Thoughts on Music

Since I’m into both music and meditation, there arises a natural interest in combining the two. My first instance of this actually happened before I discovered meditation when I saw a book in a music library titled “Effortless Mastery” (by Kenny Werner). Of course, being someone who felt like he sucked at music, I wanted to learn how to effortlessly become a master. Turns out the book is super cool and talks about getting out of fear-based playing and introduces some meditative concepts. I should go back and read it again.

Eventually I started noticing that Shinzen Young has a whole side of his teaching devoted to what he calls “spontaneity training.” It’s basically his reworking of Rinzai Zen practices that deal with expressing enlightenment in how you move, speak and think, and that counter-intuitive, “getting-out-of-your-own-way” creative spark. I once asked him, “Sometimes I’m improvising at the piano and my fingers start playing things I’ve never played before, and I like what they’re playing–is that an analog to what you’re talking about?” He replied, “That’s not an analog, that is what I’m talking about.” Now that’s interesting to me because it provides a potential link between the (exhilarating and soul-nourishing) creative spark that I’ve been chasing since I started composing and improvising music, and the most rigorous classical enlightenment, via the Rinzai Zen tradition. This is territory that Shinzen has only outlined and not charted very thoroughly, and that is territory that I intend to explore.

Then I discovered this guy named Ed Sarath who blew my freaking mind. His whole career is devoted to the synergy between meditation and music, especially improvised music, and how it can improve individual life and society at large. He’s got a whole system worked out. I’m reading his book Improvisation, Creativity and Consciousness (very good but dense and only for the most interested readers) and he’s also got a great but hard-to-find intro article called “A New Look at Improvisation”. My advice is start here: pay attention while you’re playing music. If you’re playing alone, don’t be lost in thought while you play. Listen to yourself. If you’re playing with an ensemble, listen to the ensemble as if the music is your meditation object. You may notice the ensemble coheres more when everyone’s tuned in. If you’re improvising, you may notice your interaction with the other player(s) becomes richer and finer. You may notice that when you’re paying attention while you improvise, you’re more likely to have ideas that are fresh and poignant, and you’ll be more into the music. Sarath is more into a Hindu style of meditation so it’s my task to explore how that connects to the vipassana Buddhist stuff I’m into.

And there’s more, folks. There was a (short-lived and disorganized) school of Zen Buddhism called the Fuke-shu that used to meditate while playing the shakuhachi flute. John Cage was strongly influenced by his (somewhat shallow but still interesting) take on Zen. Terence McKenna was a psychedelic guy, not a meditation guy, but his SUPER cool talk “Opening the Doors of Creativity” (on YouTube) outlines how the duty of the shaman, and therefore the artist, is to “travel into a world unseen by others and return to tell them of it.”

Jordan B. Peterson talks a lot about “meaning.” You know what it means for music to be meaningful. That’s when the sounds take hold of your emotions and do something to you. That’s when some combination of notes and rhythms sounds like it matters–though why would an arrangement of pitches and durations “matter”? Why could it pull your attention into it like it can? Music is meaningful when you like it. Other motivations can sneak in, though, like the desire to have “good taste,” like the “right” things, be better at your instrument than other musicians, be more original, or even to recreate past good musical experiences you’ve had. These are all inauthentic and distance us from the most fulfilling heart of what music is about. Use this feeling of meaning as your sole guide for deciding what to listen to and what to play. Stay closer to the sounds than to your thoughts about them. Jordan Peterson says that surrounding everything we can understand through logic and literal speech, there is a realm of things that apes like ourselves understand through image, dream, story, symbol, and feeling. The arts live in this realm, and it is a site of great beauty and richness. It is one way our minds stretch their understanding of life and the world. Not everything that is beneficial can be put into words. Music obviously lives here. It is dreamy, colorful, and unexplainable, and seems to speak of an inner world that we don’t see with our eyes but know is real because we perceive it and it’s so relevant and familiar. It is an eternal world (I’m speaking phenomenologically here, not objectively) and the site of what we have been looking for. This is the purpose of music. Don’t bother with music that doesn’t deal in these terms. You’d be missing the point.

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