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Should I listen to music when I meditate?

man listening to music on headphonesI love music. In fact the powerful surges of pleasurable energy that I experienced in my body when listening to music as a teenager was one of the things that made me curious to learn meditation. These experiences of rapture (the Buddhist technical term is “priti”) opened my eyes to the fact that there were ranges of experience outside of our normal expectations.

The idea that you should listen to music while meditating is very common. But this probably goes back to seeing meditation as little more than a means of relaxation.

Traditionally, the idea of listening to music while meditating would be completely out of the question. In no Buddhist lineage that I know of is there any kind of musical accompaniment to sitting meditation. This is a very modern notion, and probably comes from the fact that many alternative health practitioners play relaxing music in the background while performing their healing arts. This music became known as “meditation music” and the assumption grew up that we should listen to music while meditating.

The gorgeous Japanese flute music on Shakuhachi Meditation Music (2 CD) makes a beautiful focus for a "listening meditating."

Traditionally there would simply be silence or ambient background noise to accompany meditation.

So-called meditation music is meant to be relaxing, and of course meditation does help you to relax too, but it goes beyond that and helps us to be more alert and focused. It also helps us to reflect deeply. Music is likely to get in the way of those activities.

If you’re trying to pay attention one-pointedly to your breathing, then you can’t also listen to music. And if you’re trying to listen to music then you can’t fully concentrate on your breathing.

Also, music produces pleasant feelings, which is why we listen to it and why music is now almost ubiquitous, being thrust at us in stores, elevators, and even on the streets. If those pleasant feelings are being supplied by “meditation music” then we won’t reach deeper into ourselves to find our own sources of happiness. So-called meditation music therefore is a kind of crutch that hinders our practice rather than helping it.

Songs of Tara is a collection of devotional Buddhist music in praise of the female bodhisattva, Tara.

However, focusing on music is fine, and I wholeheartedly suggest that you try doing that, but I also suggest that you try doing it at a time when you’re not meditating.

I’d go further and suggest that listening to music, if done properly, can be a meditation in itself, just as walking or washing the dishes can be. You can take many activities and make them richer and more satisfying by taking more awareness into them. Music, as we’ve seen, is just one example. We’ve included links to some excellent Buddhist music that makes a perfect focus for a “listening meditation.”

Listening to music as a meditation practice can be a very powerful practice. As I became more familiar with the experience of the dhyanas (Pali, jhanas), which are very concentrated, calm, and blissful states of meditation, I realized that I’d been experiencing these states for years while listening to western classical music. And by treating music as a meditation object, I’ve found that I can experience all of the dhyanas.

Tibetan Meditation Music For Quiet Mind and Peaceful Heart. Deep. Inspiring. Luscious.

If you’re going to listen to music as meditation then you have to take it seriously as a practice. Try not to do anything else at the same time. Don’t work, or read, or balance your checkbook while you’re listening. Switch off your phone. Darken the room. Just listen to the music. Make sure you’re in a comfortable position that supports alert attention. Sit or lie down comfortably, and just pay attention to the music. You’ll probably find that you enjoy it like never before.

One auditory accompaniment to meditation that I do think is reasonable is recordings of natural sounds, such as water, birdsong, etc. In the Buddha’s day the vast majority of meditation would have taken place outdoors. Even when meditation took place indoors, the buildings would have lacked glass windows and silence would have been extremely rare. So you could argue that meditating in the presence of natural sounds (or recordings thereof) is closer to the original practice of meditation. On the other hand, just because silence was rare in the Buddha’s day doesn’t mean that people then wouldn’t have found silence useful as a background for their practice.

A mix of eastern and western music, hand-picked to help quiet the mind.

Additionally, though, many of us live in very urban environments where hearing natural sounds is rare. I believe that contact with the sounds of nature fulfills a deep need for a sense of connectedness to the natural world, and that recordings of those sounds can help fill that need.

