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We live inside of sound in every moment of our lives. Sound orients, soothes, irritates, and grounds us. The ubiquity of sound explains why deafness can be such a devastating disability as it disconnects from the envelop of sound.
Over a billion songs have been sold on iTunes. Wouldn’t it be obvious to make music the target for mindfulness practice? Such was the insight of meditation teacher and friend Shinzen Young. Everyone loves to listen to music, so mindfulness practice could follow closely behind.
The Buddha was able to make his teaching on the dharma accessible to kings as well as criminals. He did this by tailoring his message, by seeking skillful means. He would use stories, metaphors, and whatever else might help connect the individual to the teaching.
Shinzen’s mindfulness of music follows the same principle. Every kid listens to music on an iPod. If they are doing that they can do mindfulness practice.
On a recent Saturday at my Meditation Studio, I led a Shinzen-inspired mindfulness of music retreat. I introduced everyone to Shinzen’s four foci for practice: relaxation, sound, feelings, and vanishings.
Relaxation points to music’s ability to dissolve tension. In fact, we might find our whole sense of being dissolving into bliss while listening to music. The second focus was on the sound of the music itself. Sound is one of the three major sources of “objective” experience we have along with seeing and feeling sensations in the body.
This practice reminded me of how I attend concerts, especially classical music concerts and chamber music. I spend a few moments looking at the ensemble and then I close my eyes. I then turn my attention to the music, immersing myself in the vibration of sound. And when attention wanders into the future, past, or commentary about this present, I gently return it to the unfolding of the music. This practice can elicit some powerful emotions and that is the third focus of Shinzen’s music system.
Focus on “feel” opens the field of feeling from dissolving into relaxation to whatever feelings arise while attending to the music: sadness, joy, anger. Vanishings, as the name implies, focus on the moments when the sound stops before it resumes again. Vanishing can be found in melodies, rhythms, and, of course, in silence.
You can try this practice on your own. Choose some music and give it your full attention. Keep returning your attention whenever it moves away. You can focus on how the music relaxes your body and how it makes you feel. Give yourself permission to fully enjoy the music, allowing it to be the only thing you are doing in that moment.
We don’t often give our attention to something in that way and attending to music can be a real treat.