In the spiritual world, next to meditation is music, the breath of music.
Meditation is silence, energising and fulfilling.
Silence is the eloquent expression of the inexpressible.
The source of meditative music
In the spiritual world, next to meditation is music, the breath of music. Meditation is silence, energising and fulfilling. Silence is the eloquent expression of the inexpressible. Sri Chinmoy
It is often thought that meditation should be practised in total silence. Indeed some meditation traditions, such as Buddhism, have tended to view anything external during meditation as being a distraction. The pleasant feelings induced by meditative music might be seen as a hindrance to finding that source of happiness within oneself or to being able to focus on our breathing.
Previously we looked at how listening to meditation music, far from being a distraction, can in fact be very beneficial when learning to meditate and how it can actually be an inspiration to help tap into those deeper parts of oneself.
In this article we shall look in more detail at this idea of silence and suggest that meditative music and silence are more closely related than we may have thought. It will become apparent that silence is perhaps more than a mere lack of sound, and in turn, certain kinds of sound are quite closely related to silence.
What is silence?
So what do we really mean by silence? We have all probably had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of how silent a place is and how there can be a real power or presence in the silence rather than it just being empty nothingness. Any small sound becomes accentuated by the silence that surrounds it. We perhaps get a similar feeling when we are away from normal light pollution and we see the night sky studded with thousands of stars. The silence and darkness are in a sense always there but we rarely notice them. Even in those rare moments when we might think it is silent, there is almost invariably a clock ticking somewhere, the sound of water in pipes, distant traffic or some other noise. In fact we probably very rarely experience true silence.
There is a poem by the welsh poet RS Thomas that perhaps expresses what we are considering here more clearly.
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still
– But the Silence in the Mind, R.S Thomas
Music and silence
The composer John Cage once tried out a special sound proof chamber at Harvard university wanting to experience complete silence. Afterward he reported experiencing two quite distinct sounds and was told by the engineer in charge that one was his nervous system and one was his blood in circulation. ‘Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, there are always sounds to hear’, he said.
This difficulty in ever experiencing total silence led to his controversial composition 4’33, which is a short piece of music in three movements in which the performers are told not to play for the duration of the piece. Out of all of his compositions Cage felt that this was his most significant work and it has given rise to much discussion over the years (even being performed by major radio stations and at the BBC proms in London).
Whatever we may think of it as art, it does raise questions about the nature of silence in music and what we might mean by meditative music. During the four and a half minutes of silence, the listener’s attention is drawn more acutely to all the ambient sounds, perhaps blurring the distinction between music and silence, and maybe encouraging us to question more the nature of silence itself. Perhaps when we come back to listen to sounds again our experience is enriched. Rather than sound and silence between two distinct forms there seems to be a dynamic interplay between them. As the French composer Debussy said; ‘‘Music is the space between the notes.’ Without silence it seems the music has no meaning or ceases to exist at all. Thus through the medium of sound, meditation music can help take is into a realm of greater silence and stillness.
‘Silence is the source of everything. It is the source of music and it is music itself. Silence is the deepest, most satisfying music of the Supreme.’
This is a very thought-provoking utterance as it is suggesting that everything comes from silence and that music and silence are in fact the same thing. Additionally and perhaps somewhat paradoxically music comes from a certain source and at the same time it is that source. It may seem like we are entering into the realms of quantum physics here but we will find we come across these ideas frequently in the literature on meditation. What is paradoxical or confusing for the mind can act as an incentive to enter into meditation to try and find the answers to these questions.
Silence is the nest and music is the bird. The bird leaves the nest early in the morning and returns to the nest in the evening. Similarly, in the spiritual world, divine music comes from the inmost soul of silence.Sri Chinmoy
Meditative music far from being a distraction would seem to be intimately connected with deep silence.
Perhaps the deeper awareness that we gain from meditation and listening to mediation music will force us to reevaluate some of our beliefs about the world and our surroundings. There has long been a debate amongst philosophers as to the nature of mind and body. Some would hold that everything is physical, with mind and thought ultimately being something we can reduce to physical material causes. Others might say that they are two separate kinds of reality, thus provoking the question of how something physical might interact with something non-physical.
This need not overly concern us but perhaps we create an artificial division when we consider sound on the one hand and silence on the other, just as when we consider mind to be made of something separate from body. Our discussion of meditative music might make it more useful to consider sound and silence as part of the same continuum.
So instead of thinking of silence as an absence of sound, rather it might be better to think of it or experience it as something intimately bound up with sound. Real deep meditative music, of the kind we have discussed elsewhere, can be very enriching and energising as well as providing a direct route into the experience of meditation without too many techniques.
Nowadays there seems to be almost an instinctive urge to avoid silence. Wherever we are or go, whether it be shopping, exercising, travelling or doing the most mundane things, we tend to want to fill up any empty space with sound. Meditation can help us get a perspective on this and meditative music may be the best way to experience the real silence that our inner being craves.
A deeper understanding of meditation music
Further reading suggestion: To gain a deeper understanding of meditation music it is also highly recommended that you read some writings of an expert in meditation or from a real spiritual master. You might be interested to read the following two books:
Sound and Silence, part 1 by Sri Chinmoy
available on line here:
Sound and Silence, part 2 by Sri Chinmoy
available on line here:
Editor’s note: if you would like to read a printed hardcopy, you can read “The Source of Music”, by Sri Chinmoy.
Music: the universal language
Karteek Clarke meditates for over 20 years, being well known for swimming the English Channel 11 times. A multi-talented seeker, Karteek is an accomplished marathon and ultramarathon runner, a member of British musical group Ananda and keen language learner. He is a business owner and professional consultant.