Also, natural sounds are more random and less “catchy” than music, and the mind is less likely to become attached to and distracted by them. So at worst I’d say that natural recordings do no harm, while at best they may help us to fill a need for the experience of natural sound. Music on the other hand is likely to be a distraction, or to artificially produce pleasant feelings, thus preventing us from finding those pleasant feelings from within.

Comments

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Comment from haydyn
Time: May 4, 2009, 9:10 am

thank you for the explanation. i’ll listen to music and do meditation separately
but what do i do if my family start arguing or something and i can hear them?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 4, 2009, 9:28 am

In that kind of situation I think the best response is to cultivate lovingkindness for the people who are arguing, and for yourself too, if you are suffering hearing them fight.

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Comment from Malia
Time: June 8, 2009, 11:04 am

I am Deaf and meditating with music works best for me. I just lay down on a chaise longue that I have in one of my room and put the iPod in my ear and play the music. No one is around and I go into deep relaxation during this. Would this be considered meditating? Just curious.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 8, 2009, 10:26 pm

Hi Malia,

I think there’s certainly something meditative about attentively listening to music, but generally listening to music for relaxation isn’t, I think, the same as meditation. Because listening to music is dependent on something outside of ourselves, it doesn’t go as deep as meditation, where if you’re going to relax you’re going to have to do that yourself, and not rely on something to do it for you. Music can take me into wonderful states of mind, but the question is, can I do that for myself?

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Comment from FOol
Time: January 7, 2010, 4:13 am

I didn’t believe in meditating with music until I had children. Now It’s either music, nature sounds, or white noise unless the house is empty or I happen to be sitting in the wee hours of the morning.

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Comment from evan millana
Time: November 21, 2010, 12:41 pm

There is a exact word or genre for a term meditation music.I think its a hindi word but unfortunately i forgot that word …If you know please post it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 21, 2010, 12:44 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that word. I doubt it would be a Buddhist word, since in Indian Buddhism anyway music wasn’t seen as being something that you’d have going on while you meditated. In fact monks weren’t allowed to attend musical concerts.

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Comment from Evan Millana
Time: December 4, 2010, 4:12 pm

CMIIW …I think I got that word, its “Mantra”.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 4, 2010, 4:16 pm

OK! Well, mantras are words rather than music, although they are sometimes chanted to a tune. They’re not “meditation music” in the sense of something that you have on in the background while you meditate, but they’re objects of meditation in their own right. We have a whole section on mantra meditation.

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Comment from Todd
Time: January 4, 2011, 11:23 am

Thanks for the tips. I was not sure whether I should use meditation music with mantra meditation but have decided to do them separately based on your advice.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 4, 2011, 2:39 pm

Actually, although I’ve never chanted mantras to music, I think it could be quite effective as a form of practice. I don’t, as you’ve gathered, advocate listening to music in the background while doing other forms of practice, but mantra chanting is very much to do with sound, and when chanted with other people mantras are effectively a kind of music to which one is mindfully “singing along.”

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Comment from hani
Time: January 16, 2011, 4:03 pm

I’m having lots of stress lately regarding many things, most of which do not deserve to be stressed about, so much that it reached a level where if i’m not stressing, i unwillingly alert myself and remember to go back to being stressed. I’ve been told meditation is one way to get rid of that “habit”, i’ve also been told to just live with it.
I need to know how meditation works, and what does it do? does it confront those things that are stressing me out? because some of those are things that i do not want to confront and better left suppressed or just not thought about, since confronting them and “accepting” them would do more harm than good.
or is meditation something that takes your mind off of everything that is stressing you?
to me its a huge difference between the two, and if it’s not the latter, then i will most probably not going to attempt meditation.
thanks for your time,

- Hani

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 21, 2011, 10:21 pm

Hi, Hani.

Sorry about the delay in my replying to you. Life’s been rather full.

Your question boils down to whether or not meditation is about investigating the content of your stress. Actually it’s not. Some kinds of therapy might do that, but meditation is more about how you relate to the things that are stressing you. Actually, stress is already a measure of the way you’re already relating to those things. Right now you seem to want to deal with difficult experiences by not dealing with them, hoping they’ll go away, or by worrying about them. That doesn’t really work very well, since they’re not likely to go away. It’s obviously not working as a strategy.

