Old vinyl records spins on record player

Sitting in Song: Music and Meditation

Music is my passion. It has been a part of my life ever since I was a little kid. I’ve been in a multitude of musical projects as songwriter, producer, drummer, guitarist, and vocalist, including my own solo output. Throughout my life in music, I’ve discovered a lot of different kinds of music to listen to along the way.

My mind has a knack for retaining musical information, so even if I’m not listening to music while meditating, I often have songs stuck in my head. Typically it will be one section of a song that has something in it that grabs me, like a certain melody, or a transition from one chord to another that sounds beautiful or catchy to me. Sometimes this is annoying, and sometimes I enjoy it. Sometimes the song I’m hearing seems inappropriate for the situation I’m in. I’ve found that I cause my own suffering by subtly telling myself that it shouldn’t be happening, or I’ll beg my inner jukebox to please play the next song, or hope that it’ll get unplugged, so to speak, so I can be in silence.

Man holding headphones to his head

Since the start of my residency at the Monastic Academy, where we do quite a bit of seated meditation, I’ve had to explore different ways to work with music and meditation. The most useful approach I’ve found in this situation is what meditation teacher Shinzen Young calls Attentional Judo.

Attentional Judo is when you intentionally get interested in the effects of distractions on your meditation technique. Shinzen calls it this because you use the weight of the distraction to your advantage, which is a common theme for how you throw people in Judo. You use their weight and momentum to your advantage. So I’ve been learning to use the combination of music and meditation to my advantage.

Here’s an example. At the Monastic Academy, we sit a silent week-long retreat each month. As you can imagine, that means no listening to music while meditating is permitted. During our February 2018 retreat, I kept hearing a song by the Strokes called Under the Cover of Darkness. I would describe the song as “boppy” and fun, and sometimes during the retreat, it actually became irritating because of that. I saw this as an opportunity to put the song to good use rather than let it be a distraction. So when this song came up and started playing, I intentionally used it as a positive influence, working to become equanimous with the experience.

I discovered that the best way to utilize music and meditation together was to use the feeling it provided me with and feeling the feeling in my emotional and physical body sensations. Though the lyrics of the track didn’t seem useful to this specific exploration, there’s something about the delivery of the vocal melody in the chorus that is somehow empowering and bittersweet all at once. I let those feelings infuse my body, and felt deeply at peace with how it was influencing my sitting. I also let my body be soaked in the energy that the song embodies and represents — it was almost like dancing to it without moving at all. The song’s punchy and driving tempo gave me an energy that I can only describe as simultaneously soft and exciting, which helped to carry me through the physically painful parts of the retreat.

Man sits on rocky ledge with back to camera

If you’d like to try this technique for yourself in seated practice, focus on your body sensations, letting your attention freely float to wherever calls your attention. Unlike how one might purposefully pay attention to sound when listening to music while meditating, with attentional judo, if a song starts playing in your mind, observe how it feels to hear it in your body. Allow the song’s rhythm (or melody, or chord progression, whatever is most prominent), to broadcast a feeling through your body, and focus on that feeling. Take time to let the music and meditation come together in one practice. How does the song vibrate through you? Does it excite you, or provide a feeling of calm, or one of longing, or possibly joy? How does your body feel listening to it?

In a way, using this technique of music and meditation has helped me to more deeply feel the energy that inspires me to dance and feel the rhythm in my body. I’m also a drummer, so I’m prone to experience my body as a conduit for rhythm. This technique has helped me connect to that. For that reason, I highly recommend this technique for musicians that meditate.