The Science of Meditation

Summary: Altered Traits

Altered Traits (2017) is currently the best book I’m aware of about the scientific research that has been done on meditation. In this summary, I have applied strict standards and only included findings for which the evidence is pretty solid. That makes this a conservative picture of what meditation might be good for, let alone for the fact that the book may have omitted some findings and that the science is in its infancy. Still, none of this stuff is a guarantee, it’s just a fairly safe guess based on the evidence that’s currently available.

So, what will I get if I meditate 20 minutes a day?

Let’s assume you’re practicing diligently and using good technique. Pretty soon, you’ll see a reduction in mind-wandering while you’re trying to focus that will translate into improved performance on tasks such as academic exams. You’ll also get better at tuning out distracting stimuli while you’re trying to focus. You’ll probably get an improvement in “meta-awareness,” the ability to be aware of your own mind states. And if you do an open awareness meditation, you’ll see a reduction in “attentional blink,” the tendency for attention to momentarily go offline the second it spots an important cue. Continue reading

Articles on Music and Meditation

Here are three papers I wrote in college about the music-meditation connection.


Extramusical Benefits of Musical Improvisation

My favorite of the three. This was my first exploration of the link between Ed Sarath’s ideas and MBSR, Shinzen Young, and Culadasa.


A Portrait of the Shakuhachi as a Meditative Tool

My undergraduate thesis. A review of the literature on the Fuke-shu, an old group of Japanese monks who claimed to use the shakuhachi flute as a basis for attaining enlightenment.


John Cage Versus the Zen Masters

A paper exploring John Cage’s ideas about Zen Buddhism and it influence on his music. I then compare him to some of the other stuff I’ve read about Zen. I’m more critical of him in this paper than I would have otherwise been, but I had to take a stance for the sake of the class.

Thoughts on Music

Since I’m into both music and meditation, there arises a natural interest in combining the two. My first instance of this actually happened before I discovered meditation when I saw a book in a music library titled “Effortless Mastery” (by Kenny Werner). Of course, being someone who felt like he sucked at music, I wanted to learn how to effortlessly become a master. Turns out the book is super cool and talks about getting out of fear-based playing and introduces some meditative concepts. I should go back and read it again.

Eventually I started noticing that Shinzen Young has a whole side of his teaching devoted to what he calls “spontaneity training.” It’s basically his reworking of Rinzai Zen practices that deal with expressing enlightenment in how you move, speak and think, and that counter-intuitive, “getting-out-of-your-own-way” creative spark. I once asked him, “Sometimes I’m improvising at the piano and my fingers start playing things I’ve never played before, and I like what they’re playing–is that an analog to what you’re talking about?” He replied, “That’s not an analog, that is what I’m talking about.” Now that’s interesting to me because it provides a potential link between the (exhilarating and soul-nourishing) creative spark that I’ve been chasing since I started composing and improvising music, and the most rigorous classical enlightenment, via the Rinzai Zen tradition. This is territory that Shinzen has only outlined and not charted very thoroughly, and that is territory that I intend to explore.

Then I discovered this guy named Ed Sarath who blew my freaking mind. His whole career is devoted to the synergy between meditation and music, especially improvised music, and how it can improve individual life and society at large. He’s got a whole system worked out. I’m reading his book Improvisation, Creativity and Consciousness (very good but dense and only for the most interested readers) and he’s also got a great but hard-to-find intro article called “A New Look at Improvisation”. My advice is start here: pay attention while you’re playing music. If you’re playing alone, don’t be lost in thought while you play. Listen to yourself. If you’re playing with an ensemble, listen to the ensemble as if the music is your meditation object. You may notice the ensemble coheres more when everyone’s tuned in. If you’re improvising, you may notice your interaction with the other player(s) becomes richer and finer. You may notice that when you’re paying attention while you improvise, you’re more likely to have ideas that are fresh and poignant, and you’ll be more into the music. Sarath is more into a Hindu style of meditation so it’s my task to explore how that connects to the vipassana Buddhist stuff I’m into.

And there’s more, folks. There was a (short-lived and disorganized) school of Zen Buddhism called the Fuke-shu that used to meditate while playing the shakuhachi flute. John Cage was strongly influenced by his (somewhat shallow but still interesting) take on Zen. Terence McKenna was a psychedelic guy, not a meditation guy, but his SUPER cool talk “Opening the Doors of Creativity” (on YouTube) outlines how the duty of the shaman, and therefore the artist, is to “travel into a world unseen by others and return to tell them of it.”

Jordan B. Peterson talks a lot about “meaning.” You know what it means for music to be meaningful. That’s when the sounds take hold of your emotions and do something to you. That’s when some combination of notes and rhythms sounds like it matters–though why would an arrangement of pitches and durations “matter”? Why could it pull your attention into it like it can? Music is meaningful when you like it. Other motivations can sneak in, though, like the desire to have “good taste,” like the “right” things, be better at your instrument than other musicians, be more original, or even to recreate past good musical experiences you’ve had. These are all inauthentic and distance us from the most fulfilling heart of what music is about. Use this feeling of meaning as your sole guide for deciding what to listen to and what to play. Stay closer to the sounds than to your thoughts about them. Jordan Peterson says that surrounding everything we can understand through logic and literal speech, there is a realm of things that apes like ourselves understand through image, dream, story, symbol, and feeling. The arts live in this realm, and it is a site of great beauty and richness. It is one way our minds stretch their understanding of life and the world. Not everything that is beneficial can be put into words. Music obviously lives here. It is dreamy, colorful, and unexplainable, and seems to speak of an inner world that we don’t see with our eyes but know is real because we perceive it and it’s so relevant and familiar. It is an eternal world (I’m speaking phenomenologically here, not objectively) and the site of what we have been looking for. This is the purpose of music. Don’t bother with music that doesn’t deal in these terms. You’d be missing the point.

My Meditation Practice

I started meditating because I thought that learning to “live in the moment” could put an end to the treadmill of dissatisfaction that seemed to characterize life. After about a year of that, I discovered the book Mastering The Core Teachings Of The Buddha, from which the basic message I derived was “enlightenment is real, this is what it is, it’s every bit as good as you suspect, and you can have it if you work hard enough.” That lit me on fire, and I became a disciple of the “pragmatic dharma movement,” and have been ever since. My favorite teachers are Shinzen Young, Upasaka Culadasa, and Daniel M. Ingram. I highly recommend checking them out if you are interested in this.

The primary purpose for this tradition is insight practice, but that requires that you first develop stable attention. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated is by far the best manual for learning to do this. (Stable attention has lots of powerful applications outside of insight practice, by the way, so I’m into it for numerous reasons.) Well, I’ve been trying to learn to concentrate for a few years now and I’m still in the beginning stages. Don’t worry, many people learn faster than me. I’ve had an uncommonly difficult time with it. But once I finally figure it out, I bet I’ll have lots of interesting things to say about it, especially about its connections with music and authenticity of course. Stay tuned.