Music and Mental Health – How to get back on track

How I recovered from two decades of anxiety and depression. A musician’s guide to better mental health.

My Name is Bruce John Dickinson and I’m lucky enough to have enjoyed a long career in both music and music education which started in the late 80s with a band called Little Angels, and I’ve set up several music colleges over the years, the latest and greatest being WaterBear – The College of Music in Brighton. I’m not a doctor or a mental health professional but I feel qualified, through personal experience, to put down some thoughts about the big fat ‘elephant in the room’ in the music industry. That ‘elephant’ being mental health. My feeling is that most creatives are dealing with varying degrees of chronic anxiety and bouts of depression. I’d like to share my story of personal struggle and how I made a few changes that had dramatic results in all aspects of my life.

I used to be an Olympic-standard stress head. I worried myself to the ground through trying to control every aspect of my work life and ended up with chronic insomnia, repetitive thoughts, anxiety and depression which went on for a couple of decades. That’s a long time to not have any sleep. But happily, after some research and work on myself, I have almost completely turned it around. Only took until I was 50 years old…

So today I want to explain how I found happiness, became much more effective at work, got more done (with less effort) and became much nicer to be around. I hope this is useful to anyone else struggling with the same issues and leads you to figuring this stuff out earlier! I promise you life can be easier and you can be happier. And it’s closer than you think right now.

The first step in my change was to accept responsibility for the way I felt. Even at my worst, I could see that some people I worked with could cope better than me with the same situations. I had to conclude that my experience of reality was defined by my thoughts, rather than the other way around.

I had gleaned a small, but critical, level of self-awareness which was enough to kick-start a series of events that were to have a huge effect on my mental and physical wellbeing. And then I read the ‘Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart is a modern-day philosopher and spiritual leader. Now I’m not religious in the conventional sense, but then neither is he, and I could really relate to the book. One particular Eckhart quote stopped me dead and changed my life forever. The line was:

‘To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken’.

Of course. So obvious and yet it had never occurred to me that the entity that was really ‘me’ was not the thoughts, but the quiet observer of the thoughts. The penny dropped and I suddenly realised that all the happy stable people around me with robust mental health were different to me in that they understood this. They watched their thoughts go by and took less notice of them than I did.

I asked myself – what is this depression? The answer came ‘It’s just thoughts, running away with themselves’. I reasoned maybe it is possible that I can control them, and that perhaps to focus on the positive or negative aspects of life is a choice. A day to day choice. Perhaps even to worry or not is a choice.

I questioned my wife on this- she’s a natural buddha who has achieved some kind of easy enlightenment. She embodies calm and acceptance. I learned that people like her allow thoughts to come and go, and sometimes have no thoughts at all. They don’t take the narrative in the head so seriously, accept situations without attaching a value judgement, and have less attachment to fixed ideas on how the future should be.

My mind was blown. I realised that my problem was that I believed the self-manufactured disaster hype in my head to such a degree that I had developed chronic repetitive thoughts that never stopped, even in my sleep. The resulting adrenaline and effect of unrelenting stress on my body was deeply unpleasant, disabling and threated my long-term health.

However now I had a lifeline to do something about it. I found out that many dynamic high achievers had the ability to switch off their thoughts and simply trust that whatever life had dealt them, they would cope with it. ‘The Lord will provide’ as the bible would say. I used to think the world was a super dangerous place, because that was my focus. I started to appreciate how much in my life was actually working just fine.

Of course, people have known this for thousands of years, and this thinking is the basis for nearly all religions. You just have to go a long way back and unpick a few centuries of branding and unhelpful metaphor, to get to the source of what people like Buddha, Jesus, Allah were saying. They just wanted us to chill out and be nice to each other.

I realised our experience of life is 100% about how we feel and think inside. Not 99%, not 50%, but 100%. What you think about magnifies. Your thoughts become your reality. If you go to the park looking for dog poo – that’s what you’ll find. You’ll miss the butterflies and bird song. But it’s the same park.

So, I had to sort my thinking out.

How do you do that?