In the short term, meditation does tend to take your mind off of things that are bothering you. We practice letting go of thoughts as they arise, and simply coming back to our sensory experience. What happens when we do this is that the mind calms down and we feel happier. Sometimes we find that something that bothered us simply doesn’t bother us any more. We no longer fear it or are anxious about it. Or sometimes the anxiety may just be reduced to the point where it’s more manageable. In fact the whole structure of your brain changes, and the part of your brain that deals with “flight or flight” panic gets smaller, while the parts of our brain that are to do with emotional regulation and integration get larger. We also directly cultivate positive emotion, which helps in many ways. We become happier, and we’re less likely to get into self-hatred.

At times we do have to face things. When fear arises over and over, we’re telling ourselves on some level that there’s something we need to look at. That doesn’t usually mean poking over past events, but instead becoming more aware of the fear that surrounds our memories. We can then look at our memories more objectively, and more compassionately.

I’m not sure what you mean, exactly, by saying that accepting things would do more harm than good. But just to take an example, if someone had done something they were very ashamed of in the past, accepting this doesn’t mean saying “it doesn’t matter” — it means accepting full responsibility for what has been done, and realizing how the action came about as a set of poor choices and unhelpful habits so that we can move on. We can have genuine compassion for ourselves, and forgive ourselves, and rather than enabling further actions of the sort we’re ashamed of, it makes them less likely to recur. And we can have compassion towards those we hurt, rather than feel so much shame and fear. That’s just an example of how things can work.

You may also want to explore therapy. Whatever’s going on with you, it’s a source of great pain, and at present you don’t seem to have sufficient skills to help you move beyond your pain. A good therapist can help you develop those skills. Some therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, are very compatible with meditation, and can even involve meditation techniques.

I wish you well. May you be free from suffering.

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Pingback from Day 1: second meditation | 30 days of meditation
Time: February 22, 2011, 5:05 pm

[...] it’s just part of the ritual “to get in the mood”. While that might be true, WildMind.org gives a very clear reason not to use it: “So-called meditation music is meant to be relaxing, [...]

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Comment from fuxx
Time: March 4, 2011, 7:49 am

i find soudscapes and dub techno very suited for meditation, maybe because it is not catchy and you don’t have to “listen to it” but rather sets up a mood.
try out with music by echospace, rhythm and sound, Pole, Panasonic, alva noto…
you may find yourself relaxed and yet focus ~ to go slowly towards silence…

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Comment from chirag Darji
Time: April 29, 2011, 8:25 am

Thanks a lot for the explanation, I was under the impression that listening to light instrumental music while meditating will always be better to concentrate.

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Comment from San
Time: July 10, 2011, 9:45 am

What should I do to meditate ?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 10, 2011, 2:56 pm

This entire site is about “what you should do to meditate.” I’d suggest going to the “meditation guides” section of the site and starting with the mindfulness of breathing.

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Comment from San
Time: July 11, 2011, 3:21 pm

Thanks,I’d do that.

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Comment from mrinal
Time: July 18, 2011, 7:56 am

Hi i do listen to music while meditating and see different colors while doing it. i have been doing this for six years and now when i listen to music on a cloudy day it starts to rain. And i have experinced lot of coincidence with numbers, incidents, people and etc.
So i want to know whether it is normal to experience these things.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 19, 2011, 2:57 pm

Hi, Mrinal.

I don’t think it’s normal to experience these things, and I’d suggest either that you stop meditating with music, or even stop meditating altogether. It might also be a good idea to talk to a doctor. Often these beliefs that we are experiencing events outside ourselves, or that the universe is providing us with coincidences can be a sign that the mind isn’t working in a healthy way.

