So I'm standing at a cocktail party in Hollywood the other night, and someone asks me what I do. I tell him I train people to meditate with music. Then the inevitable follow up question: "Any music? Because if I can listen to any music, I choose Metallica." He chuckles. "Yep." I say, "You can meditate listening to Metallica." He tilts his head like a confused puppy. A thought bubble appears above it: "HUH??!" I've got him just where I want him.
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase "Beginner's Mind," which has its origins in Zen. Beginner's Mind involves letting go of preconceptions, at any stage of your meditation practice. I’m happy that meditation has reached a tipping point in our culture. Not long ago it was considered a fringe activity. Now, not only does it come up at cocktail parties, meditation is a topic frequently covered by major news outlets, and doctors regularly recommend it to relieve stress.
But there are still a lot of misconceptions about meditation, and these misconceptions can inhibit people from practicing. One of my jobs as a trainer is to be a myth buster. So, here are three commonly held myths about meditation music:
1. You can’t meditate while listening to music.
A lot of people don’t believe it’s even possible to meditate while listening to music. If you fall into this category you may have only been exposed to certain methods, such as mantra practice or focusing on your breath. It’s true that neither of these popular approaches lend themselves to practicing with music. But the style of practice called mindfulness can be applied in lots of ways, including listening to your favorite music! The good news is that mindfulness is the most popular and highly researched form of meditation practice in the Western world.
2. You can only meditate with relaxing music.
Many people believe relaxation is the primary goal of meditation. In fact, calming the mind is an essential facet of the meditative path. Equally essential, though, is the cultivation of insight. Mindfulness practice is designed to promote insight. In fact, it’s also known as insight meditation. With mindfulness, you’re not looking to achieve any particular state (such as relaxation). Instead, you’re working meditatively with whatever comes up. So, if you're listening to music as your practice, you're discovering what’s happening inside you while you listen to that music. You’re exploring your relationship to the music, as a path of self discovery. Ultimately, insight is what turns any ordinary experience, like relaxation, into a profoundly satisfying experience. And you can listen to any music you choose, to develop insight.
You might also find it helpful to be aware of the current scientific research on music therapy. According to the latest findings, music listening is healing when you enjoy the music you’re listening to. End of story. So, if heavy metal is your thing, rock on!
3. You can only achieve deeper states with certain kinds of music.
Lots of people believe music must be categorized as spiritual in order for the result of listening to be spiritual. If you have this preconception, meditating with anything other than kirtan, chanting, new age, sacred music, binaural beats etc. would seem less productive. If you enjoy these styles of music, then by all means, practice with them! You need to be doing whatever encourages and supports you in the challenging task of maintaining a meditation practice. And you’re the best person to figure that out.
It’s my job to clarify the finer points and help you make informed choices along your path. You need to know that you absolutely can achieve deeper states listening to any kind of music you choose! Insight is not dependent on a set of conditions. You may find certain types of music support the process of insight for you. Or you may simply enjoy listening to them. If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to those types of music to help you develop your practice. But recognize that this is a personal choice, because it’s what works for you. Meanwhile, stay open to the possibility that even metalheads can achieve Nirvana.