One City

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Music and Meditation

posted by Evelyn Cash

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.

I
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?

After
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.

In
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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Comments read comments(8)
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Christopher Mohr

posted September 21, 2009 at 4:42 am


This actually a very interesting subject that has been getting notice recently. It’s good to put it out there. I am particularly interested in the link between action and meditation that has been posited since the beginning – the Mahjjima Nikaya is the original reference for the story about sweeping, as you probably know, and it comes down in Buddhist children’s stories about Chulapanthaka in other places. Coming from Shingon, which like most of Vajrayana suggests that any physical experience can be the spark of enlightenment (if done correctly), I’ve always been curious about why people don’t think more about the link between the process of making music or making art (I carve Buddha images) and the process of meditation.
As for Slim Shady – some of the lyrics from his “Lose Yourself” are actually somewhat Buddhist, along the same vein as this post. namely, “Lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, better never let it go.” The last half… not so much, but the first half… he might be on to something. It would be interesting to compare a live free-form rap session with a Buddhist chanting meditation session and see from a scientific perspective where there are differences. They might not be as different as people think.



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Christopher Mohr

posted September 21, 2009 at 4:47 am


the other thing I might add – chanting, especially Buddhist chanting but all religious forms of chanting – is an activity designed to focus the mind on itself. That is why chanting is utilized in most forms of Buddhism (some forms utilizing it almost exclusively). It was an early form of music.



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Anan E. Maus

posted September 21, 2009 at 6:30 pm


Meditation is very broad. There are many forms. Meditation is not just “one thing.”
One can practice mindfulness meditation upon many acts in daily life, but mindfulness meditation itself is just one form of meditation. There are many, many others.
Some people view meditating with or upon music as a limitation.
I think there is some validity to that idea. However, I think that once one has done silent meditations for a few years, the worry about meditating with music becoming a crutch is diminished. Even if one starts meditating with music, one can always return to some silent meditations if one feels it is becoming some kind of crutch.
But meditation upon a beautiful object, like music, is a very valid form of meditation, and it much different than mindfulness meditation.
The goal there is to become one with the (beauty behind) the object of the meditation.
If mindfulness meditation is taken to its full potential, it crosses beyond being centered, at peace and more aware. Some of the supernatural possibilities of meditation start to present themselves.
For those who meditate on God with form, or even upon an infinite presence like the sky…that aspect tends to come to the fore much more readily.
You meditate upon expansion of consciousness and do that with some vigor for a time. Then, you find some direct experience…like the meditation changes your physical form to some degree…you get increased physical strength, even a kind of supernatural strength. This comes from starting to get in touch with the Infinity within us.
If you meditate on the beauty of Gregorian Chant, you are ultimately meditating on the consciousness of Christ behind the music. And that is an Infinite Consciousness.
And when you touch into that kind of reality, then the game playing of the mind’s endless doubts end.
When I was young and is reasonably good shape, I was able to do, oh, maybe 5 pull-ups. 20 years later, very ill, with back problems, out of shape and overweight, through meditation practice alone, I could do pull ups with only two fingers of one hand.
Not a very useful skill, but an expression of the real kind of infinite power behind meditation. Where the games stop. And when enlightenment is not some clever dinner conversation, but a burst of light in meditation, in which you cease to be able to remember your real name…or hear your own soul continuing a chant, when your lips and your mind has stopped.
This is when the game stops…and the pursuit of Infinity begins. It is the reason why we meditate. It is the reason why we live. To rediscover that Infinite Source.



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Ash

posted September 23, 2009 at 12:32 am


Very interesting article Evelyn.
There have been a few articles published on this subject in recent days and I felt that it was time to weigh in on this topic.
Music is a particularly powerful source of stimuli. Music is very effective at surfacing emotions. I know through my own experiences that many songs have had a profound effect on me. I know that occasionally when driving with music in the car I will hear an 80’s song. That song will take me back to that moment. I then instantly recall my relationships, my emotions and even my behavior at that time in my life.
There is no doubt that music is a great source for contemplation, but contemplation itself is not meditation. Meditation is about developing the mind. The goal of meditation is to know the mind, shape the mind and free the mind.
Read the remainder of the Music as the object of meditation response.



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jeux ds

posted September 24, 2009 at 3:38 am


I listen music regularly to feel fresh and also do meditation regularly. As per my view both are necessary in daily routine. Music makes me happy and meditation is good for health. I like this article as it is on my favorite hobby. Well thanks for sharing such nice article on music and meditation. I like this site and will visit this site in future too.



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Dr David Schanaker

posted September 30, 2009 at 8:33 pm


As a long time meditation practitioner and healing artist I have found spacious natural music useful in my meditation practice and as sleep aid from time to time. Here is some descriptive info on music I have created. These Cymbal Reflections recordings are meditation & relaxation music generated by a heavy cymbal that I played with my hands. No over dubbing, effects or electronic sounds are used, the purpose of which, is to allow the authentic tones of the metals in the cymbal to ring out with all their naturally occurring harmonics and overtones. This sonic information then enters your mind/body as tonal nutrient, promoting well being. As a healing artist/ musician/ I have combined 25 years of treatment room experience with a love of meditation and a musical understanding of what tonally helps us to settle into stillness. These recordings are my contribution to assist relaxation, and the experience of inner peace. The pulsing drone of the cymbal offers a foundation to relax into the spacious higher tones and percussive minuets encourage inner exploration while providing an experience of reflection and peaceful insight



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bhajans

posted October 11, 2009 at 1:33 pm


In my view , everything is good , and i know one god which exits everywhere between us and inside us…thats it.



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Jack

posted October 30, 2009 at 3:40 am


Yes, Yoga can be done by so many process but music yoga is one of the best solution among all, because it make impact on human being in 2 ways that is really more powerful comparison another yoga process.



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