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Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life

Halfway through the week-long intensive to learn how to play the harmonica I noticed something.  I was smiling constantly; I had actually learned to do a series of rock and roll riffs, and the rhyming blues, “Bad To The Bone” style.  Pure joy. My classmates celebrated my achievements—I celebrated theirs.

The third thing is to work in the class to push yourself.  Take an excursion out of your comfort zone.

Thursday night; our big jam session. We played in various duos and practiced putting the patterns we’d learned during the week together — showing off all that we had learned.  Word had spread throughout the large yoga center the course was held in. We were having so much fun in this course that people started coming by to hear the jam session.  It was during this time I had my first of two peak experiences.

I jammed with a partner I’d met in the class, an MBA banking professional who used the class as a launch to her yearlong sabbatical.  This wouldn’t be someone you thought would have a passion to learn to play the harmonica, but hey, who am I to talk?  Few psychologists would be identified with that desire as well. With studio-quality equipment we wailed away on our harmonicas, swapping riffs with each other.  To be in that kind of harmony with another person playing music was something I’d not had in my life. David, as maestro, kept us in tempo with the background music, and for all the world it felt like we were seriously improvising the blues harmonica. We be jammin’!  The spontaneous applause following our improvisation confirmed that, indeed, we had.  Limiting beliefs had been shattered, and what had been a passing thought and desire earlier in the week became actualized. None of us plan on touring with the Rolling Stones next week, but the smiles will speak for themselves. Here is a little impromptu  sample of our class in action.

On the last night of class he was teaching us how to bend-blow a high note, a difficult feat even for accomplished harmonica musicians, but there were several in the class who implored him to give us a shot at learning it.  These funky high-pitched bends are one of the things that make the harmonica so vibrant.  The tongue placement and the directional focus of the air stream are tricky.  Over time you want to be able to alternate from a regular note to this bend with cultivated precision. But for us the idea was to just see if you could find the sound and make it happen a few times, even though blow-bending is one of the most difficult tasks to master with the harmonica.  Within the secret desire to play the blues harmonica was my deep drive to be able to do one of those screeching blow-bends. My college days were spent listening to J. Geils and I wanted to – at least once in my life – hit one of those amazing notes. David warned us it was not likely that many of us could achieve a blow-bend sound, but he would teach us and give us something to work toward with our take-home practice CDs.  If we couldn’t do it?  Then our sense of loss or failure would be just another thought to dissipate with our HarMantra™.

Whenever our class had to learn something new it was like herding a group of cats.  We’d all start flittering around trying to get the right sound.  Imagine an orchestra tuning up before a performance.  Now imagine if the orchestra players really didn’t know exactly how to play the instrument.  Well, that was what we sounded like preparing for the blow-bend.

David’s musical acumen and attunement to sound was apparent throughout the course.  He could tell exactly who and what was wrong in our group of 19 people — who had started on the wrong note (and which wrong note) and who had picked up the wrong harmonica.  As we all started the blow-bend exercise somehow, within a very few minutes, I hit the note.  David immediately stopped the class and pointed me out.

“Dan’s got it—do it again.”

Proof Positive

My tongue fumbled for the space, but to my deep amazement and satisfaction I was able to repeat the note, then again and again.  The class let out a spontaneous round of applause.  I stood and took my bow.

As a kid I took endless years of speech lessons.  When I finally got the sound right I could hear it – the teacher didn’t have to tell me.  The blow-bend melted decades and brought me back to those moments when my S’s stopped sounding like “eshes.”  Few things have felt so good:  A sense of achievement from having learned something; a personal challenge met head-on, and a sense of accomplishment attained by pushing past a perceived limitation.  Ultimately this is what you will want in learning something new.

All this from simply breathing in – then out — with mindfulness.

The formula for doing things on your champagne-glass list is simple:  Find a teacher with passion, like-minded students who will encourage and challenge you, and be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

I learned during this week that this course, perhaps more than anything else helped me gain a dual sense of self-acceptance while striving:  acknowledging my limitations and current state, while desiring to acquire more skill toward mastery. Just like tennis or racquetball or skiing, or yoga, or meditating, you can take some lessons and get good enough to start, and then devote the rest of your life to learning more and getting better.

Here is my encouragement:  This year pick one thing that you haven’t allowed yourself to do, and do it.  Don’t wait for a Saturn return to nudge you.  Learn something, do something, that you have always wanted to do. Do it because deep down inside you know it will make you whole.

It might not feel like it is a spiritual quest, but when you are engaged in learning at this level it almost certainly is.  How can I be so sure?  The clue about what really motivates us in life came from the great harmonica duo, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood.  Whenever they were asked what they were doing they had one simple reply:

“We’re on a mission from God.”

David Harp teaches Zen and the Art of HarmonicaYoga™ twice a year at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts, and does a variety of other events at venues around the nation and the world.

Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.

Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Mar 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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