Music and Mindfulness

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Music and Morality, opening with a quote by Roger Scruton,  “To suggest that people who live with a metric pulse as a constant background to their thoughts and movements are living in the same way, with the same kind of attention and the same pattern of challenges and rewards, as others who know music only from sitting down to listen to it, clearing their minds, meanwhile, of all other thoughts—such a suggestion is surely implausible.”

While he doesn’t mention mindfulness per se, that topic along with his quote just popped into my head.  For a while I’ve been using another quote, by Buddhist scholar Genjokoan, to encapsulate mindfulness for me, “When one encounters one action, one practices one action.”  Much criticism of modernity has to do with perceived losses of mindfulness.  “Multi-tasking,” apparently nonsense from a neurological perspective, by the way, has become something to brag about.  Multimedia defines our entertainments.

To me it seems the only people who really consume music the way Scruton talks about is at concerts, but isn’t the visual channel quite engaged there too?  I suppose I can imagine someone who puts on music at home and then just sits and savors every sound and doesn’t take out the trash or check Facebook or make a snack.  Personally, I’ve been listening to more music since taking up the violin again than I had in many years.  But I’m listening to it on YouTube, for the most part – I have the visual stimulation in addition to the aural.  I am sitting down and listening straight through, more or less dedicated to the single action, but it’s still more than just listening.

Sakyong Mipham, head of the Shambhala community of Buddhists and marathoner extraordinaire, wrote a book called Running with the Mind of Meditation.  In it, he stresses that running is not meditation, mainly because there are too many things going on.  Personally, I have always found running to be meditative, and, ironically, it’s only while running that I create my own musical world by closing off the rest of the universe with headphones.  If mere running cannot be mindfully meditative to the Sakyong, then I suspect doing so with headphones is a total non-starter!

Certain things are almost impossible to do without mindfulness – driving a racecar at the Indy 500, for example, or going on a spacewalk.  There can be no distractions in those moments.

One can also play music mindfully, perhaps more easily than one can listen to music mindfully.  As I book out an hour or so of my day for playing the violin, I like to think that’s what I’m doing – engaging the mind and body in a singular pursuit.  The more we can live mindfully, wholly focused on the one action we are undertaking, the more fully we can appreciate our world, the more details of it become available to us, the more we can relate to it, the more we see how we are a part of it.  The more we are part of something the less energy we have to expend being in opposition to it.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

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