Most people like music and it can affect them on many different levels. It can promote physical movement, change your mood and even evoke emotions. It’s hard to escape music; it’s present on the radio, MP3 players and even underscores the film and television that we watch. For some people, putting on an album at the end of a day is the perfect way to unwind, whereas others find it a distraction and prefer silence. But what about meditation? There are various schools of thought regarding whether or not you should play music whilst you are meditating; let’s have a look at the truth behind the matter.
When you envisage meditation, the classic image is of a person sitting in the lotus position, accompanied by whale song or some ambient background music. However, it depends what you’re using meditation for, as to whether or not music should be a part of your ritual.
Music for meditation
Traditionally, meditation should be undertaken in as close to complete silence as you can muster. The point of meditation, in its original form, was to blend a person’s physical and spiritual aspects to such a point where the mysteries of the universe become revealed. Meditation music is created with the specific purpose of relaxation in mind; it is often soporific and utilizes beats based around the rhythm of the heart.
However, Buddhists, Hindus and other practitioners of purist meditation would argue that, while there is some relaxation involved, meditation actually promotes an extra level of awareness that requires you to be both alert and focused. In addition, meditation also helps us to turn in on ourselves and attain a very deep level of reflection; background music may prove to be more of an obstacle than a help, in these situations.
For example, a cornerstone of many meditative techniques is to focus on and, sometimes, count your breathing. This practice puts body and mind in alignment and acts as an anchor for a busy brain; the moment your thoughts start to wander, you simply plug back into counting your breath and focus on the moment in which you are existing. Background music promotes a wandering mind and makes it harder to bring the focus back on track; if you’re listening to your breathing, then you can’t focus on the music and if you’re listening to the music, then you can’t focus on your breathing.
Listening to your core
Music also provides something of a false economy when it comes to exploring your emotions, during meditation. When we listen to music, our mood tends to adapt to what is being played; if it’s slow and contemplative, then we feel mellow and introspective. Conversely, if it’s upbeat and dynamic, we tend to feel brighter and more optimistic. However, part of the point of meditation is to know yourself on a profound level, which means embracing yourself on an emotional level, whilst appraising those feelings from a distant perspective.
Using meditation, it is possible to understand why we feel a certain way about certain things and, if necessary, take steps to amend any patterns of negative thought and behaviour. The important thing is that those emotions come from within us and are not the result of some exterior stimulus. Because we can react so strongly to music, the emotions it can generate may not be helpful in our quest to learn more about ourselves.
However, there is some argument for playing recorded, natural sounds. In the early days, most meditation would have been conducted outside, allowing practitioners to connect with the powers of nature on a profound level. As a result, recorded birdsong and sounds of nature could well act as a trance-inducing backdrop to meditative practices. Yet, these sounds should be those that you might encounter in your natural habitat; listening to the sounds of whales and dolphins communicating might be restful, but it’s not something you tend to hear, sitting in a garden.
Music as meditation
Despite all this, there is room for music in meditation, if you are solely using it to relax. It could easily be argued that listening to music is a form of meditation in itself; you relax, your focus changes and you are able to step outside of yourself for a period of time. However, this is not the original purpose for meditation; meditation was seen as hard work and a means through which we can explore our inner selves and assess our place in the world. Meditating to relax is a modern concept that, while it still has physical and mental benefits, is not part of a spiritual journey, but a process through which we can recharge our batteries.
Zoning out or turning in?
If you’re using music for relaxing purposes, then virtually anything is permissible, as long as it puts you in the right frame of mind. Where some might prefer the gentle strains of a piece of classical music, others might prefer the syncopated rhythms or guitar play of their favourite band; as long as you can relax and unwind to that composition, it really doesn’t matter what it is – although upbeat, aggressive music does defeat the purpose. It might be worth considering music that’s designed for meditation or recordings of natural sounds, however, as, if you really want to zone out, these tend to be a lot less catchy than traditional songs; in order to fully relax, you need music that will act as a cushion, not a badly sprung mattress.
Meditation serves a number of purposes in the 21st Century, but it is primarily practices as part of a spiritual journey or used as a means through which you can achieve a state of relaxation. Music can be a distraction for those who are meditating as part of an exploratory purpose, providing an unwelcome anchor the real world. However, for those who want to chill out and let their minds wander, it can be a superb aid to achieving that state. Decode what your reasons for meditating are and you will then know whether music will be a help or a hindrance.