Minus the Music (written 2014)
In the yoga classes at Santosa, there is always music playing. Often, when the classes are slower and more yin-like, or during svasana or in the time of gathering before a class begins, the music playing is gentle and comforting. The kind of music that invites one's heartbeat and breath to slow, invites the body to loosen and let go, invites the mind to follow.
There are many CD's available and on-line guided meditations that also use this kind of music. Chanting perhaps or gentle instrumentals, sounds of nature over flute or piano.
In the meditation classes I lead there is no music. When we sit or walk in meditation, there are only the rhythms of the breath, the soft or not-so-soft on and off cycles of the furnace, the creaking of doors or floors, the shuffle of feet and bodies, the whistle of a train nearby, the filtered sounds of traffic, voices, tunes and laughter from beyond the door. And sometimes someone asks me why.
My short answer is that this is the way I was taught. This is the tradition of Theravada meditation, to sit in silence. And sometimes I may say a little more about the portability of the breath, the importance of not being reliant on an outside “something” in order to access calm and to become centered when life does some sort of spin without warning.
In the yoga classes, music, along with the low light, the supportive and welcoming demeanor of the teachers, and the enveloping sense of community, create a cradle that makes dropping into this time and place easier to do. And this can be a very good thing. At the end of a busy day, in a state of mind that is harried or anxious, all of these supports to coming to the present are valuable. The resulting peace is a thing to be grateful for.
But there is also a place for silence. When you come to yoga class and lie down on your mat and are invited to relax, this may indeed be the first time in your day that you have given yourself permission to do this. And in our yang lifestyles, as we are often reminded in these classes, there is a drive to do and move quickly, to multi-task and to get a lot done. Even our leisure time is generally scheduled by the clock, requiring that we make ourselves get going out the door, whether it be for our child's swimming class, a coffee date with a friend, a movie night or a yoga class. So coming to stillness is healing. Remembering that safe place without an agenda, without a ticking clock.
It is also the case that in our yang lifestyles, our senses are generally on overload. I once read an article that said there are virtually no places on earth anymore where the sounds of human beings do not invade. Our phones are ringing, music is playing, television screens are mounted on the walls even in public venues, advertising signs blink and jitter and spin with slogans and pictures.
When we sit in silence and close our eyes we are letting ourselves rest and retreat from such overload. We close out, voluntarily, for awhile, the dominant sensory gates. And in so doing we more easily fall inward. To the sounds of the breath and our heart. To the chatter of our minds. Without the distraction of an external soundtrack it is that much more obvious how noisy the mind can be, how demanding and how persistent. We see then the thoughts that recur. The thoughts that lead us into narratives that cause anxiety or anger or grief. Music soothes, but what it also does is provide another distraction to cling to. In following the music, we forget for a little while the worries and the plans, but we do not see them. We may not learn to look and so to learn their ephemeral nature. We don't so easily see them drift through and disappear. We may simply tuck them behind the tunes, still believing perhaps in their solidity. Sitting in silence pares away the great bulk of external distractions and this can be challenging because it is so unfamiliar. There is nowhere for unwelcome thoughts to hide. And because of this, when we watch, we also see their dissolution.
Peace, when one can find it through gentle music or movement, through soft lighting and stillness, is a positive and healing thing. And it is skillful to seek this out in a busy world. But it is the learning to look inward, to see the source of our unease in the patterns of our thinking that makes peace more readily accessible in our ordinary lives. Silence supports this.