One City

Music has a lot of power.  It can make you laugh, it can make you cry,
it can bring back memories long forgotten and it can help you create
new ones.  I love music and my tastes are about as eclectic as they
come.  Music of any type or genre can be enjoyed if it speaks to you in
just the right way.  My parents brought me up to give any and all music
a try, if I liked it: great, if not: that’s fine too.  I played a few
instruments as a kid, primarily the flute and piccolo and I played in a
variety of styles and ensembles from chamber orchestras to marching
bands.  As an adult, I’m more of a listener than a player.  I listen to
all sorts of music, everything from classical to rock to hip-hop and
jazz with a few detours into Bhangra and world music.  I listen to
music while doing just about everything in my life; I listen when I
run, when I drive, when I work and when I do yoga.  But one aspect of
my life has continued to be completely music-free, in a word: meditation.  Before
learning to meditate formally, I think I did use music as a kind of
“proto-meditation” during which I’d use a cleverly crafted playlist to
help cheer me up (or, as a teenager, to stay pissed off at just about
everybody).  But, once I became a regular meditator, I learned to turn
the mp3 player off and just sit with my thoughts and whatever sounds
just happen to waft in.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a series of
podcasts on Music and the Brain
and it got me wondering about meditation with music.  If you do a
google or itunes search, a variety of sites come up offering music for
everything from relaxation and sleep to yoga and meditation.  To be
honest, I’d never taken these types of things seriously.  As I see it,
if you want to meditate, all you really need is your own breath and
your mind.  Why bother buying these “meditation” CDs?  Do they work? 
Or, do they just provide a distraction to help you space out instead of
facing the tough thoughts that can churn up in meditation?  On
Monday, I decided to find out.  So, I downloaded a few tracks of meditation music and sat down for my evening
zazen with my headphones on.  I listened to music for the
first 10min or so of my usual daily sit for the rest of the week.  This
is what I found:

I started out the week listening to tracks from the “Enhanced Healing”
podcast (music for relaxation, meditation and stress relief) but by
mid-week I’d switched to a quickmix of some of my more “chill” Pandora
stations.  Throughout the week, I meditated with a variety of musical
styles.  Some of the tracks I meditated with were instrumental while
others had lyrics both in English and in other languages that I did not
understand.  My little experiment was very interesting and (dare I say
it?) enlightening.  My going in position was that music would basically
become a distraction and that meditating with music wasn’t really
meditation at all.  However, as I reflect on my experience over the
past week, I think the answer is more complicated than that.

think most of us have had some experience of how music can affect our
minds and our mood.  I remember driving home from work one day and
Kanye West’s “Family Business” came up on my playlist; I’d heard the
song probably thirty times but for some reason, that day it brought me
to tears.  I was just driving along and something in that song
connected with a little part of me that was missing home and family and
I found myself crying quite unexpectedly.  Scientific research has
shown that music can and does affect how the brain functions.  Music theapy
has been prescribed for a variety of conditions from depression and
anxiety to Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.  At the same time, I’d suspect
that the majority of people reading this blog have also had some
experience of how meditation also affects our minds and our mood.  I
know I can tell multiple stories of sitting in meditation and being
brought to tears as certain old un-healed wounds rise up.  Like music,
there is also a lot of interesting research being conducted on how meditation affects brain functioning and why it works. 
So, you have to ask yourself: if meditation affects the mind and music
affects the mind, what happens when you put the two together?

my first few “musical meditation” sessions, I dismissed the music as a
distraction and was glad to be rid of it to get down to the “real work”
of watching my mind.  However, after I switched from “relaxation” music
(written specifically for that purpose) to “normal” music (written for
a variety of purposes) I found myself able to watch my mind as I
listened to the music.  Certain tracks would bring up certain emotions
or thoughts and I could use my meditation as a way to observe this
process and watch how my mind reacted to the stimulus.  In many ways,
this is no different from sitting with slight knee pain or with a dog barking
outside.  The pain or the barking may irritate you but the point of
meditation is to watch that irritation and see that it isn’t you and
will eventually pass away.  I found that music had much the same
effect.  A track that I recognized would come on and I could watch my
reaction to it and note: “recognition,” another track might come on
that I didn’t like and I could just note: “aversion” then watch how my
mood or even my body reacted.  So the music became less of a distraction and more of a tool and an object of meditation.

the Zen tradition, we’re taught that everything can be meditation. 
When you’re fully present, sweeping the floor is meditation, sneezing is
meditation and now I think that listening to music can be meditation.  While, I have no plan
to use music as a part of my daily meditation practice, I think that
this little experiment has taught me to expand my notion about what
meditation can be.  Music doesn’t have to be a distraction from
meditation.  In fact, you can use it as the object of meditation and
watch how your mind and emotions react to what you’re hearing.  It
would be interesting to read a study about what parts of the brain are
activated when a person both listens to music and practices meditation
simultaneously.  I don’t know what the long term effects of musical
meditation might be but it would certainly be interesting to put a long
time meditator in the fMRI machine, crank up some Slim Shady and just sit back and watch.  Maybe I should write in to the Mind and Life Institute…   

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