce bodily states or vice versa? Does my mind make me tense or does the tension in my body make me have all these crazy repetitive thoughts? In the West we are inculcated with a strong sense that the mind rules the body. Controversially, neuroscientists and psychologists are now pointing out how physical processes in the body govern thought, emotion and behavior. Anyway, the important message here is that body, mind and emotions cannot be viewed in isolation, but are always interconnected. 

The way we are at home in our bodies determines the way we “play (or don’t play) our instrument”, which tells us a lot about how we relate to the world. 

When we don’t play our instrument because we are out of touch with it, we will encounter a dissonance at some stage. 

But how do we now get (back) in touch with our instrument, how do we play it? 

Playing our instrument means really hearing what our body has to say. Hearing requires deep listening to its tones, resonances and dissonances.  

For this presence and consciousness are needed. And it requires introspection and stillness. Just consider, how much can you really hear if it is always loud around you, if you keep moving continuously?

I still love to grow beyond myself. I still love the performance aspect. I still love running, biking, hiking and since a couple of years I discovered cross-fit for myself. And I still like the relaxing impact of wearing myself out. But I am much more conscious and intentional now, and very cautious to not overhear the voice of my body anymore. And I found a good balance for myself. As much as I love my active sports I like sitting in stillness, meditating, doing silent nature walks and practicing Yin Yoga. All of these are allowing me to slow down, tune into myself and hear what the wisdom of my body has to tell me.

Remember what I said at the beginning? The mission of every instrument is to be played and to express what the player puts into it. 

The more I put into it, meaning the more I practice to ‘hear’, the more I sense and the more I get connected with my emotions and my mind. My instrument is being tuned more and more finely.  

The practices I just mentioned are my favorites but may not be yours. But there are many more so called ‘embodiment’ practices out there which are a useful support to get back in touch with our bodies, to tune our instruments. Enjoy the exploration!

So, what about you? Is your body your instrument or are you rather instrumentalizing your body? Why don’t you share your experiences with me…