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For Burned-Out Touring Musicians, Mindfulness Helps (No Matter How Much the Term Makes You Roll Your Eyes)

Ryan Dusick Book
Thought Leader: Ryan Dusick
June 26, 2023
Source: Variety

Ryan Dusick is an associate marriage and family therapist, a mental health advocate and an author whose book, “Harder to Breathe: A Memoir of Making Maroon 5, Losing It All, and Finding Recovery” (BenBella Books), is out now. He writes regularly about wellness for Variety.

      The term “mindfulness” was a big turn-off to me for about the first hundred times I heard it. As a classic over-thinker most of my life, I figured the last thing I needed was to become more “mindful,” or to concentrate harder on the things that were causing my anxieties. Over-thinking, perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness contributed greatly to my breakdown as the founding drummer of Maroon 5, and my solution to most problems had been to try harder. These attempts at control, however, were just piling more pressure on top of the many challenges we were facing during our four-your touring campaign in support of “Songs About Jane.”

           The word mindfulness is a bit of a misnomer, however. In my recovery from anxiety, depression and alcoholism, I’ve learned that practicing mindfulness is actually a very simple process of sitting in the present moment without judgment or action: an exercise in radical acceptance, not reactionary thought. Both in my study to become a mental health professional and in my personal life, I’ve found that the implementation of mindfulness as a philosophy, as a meditation, and as a manner of daily living can lead to vastly improved outcomes for not only mental health but also physical wellness.

      In talking about my recent book “Harder to Breathe: A Memoir of Making Maroon 5, Losing It All, and Finding Recovery,” I’m often asked what I might do differently, had I the chance to go back and relive my touring years. The most practical answer I can give is the daily practice of mindfulness. I was under a tremendous amount of stress during that time, half of which was imposed by the external – the nature of the beast of performing day after day, month after month, without any substantial breaks. But the other half of my stress was self-imposed – performance anxiety, impostor syndrome, control issues… These were all a part of my internal daily grind, with no effective outlet or healthy coping mechanism for releasing their grip on my psyche. If I were to do it again, rather than just buckling down, pushing through another series of shows, and then “blowing off some steam” with a night of revelry, I’d instead focus on fostering the mindfulness principles of Non-Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non-Striving, Acceptance, and Letting Go, as described in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s essential book on mindfulness “Full Catastrophe Living” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

      Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with popularizing mindfulness as a tool for coping with chronic pain and stress, writes in his book, “When you channel and modulate your attention in this way, you will experience a quicker recovery of your mental equilibrium, even in very stressful situations, and also of your physiological equilibrium (allostasis) as your bodily reactions calm down… As relaxation and peace of mind become more familiar to you through the formal meditation practice, it becomes easier to call upon them when you need them. When you are stressed, you can allow yourself to ride the waves of the stress. You will neither have to shut it off nor run away… Greater resilience in the face of stressors and reduced stress reactivity are characteristic of people who practice meditation regularly” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

      The organization Amber Health, which aims to provide mental health resources to touring professionals, recently published a study in “Psychology of Music” suggesting the power of mindfulness, not just for coping with the stressors of touring but also for preventing the most tragic outcomes associated with touring related breakdown – depression and suicide. Their study “Trait mindfulness plays a protective role in the positive relationships between stress, depressive symptoms, and suicidal behavior in an at-risk population: Music industry touring professionals” (Bergson, Newman, George, Beitz, & Zemon, 2023), finds a significant correlation between the application of mindfulness and the moderation of depressive symptoms and suicidality. More study is necessary to draw a direct causal link between these factors, but this preliminary survey sheds important light on a previously under-studied phenomenon, and it suggests this effective tool may be particularly helpful to the touring community.

      If you’re imagining a lifestyle akin to a Buddhist monk, sitting in the lotus position all day with your eyes closed, you may be surprised. The practice of mindfulness does begin with a 20-30-minute daily meditation session, aimed at anchoring yourself in the present moment, but the ultimate goal is to incorporate the experience of mindfulness seamlessly into daily living. The meditative state creates greater resilience in the face of stress, and you don’t necessarily need to be meditating all day to see the positive results. Mindfulness becomes a way of life – a Zen-like state in which you are able to flow through the challenges of the day like water around a pebble in a stream.

      I won’t pretend that I have become a master at this mindset and that I don’t still fall into old patterns of reactivity and stress at times. But my overall ability to stay centered and balanced, even when life may feel a little unbalanced, is so much greater today than it was when I was at the eye of the Maroon 5 storm in 2002-06. As someone who was predisposed to struggle with that level of stress due to my anxious and perfectionistic temperament, I would have benefited greatly from the practice of mindfulness to help balance the inherent imbalance of that lifestyle. The demands of a major promotional touring campaign may still be overwhelming, but at least I wouldn’t be exacerbating their effect with poor coping skills. An improved state of mindfulness could be the anchor that allows a performer to stay in a flow state more readily, creating the greatest sustainability for a long, healthy, thriving career.


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