Using Music As A Meditation Aid

I’ve always thought meditation should be carried out in as much silence as possible, and that’s how I’ve always meditated.  Today, however, I tried meditating with some ambient music in the background.

This was partially done on a whim, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.  Google research after the fact turned up a range of opinions, from websites that thought music could be distracting to ones that sold tracks crafted just for meditation.

It’s worth pointing out that during my first stay at a Buddhist monastery a few weeks ago, silent meditation was punctuated by chanting and bowing.  Relatively raucous stuff when compared to breathing in absolute stillness, and this coming from people who meditate professionally.

So I decided to give it a shot.  I chose a spacey ambient piece, as Lamb of God would make a terrible soundtrack to enlightenment.  Here are my observations after one trial run:

1) Time absolutely flew.  An unbroken 20 minute meditation session is usually hard to achieve.  This time, though my back was a little uncomfortable and I had to adjust position once because my leg was asleep, I was shocked when the alarm went off.

2) It really did help still my mind.  Even though I still had a fair amount of chatter going on, something about the music just seemed to make it easier to focus on breathing. I had a pretty powerful sweep of euphoria around the (I’m guessing) sixteen minute mark.  My whole body started tingling for maybe a full two seconds right as I was getting the most focused.  This has happened once before, but so far it’s proving hard to maintain.  I don’t think such an experience is the point of meditation, but it’s interesting and does encourage one to continue.

3) I’d like to use this in the future, but I think several modifications might increase its efficacy.  For one, I’d like the sound to surround me more, rather than feeling beamed from laptop speakers.  Also, I think it would be good to fade into silence very slowly.  Finally, the music should probably be as minimal as possible, maybe even just one deep, slowly changing tone.  I think much more than that would start to prove a distraction.

I’ll be trying this again in the future.  If it proves interesting or useful I’ll write more about it then.

Putting Pillow Talk To Good Use.

I have a game suggestion for all the brainy couples out there.

Once, not so long ago, I was involved with a smart girl. She was probably a solid 3-4 standard deviations above the mean, so pretty goddamn sharp.

Speaking of standard deviations, it was junior year and I was studying statistics as part of my Psychology degree. One of the things I learned about was called a “Z test”.  If memory serves, a Z test doesn’t compare two test scores from two different classes directly, it compares their distance from the mean scores in their respective classes. So you can sort of do an apples vs. oranges comparison, at least in principle.

My memories of junior year are hazy for many reasons, but at some point I decided to turn the concept of comparing two wildly different things into a game. I think it happened one night as we were laying in bed and I was explaining Z tests, but I don’t remember. I do know that I took to calling it “Z game”.

Here’s how it works:

The first person makes a comparison between two dissimilar things, like “apples to oranges”. The second person takes the last word and makes a new comparison, like “oranges to cauliflower”. You take turns like this indefinitely. An example dialogue might look like this:

Her: pulsars to zebras                                                                                                                   Me: zebras to sonnets                                                                                                                     Her: sonnets to snowstorms

It takes a little while to get warmed up, but it is quite a bit of fun. We would lay around and do this shit for hours.

Here’s a few of the reasons that this is fascinating:

1) We each immediately understood why it would be fun, with no explanation necessary. The brain is prone to associative thinking, and I suspect smart people will get a kick out of toying with this cognitive machinery.

2) There is no winner and no end other than when you drift off into sleep, but there is an intuitive sort of point system. We both recognized “good” answers immediately and called each other out on “bad” answers. This despite the fact that we never set up any criterion for judging answers; we probably agreed on our evaluations 90% of the time, even when we were evaluating each other negatively. In other words, I knew when I had made a bad move in Z game.

3) It isn’t just associative distance that counts, though that’s a factor. “Mozart to music” would be kind of a lame move, because “music” probably leaps to everyone’s mind as soon as they hear “Mozart”. You get no points for obviousness in Z Game.

But there are other factors at play. In the above example, I suspect that most of the people reading this liked “sonnets to snowstorms” more than the other comparisons. “Zebras to pulsars” is certainly an unusual juxtaposition, and it does paint an interesting picture in my mind. But there is a subtle interplay between novelty, complexity, beauty, lyrical quality, and evocativeness. The images created by “sonnets to snowstorms” are haunting and suggestive, and the words are musical and alliterative; indeed I can feel a poem just begging to compose itself in my mind as I write this. That isn’t true for “zebras to sonnets”.

4) Multiple linguists and cognitive psychologists believe that metaphor is fundamental to how we think about the world. Perhaps those comparisons are best which map most fluidly onto our intuitive metaphorical frameworks.

5) We didn’t do this much during the day, but I think that it will work best at night, as your drifting into semi-sleep and your brain is chock full of associations from the days musings.

This sort of silliness was what made our relationship great. We bonded a lot doing this. Z game is kind of like a playful two-person rorschach test. You can more clearly see the eddies and currents of another person’s stream of consciousness by seeing the associations that come naturally to them.

