This piece was written for Religious Professor, Kerry Skora’s “Mindfulness, Meditation and Healing” course. Inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Richard Davidson’s pioneering work in mindfulness and healing, this course was a deep study of the natural connection between medicine and meditation, mindfulness and healing.
Zinn and Davidson combine third-person religious, cultural, historical, humanistic and scientific studies of mindfulness and its relation to healing and compassion with “critical first-person” encounters of one’s own body-mind, using Buddhist-based contemplative practices.
For this assignment, students were to draw on both first-person contemplative experience [they had to all follow a rigorous eight-week mindfulness program] and third-person descriptions and interpretations, in response to various readings, thinking about the value of mindfulness and meditation.
By Jessica Bessner ’16
How many times have you tried to have a conversation with someone and they just kept nodding their head to agree, and they didn’t contribute significantly to the conversation? Then you notice they are not listening to you, because an earbud is occupying one ear, and the other ear is currently free and is pretending to hear. Or, have you seen someone blaring their headphone while walking, instead of taking the time to fully absorb their surroundings, and mindfully listening to the music of nature?
On my college campus, I experience this too often, especially with my peers. Music can be a wonderful source of meditation, but at the same time it can be used as a mindless addictive drug that tries to fill the “uncomfortable” silence or empty space. Only when we are focused on the sounds music generates and how our own body is experiencing those emotions and senses flowing from the music are we are truly listening to music mindfully. When one is not using music in a mindful way, it may be best to just stick to silence while practicing daily routines like commuting, cleaning or meditating.
There are tons of albums, and even a genre of music called “Shinzen’s mindfulness of music” that is dedicated to meditation and helping the listener achieve relaxation, control, feeling and disappearing. However, if the music is not used mindfully, then it is not being used for its purpose. Let’s use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (2013) definition of mindfulness, so you have a little more context on what mindfulness is:
“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
You do not need meditation music to practice mindfulness, but you can practice being fully present by listening to one of your favorite songs and then analyzing how you feel and what you experience during the song. Some use their headphones to avoid silence or communication with the world outside their head. Before I began my meditation journey in Professor Skora’s course, I did not notice how music can be a distraction instead of a method to become fully present. So I decided to test through first-hand experience: can music be used as an informal mindful practice?
There are many ways to mindfully listen to music, so I decided to follow one practice in the privacy of my bedroom. I began by sitting on the floor with my legs crossed, and put my headphones in my ears. I spent a few moments focusing on the inhaling and exhaling of my lungs and drawing attention to my stomach expanding outwards and inwards. My awareness was engaged with my breath. This is a practice in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR), that is used to begin practicing, and this helped prepare me to be fully present, to welcome all things I experienced while listening to music.
Next I started the playlist that contained 45 minutes of music. My playlist was an eclectic collection of classical music, chimes, water flowing and even non-instrumental music. I turned my attention to the music, immersing myself in the vibration of sound that echoed in my ear and the way my breath traveled throughout my respiratory system. When attention wandered into the future, past or all the things I had to complete by the end of today, I gently returned it to the unfolding of the music occurring at the present moment.
After completing the meditation I felt refreshed and renewed, but I believe that this practice was not interrupted by my mind wandering or even ending with me asleep while meditating. However, I also think this is because I have been practicing the MBSR eight-week program, and have had additional practice with meditation. Kabat-Zinn gives a great insight on how to start on focusing on our breath to be mindful. He says:
“Full awareness on the in breath, full awareness on the out breath – letting the breath just happen, observing it, and feeling the sensations, gross and subtle, associated with it, as best we can.”
This practice can be one’s first step to a mindfully based life and/or ear. I would suggest for first time meditators, or for those who use music to drown out the world, to first focus on your breath and zoom in on silence. This will help you focus your attention on the present moment, and to not be distracted by listening to music.
Joan Halifax, wrote about the value of silence that our society does not value and even fears, saying:
“Language brings crucial insights into our minds and hearts, while silence is integral for cultivating that deep concentration, tranquility, and mental stability within us.”
Silence is important to pay attention to if one is ever going to begin their journey of mindfulness or truly listening to music. The next time you listen to music, I suggest you stay open to all the feelings and experiences you will feel. But if you keep getting distracted, then give silence or focusing on your breath a chance.