Thursday, January 28, 2010

Seeking the sound of silence

Probably the most common hindrance to my meditation is my mind’s latching on to some damn song, endlessly looping just a snippet of the song through my head. I’ve tried many strategies to get beyond whatever song is playing in my head and sometimes it’s not such a struggle. But just about every time I go to sit, there’s some song in my head.

This morning it was “Jet,” from the McCartney album “Band on the Run.”

My mind is a manic menace. There are times when I easily let go of the bothersome tune that is trying to monopolize my meditation, but I’m never really aware of how that occurs. There are several strategies I employ, all of which can work from time to time, but none of which are universally successful. One, I focus stridently on my breath, really forcing my mind to let go of the tune and pay attention to my breathing. Another is silently chanting Buddho as I breathe, and when that becomes so monotonous that I sense I am drifting into sleep, I will count my breaths going from 1 to 5, then back down to 1, etc.

The counting tends to work the best, but there are other times when I will direct my mind to take a close look at the song in my head, asking it the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is occasionally successful because the mind usually responds with, “I have no idea,” and the song disappears.

Nonetheless, just about every time I sit for meditation, I have to initially struggle with some freaking song. Music playing in my head is so common that when I first wake in the morning, a song immediately starts playing. It’s the first thought of my mind each day!

Granted, I listen to a lot of music. I have a blog as well about Frank Zappa’s catalogue. I have probably more than 1,000 CDs. The thought that a solution to my problem is to turn off all the external music around me is so repugnant that I won’t even consider it. But there are times when I intentionally engage in activities to separate myself from music and the rest of the world, like when I go for a hike.

Any of you have similar recurring distractions to your meditation? How do you deal with them?


  1. Why do we meditators always feel the need to fight against the contents of our heads? That's not a jab at you. We all do it, myself included, but I don't think it's a particularly helpful activity. The idea - at least in zazen, though I realize I can't speak to you tradition - isn't to exterminate all thoughts, but to stop identifying with them. Our minds never truly stop churning out things to entertain us - bits of songs, fantasies, pointless worries, random bits of trivia, etc. Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama called these unbidden, half-formed thoughts "mind secretions." That is, the brain is just an organ, doing what organs do. The heart pumps blood, the the bowels pump waste, and the brain pumps thoughts (and pictures and songs and ...). No big deal. If you just notice the song and carry on with your practice, without either grasping onto it or trying to drive it away, it should be no more of a hindrance than the sound of someone's radio outside of your window.

  2. @jmcleod76 Hey, thanks for that insight! I never really thought about it that way, it makes perfect sense!

  3. Richard, I have an email zen teacher (he indulges me anyway LOL) who advised me to let go of opinions. that has helped me...when i get the jukebox karma (as wes nisker calls it) i just let go of my opinion of it and thoughts tend to move on. there is a saying in the energetics of consciousness that says "where attention goes, energy flows", so I try my best to give no energy at all to the thoughts in my head and they tend to diminish just from lack of food.

  4. I'm glad you find it helpful! I know my practice began to feel like much less of a chore after I started to see it that way. Reading Uchiyama Roshi's commentary on Zen master Dogen's Bendowa ("The Whole-Hearted Way") was really helpful to me in that respect. Learning not to have an adversarial relationship with our own thoughts is - for me, at least - a big step toward learning to live with equanimity (not that I'm anywhere near there yet!). So often, when I take friends to sit with my sangha, they relate to me their struggle with breath-counting practice - "Do I have to start over counting if I didn't lose my place? I can't stop thinking completely, but if it's only a little thought, does it really count?" The subtext of that line of questioning is a kind of self-judgement - "If I can't stop thinking, there's something wrong with me." No matter how many times I explain that the counting is just a device to help us begin to notice how much chatter is in our heads, they all want to make it into a competition, to beat their previous "score" for how long they can go without thinking. I think that's why I abandoned counting years ago, and just use my breath, without mental comment, as a point of focus. But that's just me. I'm sure there are many people who find counting to be a valuable lifeline.

  5. I've stopped fighting off songs and whatnot. Sometimes, I'll chant something to break through the mind chatter, but for the most part, I just try to return to the breath, and let go of whether or not I actually am able to return to the breath.

  6. I have to say what Jamie said is wonderful. Also, another approach that I've done at times is to almost do the opposite, I mean intently listen to that thought, follow it, observe it as if you were observing a shooting star. Sometimes that process works to the same ends as Jamie's suggestion as the looping song itself becomes a practice, and with some intensity seeing it is only when we attach to it does it cause a problem.

    For me, its like saying the word truck over and over again. Soon it becomes amusing if I study the sound, as it looses all its meaning of the object it is supposed to represent....Ttttrrruuucckkk Eh not sure if that made sense.

    If none of these work, then screw it and listen to this, get up and dance!


  7. This is hilarious. I thought I was the only one that experienced that problem. I think mine still might be worse. I get children's songs stuck in mine. There's nothing like sitting and trying to get "If You're Happy and You Know it" out of your head.

  8. These are all great comments. I never thought of "concentration" as also meaning "nonattachment" to whatever the mind was doing.

    I still believe, however, that the goal of concentration is for the mind to quiet down so that we can direct it to appropriate tasks, appropriate attention - that we exert more control over what objects the mind attends to. After all, the Buddha used the simile of training an elephant to describe training the mind.

    So the goal of "silence" remains, doesn't it? Isn't it still like waiting for the squirrely mind to finally stop jumping about and settle down to one object - the breath - so that we can next direct it to a skillful task?

  9. Perhaps it is different in Theravada than it is Zen, but more importantly than a goal of silence is realizing just who is watching and trying to tame these run-a-away thoughts. If it is merely our own thoughts that want to quiet our thoughts (kind of circular right?), it becomes even more interesting to observe and understand the nature of self.

  10. I agree with Kyle, but also admit that this may be a Zen bias. You might do well to discuss this issue with a monk. For my part, though, I find my mind eventually quiets down on its own when I stop putting so much weight on what it's doing. Samadhi comes and goes as it will, without much help from me, save for showing up and putting butt to cushion (which counts for a lot). The only thing I can be sure of is that, if I try to force it, it won't come at all. Fretting because my mind isn't quiet is sort of like trying to smother a fire with wood.

  11. Richard,
    Do the voices in my head bother you?
    What do I do? I don't worry about it, as any meditation is good. I often laugh after if I had a "busy meditation." I do like the sound of silence as a sound to focus on.
    It will come to be what it is meant to be.

  12. The thing about the voices in my head is that they're usually instructions on how to practice zazen like "watch the breath", "keep the posture", "just sit" ARRRRRGGGHHH! So I often watch myself thinking about how to stop thinking about how to stop thinking....

  13. The "Heisenberg uncertainty principle of thoughts" works for me. I got it from a teisho.

    The idea is that you can know either the position or the velocity of a thought, but never both at the same time. By "knowing the velocity" I mean getting caught up in a train of thought. By "knowing the position" I mean noticing that a thought is a thought. The simple fact of noticing a thought causes it to go away.

    The upshot is that I can pop thoughts like bubbles as they arise, much of the time, which eventually cause them to quiet down a bit. Much of the time I can't, and I still get caught up in trains of thought -- until I notice that hey, that's another thought, at which point it goes away.

    Of course, there are days when my mind is so active that I spend more time in velocity than position, but them's the breaks.