If you have an IQ above 110 this will probably be interesting to you. If you like poetry you will probably want to test it out. If you read Hofstadter and meditate, you probably won’t be able to resist.

Give Z game a try sometime and see what pops up.

What Tricky Things Are Words

On the excellent rationality blog Less Wrong, there is a post today discussing the worst argument in the world.

Yvain’s essay is characteristic of what I like about Less Wrong.  Everybody knows, and is willing to point out, that words are difficult to use and frequently misused.  I’ve personally been in hour long debates that could’ve been resolved in ten minutes if we’d gotten our terms straight in advance.  And once or twice I’ve been guilty of exploiting ambiguous language to save face when I new I was losing an argument.

But not very many people dig into the whys and hows of word misuse, or think seriously about possible solutions.  At Less Wrong, there is an entire sequence of essays devoted to that topic.

This paragraph jumped out at me:

And what’s going on should be no mystery to anyone who has read through the excellent Less Wrong Sequence On Words. Words are hidden inferences, which form a leaky generalization over a set of cases that cluster along certain dimensions but may vary widely in their other characteristics. Because people feel like words are a single monolithic whole, arguments about the world tend to devolve into arguments about definitions of words (like “murder”), as if those definitions determined reality. To escape such arguments, the participants need to taboo that particular word and replace the symbol with the substance, which often means dissolving a term into its component inferences and reasoning about each one individually.

It’s well-hyperlinked to a number of other relevant essays.

Rationality is a big interest of mine, and one to which I’ll return again.  I like what Luke Muehlhauser did at Common Sense atheism, blogging his way through everything Eleizer Yudkowky had written.  Such a project is one I’m considering taking up myself.

Genesis and Science

Every so often I encounter people who remark that the Genesis account of creation, except in a few minor details, basically gets the order of things right.


This position can only be maintained if you either skim Genesis in 5 seconds or you haven’t looked into the details of the science involved. I found this piece by Adam Lee to be a good analysis of some of the deep flaws in the Bible’s creation myth.

Chords and Colors

I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia ever since it occurred to me that not everyone’s  senses are as promiscuous as mine.  It’s always been very visual for me. Sounds, letters, ideas, and tastes often present themselves with colors, textures, shapes, and sizes when I think about them.

I don’t experience synesthesia out-in-the-world, only in my head. In other words, when I read a book the letters on the page don’t have any color, but if I think about a letter, or listen to a song, very often it’ll have a color or a size. This happens most strongly with music, generally speaking.

But I also remember that I almost got in trouble around the age of 3 or so because I was explaining to an older girl what size and shape various swear words were

This also seems to be rooted pretty deeply in my thought process, and has fueled my poetry and music (more on that later). It’s very difficult to watch your own mind think, but I’ve noticed that a small percentage of my thought is a stream of incomplete sentences and a bigger part is images related to those sentences. Another significant chunk, however, is just weird shapes moving and changing and banging into each other. I might be trying to think about something like “justice” or “anarchy” or “rationality”, and what I see is a strange chalky prism morphing into a sphere and then shooting off to the right, leaving a colorful trail of liquid smoke. It doesn’t make any sense, but I just somehow know that what I’m seeing is a thought related to justice.

It’s like the machine language of my mind is a polychromatic rainbow, and there is a synesthetic compiler in my unconscious which has to paint speech and thoughts before my brain can do anything with them.

This is kind of crazy when I think about it. My sentences come out orderly, but between my ears it looks like Jimi Hendrix, Walt Disney, and Wassily Kandisky are locked in a room with painting supplies and the collected works of Euclid, trying to make a video game together.

The Parable Of An Atheist At A Temple

As I sit writing this I have just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastary nested in the moutains outside of Gyeongju, South Korea.  While there I woke up at 4 a.m., chanted, spent several hours a day in meditation, engaged in light martial arts training, and ate no meat.

The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, which unfortunately was not emphasized in this trip.  I’ve been a practicing meditator for several years now and I was looking forward to pushing my exploration of the mind.  Luckily I was able to accomplish this in a small way by simply not attending the obvious tourist fluff and meditating on my own.  I stopped going to the martial arts demonstrations and training, skipped tea time, didn’t go to the extra chanting services.  Instead, I meditated in my room or in a newly-constructed building designed for that purpose.  I snuck up to the temple once and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.

On the last full day I was there, I climbed a mountain in a light drizzle as night was falling.  When I got to the top I looked out at the valley and the hills, the same ones I had watched the sun rise over in the dawn hours, and saw the rain falling in sheets and clouds shrouding the peaks in mist.

I didn’t know what to do but be still beneath the towering Buddha carved into the rock and smile at the enormity of it all.  Sometimes there just aren’t words.

