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.