Here’s something that got my attention! (I’ll copy-and-paste excerpts below.)

But, first, what’s it doing on a spiritual direction blog? It’s an article about a guy who “has used the harmonica to help breathing patterns in adults with problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder.” Interesting, eh? Especially if you’ve got COPD. But whatever else you can say about them, harmonicas aren’t commonly thought of as being very spiritual.

Well, OK, on the other hand, harmonicas (aka mouth harps) and COPD both have something to do with breath. And breathing is part of Zen practice.

So there is that …

Also, a couple of coincidences involving harmonicas grabbed my attention in the last week. (And you know what they say in 12-step groups about coincidences. They’re “God’s way of remaining anonymous,” among other things too deep to go into here.) So here they are:

— The other day, after we got home from Springfield poet and amateur harmonica player John Knoepfle’s funeral, I noticed a harmonica on my bedside table. It was an inexpensive little starter instrument, a Schylling Blues Time 10-hole harp, to be exact, and it must have been there for months. But this time I’d been thinking how much we’re going to miss John and his harmonica at our jam sessions at Hickory Glen Apartments.

So I picked it up and started … well, playing isn’t quite the word we want here. Not yet, at least. But I started honking on it, trying to find all the notes of a C major scale and mostly succeeding.

— Then, a few days later, I noticed a stack of Schylling Blues Time harmonicas on sale at the Cracker Barrel off I-55 on Toronto Road. And another memory came back. One day 10 or 15 years ago Debi and I met her parents for lunch at a Cracker Barrel — it may have been the same one, or it may have been off I-55 in Lincoln. And on the spur of the moment, my mother-in-law bought me a harmonica and a little instruction book. That was characteristic of her. She’d do nice little things for people, and she knew I was interested in music.

So I played it for a while, then got distracted and put it away. (All too often, that’s what I do with musical instruments.) But every now and then, I’d get it out. Picked up a harmonica in the key of D, too, since our jam sessions at Hickory Glen are “dulcimer friendly” — which as a practical matter means almost everything we play is in D. Learning to play it was always near the top of my list of things I’d like to do someday, but I’d get sidetracked and never got around to it.

Anyway, I still had that little Blues Time harp gathering dust on my bedside table after one of those false starts, and I realized it must be the one Susie bought for me that day at Cracker Barrel.

A few days later now, I’m happy to report I’m still honking away on it. I’m nowhere near ready to inflict it on the group at Hickory Glen. (Besides, I can’t find my D harp!) But I’ve figured out how to play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” by ear (in C, of course), and I’ve managed to locate all the notes to “Shenandoah,” a song that John loved to play at Hickory Glen, and “Lord of the Dance,” which the St. Agnes parish choir sang at his funeral. I can’t find the right notes every time I start to play, and I still find others that don’t belong there! But it’s a start. And I found a fun website that shows to make train sounds — a skill that was as obligatory in the time and place where I grew up, at least for harp players, as learning scales and arpeggios.

Given my track record of picking up instruments, getting distracted and putting them aside, I’m not making myself any promises. But maybe it’s a start. And maybe this time I will really and truly turn over a new leaf.

The articles I found are excerpted below the three-em dash:

Daniel Tomasulo, “Zen Harmonica: Learning Mindfulness in the Key of Life,” PsychCentral, July 8, 2018

Verbatim excerpts:

David Harp (great name for the man who has taught the world to play the harmonica, yes?) is a truly unique person.  Not only are his lectures filled with the latest findings in neuroscience, meditative practices, music theory, the history of the harmonica, and mindfulness, they are also a cause for pure inspiration.  David has used the harmonica to help breathing patterns in adults with problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, Alzheimer’s, terminally ill children, people in the armed forces, and hospice services.  For him the harmonica isn’t a peripheral musical curiosity, nor even a way of making great blues or rock music.  It is a portal into self-actualization and, no pun intended, a tool for living in harmony with yourself and others.


To demonstrate techniques he introduced us to the classic harmonica players as well as the likes of J. Geils, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Wonder.   Listening to him lose himself was a source of direct inspiration. Watching his mind and body instantaneously transport into a nondualistic way of being was as good as sitting at the feet of any worthy guru, yoga master, or Bodhisattva.  The difference is that he communicated that space with the music made possible by his concentrated breathing.  It wasn’t the solemn resonance evoked by Om, but rather the transportive delight shared through a boogie-woogie riff in C.

The mindfulness base of this weeklong course was the essence of the experience.  For Harp, the harmonica is really about breathing and concentration – the core elements in mindfulness. David has trademarked what he calls the HarMantra™,  a beautiful 4-note riff that does, indeed, create a mindful, meditative space.  In fact, we did a deep breathing exercise that took it down to 4 breaths a minute with the Harmantra™.  For those of you unfamiliar with what breathing 4 breaths a minute is like, all I can say is that there isn’t another thing you could possibly think about.  You aren’t in the moment—you are the moment.

Secondly, surround yourself with other learners who want what you want at the level you want it. When you decide what it is you are going to learn, and you have found the right teacher, the students you will be with are the next most important ingredient.  They become your mirrors of progress.


David Harp. “HarmonicaYoga™ — Or, Zen and the Art of Blues Harp Blowing,” Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Lenox, Mass.

Verbatim excerpt:

Harmonica Meditation? It may be funny, but it’s no joke…Some might consider the Blues
Harmonica — AKA the “Mississippi Saxophone,” the “Mouth Organ,” or the “Blues Harp” — as a strange vehicle with which to explore and transcend that mysterious and often mutinous entity known as the human mind.

However, even the most traditional of yogis would probably agree that Yoga-Sutras 1.33
through 1.39 seem to recommend a nearly unlimited menu of potential objects for meditation, including “whatever you choose” (yatha abhimata). Yoga positions or mantras, tantric sex or alternate nostril breathing — it’s not what you choose to focus on which brings the reward of a “stable and tranquil mind” — it’s how diligently you work at maintaining that focus. And the harmonica, by its very nature, makes it really easy to keep one’s mental attention focused on the process of breathing — which of course is the mainstay of so many meditative techniques.

We’ll start by considering how harmonica meditation works. But it isn’t just about the
harmonica itself — the very nature of the blues, rock, folk, or jazz band provides a perfect
laboratory for interpersonal mindfulness practice, as will be explained below. …

One thought on “Zen COPD: A harmonica on the nightstand and a promise to turn over a new leaf

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