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Comment from Dimebar
Time: July 20, 2011, 6:07 pm

Thank you for a great article, what you say about separating the enjoyment of music and practice of meditation makes a lot of sense and answers the questions I had perfectly. Your answers to mrinal and hani are considered and wise. I am quite new to buddhist meditation but I look forward to exploring your site in more depth. Thanks for making it available.

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Comment from fuxx
Time: July 22, 2011, 10:14 am

Dear Mrinal, Thanks for sharing your experience as some of us may be facing the same question. I think this is an great place to learn from each other experience.
As explained in this thread, music triggers emotions so it may not always be adequate to listen to it while meditating. Once emotions are triggered, they are difficult to let go of…especially if you love/ are sensible to music! And yet, at certain times, you may experience an increased awareness focusing on your hearing sense. (sound meditation)
We all are experiencing our own karma and facing different obstacles in the practice.
As Bodhipaksa said, it is wise to get advice from a doctor…, but I think what he means is more a spiritual friend than a psychiatrist. But don’t stop meditating. Buddha is the greatest of all doctors and the buddha-state lies within you. Keep practicing and your doubts will vanish by themselves. You may also find a renewed inspiration in reading (or rereading) the heart sutra (http://www.hsuyun.org/chan/en/sutras/sutrasinenglish/heart-sutra-eng.html) and studying the dharma. This is the medicine.
Wish you lots of joy in exploring the path.
with metta,

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 22, 2011, 10:29 am

I just want to clarify that I did mean a medical doctor or mental health practitioner. While Buddhist practice does help maintain mental health, it’s not capable of dealing with every mental problem that can arise, and sometimes extra help is needed,

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Comment from mrinal
Time: July 22, 2011, 12:21 pm

thank you very much for your time.

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Pingback from Parable of the Poison Arrow ‹ Erik Austin Deerly
Time: August 21, 2011, 9:04 pm

[...] Wildmind (Article: Possible misnomer of “meditation music”) [...]

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Comment from wedum22
Time: October 8, 2011, 8:26 pm

Hello,
I want to know what you think about the use of “Brain Entrainment” sounds, its not really music and is supposed to help get your brain into the proper frequincy for meditating. Just curious what you think about it.
Thank you

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 8, 2011, 8:40 pm

If some external sound is indeed able to passively induce particular brainwaves, then that’s not in itself meditation. Meditating is something you do. It’s an activity. To give a comparison, there may be particular brainwaves associated with running a marathon. If you could induce the same brainwaves by some other method, would you be fitter? it’s possible that there would be some effect, but being passively affected by sounds is not going to have the same effects as physical exercise. Nor is it going to have the same effects as meditation.

Listening actively to music can be a form of meditation, but in that case it’s meditation because you’re performing the same kind of attentive awareness that you cultivate while meditating.

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Comment from wedum22
Time: October 9, 2011, 9:09 pm

That puts it into perspective, Thank you much

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Pingback from Using music as a meditation aid | Rulers To The Sky
Time: August 30, 2012, 10:31 am

[...] 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 [...]

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Comment from Vanessa
Time: October 7, 2012, 2:15 pm

Hello, i am Deaf also, as like Malia. But i am really deeply deaf and feelings only. But I have “Implanted Cochlear” But i put the line in Opus 2 as “Headphone line” for USB in laptop, but it worked. And i feel hearing the music from my laptop into my brain, but i still don’t understand everything of English yet. But i only needed “Lyric” to READ and LISTEN in same time ,i will learn it as well, because my first language is Portuguese so i am from Brazil. That’s why i had to learn portuguese voices and sounds with my speech worker, and doing stuffs to hear and speak of my own voice. So you know, i can understand if i read lyric. Because it’s very useful for deafs to read.
But it’s great to read this whole texts because it is helpful for every lifes which they wish for peace and relax ,and plus happiness in aloneness place.

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Comment from J
Time: November 20, 2012, 11:30 am

Check out Nichiren Shoshu USA,
Other forms of Buddhist practices do not work now, this is the ONLY correct Buddhism that Shakamuni Buddha passed down.