Though it wasn’t what I expected, I don’t regret spending the money.  At $50 a night it was less than some hotels charge, and the food was unexpectedly good, to say nothing of the amazing setting.  I also learned a few things.  Primarily, I don’t need to do a templestay to meditate well.  To this day the most powerful experience I’ve ever had meditating came in my living room, after an hour of alternating sitting and walking meditation.  My attention stabilized in a way it never had before, and I was able to watch the erratic flow of my own consciousness as it went past me.  I felt more inside my own body than I ever had before, like it wasn’t something that I owned but something I was.  I got just enough of a hint of what is possible to convince me that it’s worth pursuing.  Sometime in the near future I may do a silent retreat of my own, and I’m currently mulling over ways I can effectively do that in my apartment.

I do think setting is important.  The most popular essay I’ve ever written, over at Rogue Priest, presented the view that rituals like chanting in the candlelight can foster mystical states.  I base this on my own past experience as a born-again christian and on the testimonies of various secular pagans whom I know personally and whose work I’ve read.  If I meditate intensely for the next few months, the point may come where doing a genuine monastic silent retreat is exactly what I need.

At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m.  It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found.  So, I regret to report, these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful.  By the final day I had enough stored tension in my back and joints that even 30 seconds of sitting was difficult, to say nothing of 30 minutes.  I was ready to go home.

Now as you read these opening statements you may be wondering what use an atheist could have for meditation.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  It’s true that I think the sinister intersection of fundamentalist religious thinking and 21st century technology might be the greatest threat the modern world faces.  And I also believe that there are elements of religious practice — like genital mutiliation and and belief in transubstantion — which are patently absurd and wrong and cannot be rejected forcefully or quickly enough by thinking people.  If we are ever to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from the swamps of ignorance and into a better existence, vast swaths of what now goes by the name ‘religion’ will have to be dispensed with.

But religion is ancient and complex.  To reject God is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions.  There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like what consitutes the good life, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.  Though I understand the haste to move people away from religious dogma, I worry that we risk losing something in the process.

Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in a religion and are worth salvaging.  I’m drawn to it in part by two things:

1) it is pursuable in a completely secular context and requires no faith whatsoever.

2) even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.

We’ve all likely had the experience of having a very full head, where our thoughts prevent us from going to sleep at night or make it difficult to focus on whatever task we’re performing.  But the extent to which I am perpetually lost in my own internal monologue is truly astounding.  If you don’t think this applies to you, spend the next thirty seconds trying to control and direct this mental flurry.  Hell, spend the next thirty seconds just trying to observe it without getting caught up in it.

Difficult?  Yes, yes it is.

In this situation your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like a roiling avalanche perpetually bearing down on him.  The previous sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate.  First came the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche.  Then I returned to focusing on my breath.  I smiled internally, because the metaphor seemed clever.  Back to breathing.  Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrases.  Back to breathing.

Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years.  Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.

What I’ve studied of buddhist philosophy suggests that Buddhism (and to some extent Hinduism as well) begins from a radically different point of departure than Western science and the enlightenment.  Buddhism starts with an empirical exploration of the mind.  In the millenia since this project began, numerous traditions and mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much in the way of religious baggage.

In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized as much as possible and there are thinkers who believe that the notion of introspection is flawed and incoherent.  I can sympathize with this.  Psychology has revealed that introspection is susceptible to profound error, and we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward.  But none of this suggests to me that practices like meditation are useless.  On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion.  Meditation, stripped of pretension and bullshit, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.

What’s more, It may turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness.  If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.

Regardless, it seems that meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience.  It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment.  Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating to the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness that can be found within the landscape of the human mind.

Such as this I’ve learned while sitting.


Further reading

I didn’t do any “research” for this essay in the conventional sense.  But there are several essays which I’ve read and re-read and re-read that have shaped my thinking on this subject profoundly.  I feel they should be mentioned here at the end of the essay.

1) “Dancing with the Gods”, Eric Raymond

2) “Drugs and the meaning of life”, Sam Harris

3) “What’s the point of transcendance” Sam Harris

4) “On spiritual truths”, Sam Harris

5) “Killing the Buddha”, Sam Harris

6) The writings of B. Allan Wallace should be mentioned as well.  His books include “Mind in the balance”, “contemplative science”, and “embracing mind”.  I don’t endorse his metaphysics, but I’ve found him useful nonetheless.

7) These thoughts have appeared elsewhere before:

-“What atheists believe too”

Carol Blue On Her Late Husband, Christopher Hitchens

I just read a piece by the wife of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens on her husband’s last months alive.  I don’t know much about Ms. Blue, but judging by the power and beauty of her writing, I’d be inclined to say that she shares a bit of Christopher’s gift for words.  Hitch was not my favorite atheist, but he certainly was the most tenacious.  Though he was surely sad and afraid as his conditioned worsened, his wife reveals through touching anecdotes that he faced the prospect of death with an astonishing degree of optimism and bravery.

He had his flaws like everyone else, but Christopher’s exuberance and boundless love for life are examples well worth following.