mantras and musical objects of meditation

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mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: KunstderFuge
Forum: Dharma Overground Discussion Forum

Warning: music geekery ahead. I've been professionally involved with music for more than two decades and have a trained ear (I can read scores are "hear" them in my head, transcribe music by ear, etc.), so the technique I’m going to describe, and the slightly technical way I describe it, may not be useful for a lot of people. Music-loving people might have fun with it, though, or maybe have already come up with something similar.

Like everyone else I get songs stuck in my head, and when I meditate the earworms can get really bad -- so maddeningly insistent it takes all my concentration to make them go away for even a moment. (Does this happen to other people?) Anyway, one day I decided to fight fire with fire and turned a tune into a meditation object. I chose the fugue subject of Bach's "Art of the Fugue," which you can find here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kunst_der_Fuge.png

I stripped away the tune’s rhythm and simply sounded (silently, in my head) each note on a breath: D on the in-breath, A on the out-breath, F on the in-breath, and so on. It begins and ends on the same note (D), so when I get to the end I make the last note of one iteration the first of the next, so it just goes on in an endless loop. When you loop it in this way, whatever you sounded on the in-breath the first time will land on the out-breath the next. This means that the notes aren’t privileged by any particular rhythm; since the tune loses its real-world integrity, it’s easy to contemplate the tune either as a tune or as an abstract series of tones. It can be useful to shape the tones to mirror the contours of the breath—imagining the decay of a pitch to match the falloff of the out-breath, that sort of thing. (con't)
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: KunstderFuge

I’d been practicing shikantaza for four months and was making some progress, but when I started doing this musical “visualization” (auditorialization? auralization?) a couple of weeks ago WHAM the doors blew open. Lately I’ve been sustaining much stronger concentration and feeling heavy vibrations. This technique has allowed me to perceive (rather than merely know about) the “three characteristics.” I can specify all sorts of things about the pitches in my head (I can play them on a flute or a cello, in different octaves and transpositions, etc.), but because it’s just a really simple single line (no harmony, no counterpoint) you can dig into the reality of each pitch—and then find it isn’t there. First you notice that the tuning isn’t accurate; then you notice that the pitches lack a stable center and are shifting all over the place; the tone color is also strangely flimsy and unfixed; and then you notice the notes aren’t even continuously there. At first I tried to “fix” this and couldn’t. This was very annoying! In other words, they were impermanent, did not mirror my intentions (weren’t me), and were unsatisfying. At this point weird stuff started happening, so I started reading Daniel Ingram’s stuff more closely to understand better what was going on. Which is how I landed here.

So, for those of you who do mantra practice, is this anything like it? I just listened to Hokai Sobol’s Buddhist Geeks interview, and he listed three aspects of mantra practice: aesthetic appreciation (focusing on the beauty of the human voice), appreciation of the mantra’s semantic meaning, and appreciation of the three characteristics revealed in the repetitions of the mantra. The main difference with what I accidentally discovered is that the musical “mantra” I’m talking about is entirely silent, but Hokai’s model still holds.

Also, has anyone has tried sounded-out musical objects of meditation—singing, playing an instrument, anything like that?
Phil
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 0 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
I've been looking for something like this for me and some of my (much more musically trained) friends. I'll give it a try and pass it on.

Thanks Phil!
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 0 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Phil,

I didn't graduate, but I went to college for four years to get a Bachelor's degree in Music Education with an emphasis on Vocal. I LOVED music theory and my Forms and Analysis classes. I also, at the time, served as a pianist for my church during services.

Anyways, I had this thing I did, much like insight practice but was contemplative Christian prayer. I'd go up to the church and play for hours and "worship God" with my own little improvisations on worship choruses, usually simple melodies no longer than four bars in common 4/4 time (aren't they all). Add ecstatic utterances (yes, I was one of those tongue talkers) and I had a pretty good mix for some very interesting experiences. If the progress of insight for CCP was the same as Buddhist insight practice I'd say I got to equanimity but no fruition.

Anyways, music still moves me deeply. I love to take my iPod, lay on my bed, turn out the lights, crank up the volume, and zone in on just the music. I don't know if it can be considered true samadhi practice, but some of the descriptions of the jhanas and what I experience seem awfully close.

One work that really gets the juices flowing for me is P. Tchaikovsky's "O Dios Sanctus" (as performed by the Chamber Choir Kiev... you can listen to it here: http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=43647&content=songinfo&songID=280952).

Anyways, I "hear" where you are coming from and have often wondered why BIP doesn't touch more on the opportunities for insight that music offers.
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 50 Join Date: 8/17/09 Recent Posts
Hi Phil!
We talked a little about music and jhana in this thread, but it was more sharing of experiences than discussion of structured practice. http://dharmaoverground.wetpaint.com/thread/2454410/Jhanas+and+Christian+Prayer

I tried to use songs as objects of concentration, but failed to even concentrate on my most favourite ones for 3 minutes. Now I avoid listening to recorded music most of the time (earworms). Since then I only used Soham-meditation to get rid of earworms, but not as my primary object for long.
I decided to learn from scratch and shifted to visual (kasina) and tactile objects (body).

as for sounded out "musical" objects, I did Om-chanting (not for the last year) for 10-15 minutes. I also did chanting of songs from Taizé. Both are best done in a group. I'd have to try both again since I only got a suitable concentration quite recently, but they both make it easy to settle down, relax and enjoy (even if in the silence afterwards I couldn't concentrate well). I'll recommend your technique to musical friends. Great idea to get rid of the rhythm.

