Mindfulness of Music

by Paul Garrigan

Can I Meditate with Music?

Clients often ask me about the benefit of using music while meditating. The ultimate goal of the mindfulness program at Hope is to be able to just sit without escaping into distraction, this is how we gain insight into the workings of our mind, so it is preferable to meditate without using music. Having said that, it is far better to meditate using relaxing music than to not meditate at all, so if music seems to be helping you can use it in the beginning.

Music may be surplus to requirements for your meditation practice, but it can play an important role when it comes to living in a more mindful way. By practicing mindfulness, you can experience music in the same way you did as a child. It can be a source of great joy, and you can use it as a way to devote yourself fully to the present moment.

I will explain later on how we can use music as a mindfulness practice, but I would first like to share a bit about my own musical journey. Don’t worry – I’m not going to sing.

Rediscovering a Love for Music

I love music. I am not much of a musician, but I’m probably the most enthusiastic air-guitarists on the planet. I can relate almost every event in my life to a particular song, and listening to a mix tape triggers memories for me more powerfully than does looking through an old photo album. Given that music has played such a key role in my life, it felt disturbing upon hitting my fortieth birthday to realize the songs didn’t move me the same way anymore.

I shared my concerns about this loss of passion for music with some middle-age friends and they said it was perfectly normal. One of them had studied psychology, and he claimed it was all to do with chemical changes in the brain, and I would unfortunately never again be able to hear music in the same was as I had in my younger days. His explanation certainly sounded logical, but I’ve always been a bit contrary, and I didn’t want to give up on music without a fight.

By this stage, I had already used mindfulness to transform other areas of my life, so I wondered if it could also rekindle my passion for music. There certainly seemed to be a mindless quality to this changed relationship, so I felt hopeful that deliberately being mindful while listening to songs improve the situation?

Being mindful of music worked amazingly well for me. In the beginning, it felt a bit forced and strange, but it eventually became effortless. My relationship with music had changed again only this time for the better. I had hoped to be able to hear music in the same way as I did as a teenager, but the results were far more impressive than this, I started to experience music like a young child, and this is the way I always experience music now.

How Music Gets Corrupted by Our Ego

The decline in my appreciation of music didn’t begin at middle-age, it actually started around the age of seven. As a young child, I loved all types of music, but as I grew older, I experienced the sounds more and more through the filters of ego. It started off in school when my peers convinced me that the stuff I listened to needed to fit in with my identity – e.g. at one point I became a punk, so this meant I wasn’t allowed to like ska, rock, pop, or the new romantics.

In early childhood, a song was just a song, but as I go older, it became more about the politics of the musicians, the opinions of my peers, whether I liked the singer or not, and the ‘meaning of the song’. Rather than just enjoying the music, it became almost exclusively a thinking experience. It got worse as I go older, so it is hardly any wonder that by age 40 I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. It had nothing really to do with the changing chemicals in my brain, it was just that I had stopped listening a long time ago.

Mindfulness of Music

In order to be mindful of music, you need to fully devote yourself to the listening. Let go of any thoughts you have about the music – it is not your job to tell the music what it is but for it to tell you what it is. In the beginning, certain songs can trigger patterns of thought, but as soon as we notice this, we just return our attention to the music – just like meditation.

Here are some tips for listening to music mindfully:

• Music is a fantastic way to open up to our emotional life, but try to just remain with the bare emotions rather than getting lost in thought
• Listen to every song as if you have never heard it before – even if you have heard it a thousand times
• Rest in your body while listening to music – notice the physical sensations that arise as the sounds wash over you
• You show your love for something by giving it your full attention, so give your full attention to the music
• Let go of your ideas and opinions about music and just experience it like a child