Music is the background of our lives—playing in the supermarket, accompanying us as we wait to speak with the next customer service representative, shuffling on our iPhones as we commute to work. Music is ubiquitous, but much of the time we aren’t really listening.
Most of us have had a more attentive experience of music as well—truly listening with a singular focus. When we really pay attention, we can treasure the feeling and energy of the artists and songs that hold a special place in our hearts. Whether in a concert hall, on a busy street corner, or in the privacy of our home, the experience of connecting with music meaningfully is rich, deep, and sometimes profound.
From the perspective of meditation practice, this experience is the result of tuning in to our present experience through the sense perception of sound. We are fully there with the music, experiencing the texture, rhythm, melody, harmony, and progression, riding the waves of sound in real time.
My experience of music as part of a group meditation practice began several years ago, when a handful of us in the Washington, DC, Shambhala community were relatively new and enjoying our first tastes of freshness and inspiration from meditation practice. While we were talking over our experience with meditation, we discovered a mutual appreciation of jazz. We wondered what it would be like to listen to John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins with the same close attention we were applying to our breathing.
At one point, someone said, “Why don’t we get together and meditate, then listen to jazz?” This sparked our first “Music Night.” Here is the format, which you can follow in your own group if you want to try meditating on music.
We meet in a small-group setting (6–12 people) equipped with a stereo system. Each participant brings two pieces of music they feel a connection with. Start with refreshments and conversation for half an hour.
To ground ourselves and come fully into the present moment, we gather in a circle and meditate in silence for 10–15 minutes.
One by one, we offer a piece of music to the group. Sometimes the person offering the music says a few words about their inspiration for selecting it. Sharing something that is meaningful to us, we become naked and vulnerable. The more meaningful the music, the more naked we may feel.
As each person offers their selection, the others practice receiving the music with their full attention. With no need for analysis or commentary, we mostly practice in silence. We go around the entire group at least twice, and sometimes continue listening late into the night.
When we listen openly, we take in much more of the energy and substance of the music—both pleasurable and sometimes not so pleasurable—than we ordinarily do. Paying close attention, we hear things we have never noticed before. We see in vivid detail how we sometimes relate to our experiences through the lenses of passion, aggression, and ignorance.
Although this practice sounds simple and straightforward, from my perspective it can be meaningful, challenging, and profound. Music represents feelings, emotions, colors, and statements that can’t be expressed through words or images. Sensing our shared connection to the music and being fully present with each other, we feel incredibly intimate and warm.
Music is an important part of my life. On Music Night I felt fully seen, with warmth and love and no judgment. It played a significant role in helping me to connect with my own basic goodness and the basic goodness of others, and it can for you too.