"First you notice that the tuning isn’t accurate." I didn't notice, but I noticed the rhythm would be awry all the time. Agreed that it feels annoying if you're used to something else emoticon
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

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Thanks Phil, for bringing up this interesting topic. I'm not musically inclined in any way other than being one to thoroughly enjoy music. My son is a guitarist in a metal band... I've often meditated whilst he practiced rifs in the next room, no effect on my meditation practice other than just a brief noting of "hearing," then the sounds just fade into the background. However, five months ago, this would have been a disturbance to my meditation sit. Then, I incorporated music into my practice simply out of determination to meditate even though my son had some of his teenage friends visiting. That day they were particularly noisy - laughing, playing music, and talking loudly in the next room. I decided to fight fire with fire by using my iPod set to repeat one song... the song I chose was a hardcore metal song called "Reject Yourself" by Killswitch Engage - (lyrics about compassion for others who are suffering) primal screamo sounds mixed with melodious good quality vocals and fast instrumentals.
At that period of time, my meditations were often filled with unrelenting visual imagery fragments (no verbal thoughts, just nonsensical visuals). Interestingly, the visuals completely stopped when I added the music. For the first time, I had complete "silence and stillness." The music became sort of a white wash of noise. Initially, I noticed respirations quickened and I sensed the excited synaptic charges within the brain... I countered this by focusing on and regulating breath (down to my regular 4 breaths per minute of yogic breathing). I thought perhaps I was onto something, so then I started adding other music to the practice. Songs about death... and meditations on death, impermanence. This seemed to have been helpful in getting my practice out of what seemed to be a plateau. In addition, I found that when I meditated without music, it was likewise this wonderful silence-stillness.
[continue -->
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 0 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Unfortunately, my meditation practice was interrupted by 5 days of no practice. The first few days back into it was like a circus conducted by a bunch of monkeys. I tried the music, but to no avail. I had to go back to the basics of concentration... breath, rising and passing. Noting, noting, and more noting of sensations, thoughts wandering, etc. It took almost 2 weeks to get back to stable concentration.
Didn't implement music into the practice for a few months.

Recently, I experimented with the addition of music again. This time, a slow Japanese instrumental piece, only subtle variances of harmonics. [ It should be noted that in the past, slow music seemed to prompt increased visual imagery for me]. This addition seemed to be instrumental (pun may or may not be intended) in experiencing *what seemed to be 15th Nana. This would be a topic for a separate thread, so I'll just leave it at that.

Something that relates to what Phil described regarding noting the musical notes, albeit at the refined vibrational level. I found that when implementing the music as concentration became more acute to the fine vibrations, each vibration can be "viewed" in it's minuscule parts, not at the sensate level, but something different... kinda hard for me to describe in words. It's neither "seeing" nor "hearing," it's simply a flowing of particles forming a pattern.

[edit: added words - *what seemed to be

May the reader understand that this experience had similarities to what is described as the 15th Nana (fruition), but it's unclear if this was actual attainment of such level.
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RE: mantras and musical objects of meditation

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: KunstderFuge

Hey Jamie,

Your experience in contemplative prayer is fascinating! The notion of music as samadhi is something I've thought a lot about. When I was in shape I used to play 5 or more hours of piano a day, and under the teaching of a guy named Michel Block (a slightly mad but great and visionary artist) I did a lot of slooooooow practice, getting conscious intention out of the way (sort of like Zen practice, actually) and getting immersed in the immediacy of the sound itself. It was in some ways the opposite of an ecstatic experience -- it was instead very slow, intense, focused, quiet. Quiet ecstasy, maybe. Since I've started meditating I've realized that a jhanic state feels pretty much the same. What I like best about DhO is how it shows how these experiences are universal but accessed in an almost infinite number of ways. Just about my favorite line from MCTB is this one: “It is what is common to the great mystical paths that makes them special. The differences are 100% guaranteed to be fundamentally irrelevant.”

I find that I can't meditate and listen to music at the same time, but listening to music after serious meditation has some very curious effects on my perception of musical time and expectation. I also find it very hard to "visualize" music correctly that has more than one note playing at a time. If you really, really try to "hear" two notes simultaneously in your inner ear, you will discover that it's actually very hard -- one is always dropping out. When we get songs stuck in our heads what we're "hearing" is actually very distorted, though in complex and hard-to-describe ways. But it never sounds that way, strangely enough. You need to strip things down to very simple elements to notice the distortions. Someone here wrote that it's harder to visualize a simple triangle than a whole scene; this is true in music as well.

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