Trust me, it’s not too hard. I learnt everything I needed to know from Eckhart Tolle, and Tao Te Ching (or ‘The Book of the Way’ written by Laozi in 600 BC). There’s nothing new here. I listened to lectures on YouTube from everyone from Alan Watts, to Wayne Dyer to Krishnamurti, and it became clear that everyone was telling me the same thing in different ways.

I stopped asking myself ‘How can I ‘get better’ from depression?’ – that implies a judgement. Life is made up of little and big problems and depression is one of them. All problems and challenges are there to teach. No one gets wise without suffering. That is its purpose. We don’t need to label it as ‘bad’. But we can move to become more peaceful and happier if we choose to. We can make a change.

When is the time to make a change? Well, you decide. No one else can do this for you.  Step one is making a commitment to changing and taking responsibility for how we feel. That’s what I did three years ago, and life has got better and better ever since.

The key to finding stillness and calm is exactly where you’d expect to find it: in mediation or mindfulness. My experience is this really works, and it changes the way your brain is wired. The more you do the better it gets. This is how you begin to be able cope. You just keep on keeping on whatever the weather. I know my brain is different because now I can sleep, and I wake up thankful.

And if our thoughts define our reality, then we should take deep care over what we choose to think about.

I now believe that your past is like the wake of a boat – it can’t drive the boat, so no point staring at it. Face the front, be mindful. Your thoughts drive the engine of the moment (reality) into the future which will always come to you. You don’t have to think too hard about steering. Follow the tide – go with it. There is no effort needed.

All we have is the present moment. The past and the future are entirely illusory. If this sounds like hippy nonsense, then check out what Einstein and Stephen Hawking have to say about the nature of time. The quantum physics guys are pointing in the same direction as Jesus and Buddha, they are just using different metaphors to signpost the same thing.

It was helpful for me to drill down into the absolute fundamental heart of the issue and this is it: Everything boils down to two things – fear or acceptance. Love being another word for acceptance, as is unity, stillness, nothingness. You can feel it when you sit quietly and look at the sea. Some people call it God. It doesn’t matter what you call it, life is infinitely better when you have it and much worse if you don’t.

It’s the same with thoughts.

Fear = attachments, labelling, judgements and guilt

Acceptance = surrender and peace

Ironically, surrender is one of the most powerful actions you can do.

Eckhart says “Don’t look for peace. Don’t look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender”

Taking this on board doesn’t mean you will lose your edge and stop wanting to achieve things. You might well be less concerned about the outcome, and you might well achieve more and be more effective as a result. But that’s not the goal, it’s just a side effect.

The work you do here will benefit not just you, but your colleagues, friends, family, community, your industry and the world. Calm spreads. The world needs more of it.

If you’re looking for a place to start, try Eckhart’s amazing book ‘The Power of Now’, and I promise if that resonates with you, the other teachings will find you. When you’re ready to hear this the message will come, and nothing will be quite the same again.

This is certainly the most uncertain time I can remember in my lifetime. But where there is change there is opportunity as well as challenges. These are super exciting times and there is so much to do, but only if you have the mindset and the resilience to cope with this uncertainty and the confidence to take some risks trying out new ways of doing things.

I suggest the best thing you can do for yourself, your industry and the world right now is get your head in a good place. Positivity spreads, but so does negativity. Look around you. You’ll see people that remain upbeat, highly effective and happy in the most extreme and difficult situations and you’ll see others who get stressed easily and can’t cope with even minor things going wrong. This little blog has been about getting in the right mind set for success however you want to define that.

That’s all I have to say except good luck with everything you do in the future and it’s been a great privilege to share this time with you today.

By Bruce Dickinson

Bruce has had 11 top forty hits and a number 1 album with Little Angels. He’s toured with Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and opened for Guns N’ Roses on their first UK shows. With his group Colour of Noise, he has run a successful Pledge album campaign and he continues to help new bands through curating the Rising Stage at the Ramblin’ Man Fair festival and Underground Music Conference events. Bruce was a founder of the BIMM group of colleges, leaving in 2012 for the Little Angels reunion at Download Festival and UK tour. He has negotiated several university partnerships and written many validated degree courses, with thousands of undergraduates studying those courses still. He holds an MA in Education Management.
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