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Comment from John
Time: November 29, 2012, 10:26 pm

If trying to obtain the “Buddhist goal” then listening to music at ANY time is almost out of the question. From the suttas this is “clinging to the ear” as a source of pleasure, and we should try to abandon pleasure.

I also have to disagree with you that you experience jhana while listening to music because the formula for jhana always states “quite secluded from sensuality.”

On the other hand, most people are meditating to learn to just relax and let go, and I see no problem with listening to music.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 29, 2012, 11:04 pm

This brings up some interesting topics, John. There is no concept of “abandoning pleasure” in order to attain enlightenment. In fact, jhana is intensely pleasurable, and piti-sukha (pleasure and joy) are jhana factors. Pleasure is something we cultivate in meditation and have to learn to work with. It’s clinging to pleasure that’s the problem. Pleasure is absolutely not the aim of Buddhist practice, but it arises with practice, so that someone who is practicing effectively is likely to experience more pleasure, not less. After all the Buddha said, “But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful’ [emphasis added].”

It’s true that monks were forbidden from attending musical performances, but I think this was to do partly with reasons of decorum — monks should now be seen mingling as equals with laypeople at entertainment venues — and also for reasons of restraint of the senses; monks should not be “party animals.” I’m not a monk, but “rocking out” is not what I’m talking about when I discuss listening to music as a form of meditation.

I think you misunderstand the phrase “quite secluded from sensuality.” As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

There’s the phrase in the description of jhana, “secluded from sensuality.” Some people interpret that as meaning totally cut off from any input from the physical senses. Some interpret it as meaning secluded from sensual pleasures, so that you have to meditate in a place that’s unpleasant or a place that’s very boring. But neither of those interpretations is what the Buddha means. Sensuality, in his sense of the word, is your passion for your sensual thoughts and plans; the extent to which you love to obsess about those things. So in being secluded from sensuality you’re not trying to close off any contact with outside senses and you’re not trying to put yourself in a dull, boring place. You’re trying to develop a more internal seclusion: If you see any sensual passion coming up, you sidestep it. You put it aside. [Emphasis added]

Again, it’s the craving for or clinging to pleasure that’s the problem, rather than the pleasure itself. In fact, in reaching fourth jhana while listening to music, there is no longer any sense of pleasure, but rather a cool sense of peace accompanied by a non-dual sense of unity with the music. There’s a lot of pleasure and joy on the way to fourth jhana — as I said before we cultivate pleasure in the jhanas — but eventually we move beyond pleasure. These things are rather hard to describe. If you’ve experienced fourth jhana in meditation I’m sure you’ll know what I’m getting at, though.

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Comment from John
Time: December 2, 2012, 3:58 pm

” This brings up some interesting topics, John. There is no concept of “abandoning pleasure” in order to attain enlightenment. In fact, jhana is intensely pleasurable, and piti-sukha (pleasure and joy) are jhana factors. Pleasure is something we cultivate in meditation and have to learn to work with. ”

You are absolutely right, when I said “we should try to abandon pleasure” I meant the pleasure of the five (or six) senses.

” It’s true that monks were forbidden from attending musical performances, but I think this was to do partly with reasons of decorum — monks should now be seen mingling as equals with laypeople at entertainment venues — and also for reasons of restraint of the senses; monks should not be “party animals.” I’m not a monk, but “rocking out” is not what I’m talking about when I discuss listening to music as a form of meditation. ”

I disagree. Monks should be avoiding entertainment venues, here is just one quote out of many:

“Whoever avoids sensual desires
– as he would, with his foot,
the head of a snake –
goes beyond, mindful,
this attachment in the world.”

Or he is another sutta that speaks about the way we should relate to food: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.063.nypo.html

Although that isn’t speaking of music, it is quite clear that the general Buddhist attitudes towards any pleasure of the flesh is that it should be avoided.

” I think you misunderstand the phrase “quite secluded from sensuality.” As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: ”

Well I don’t see any reason that Thanissaro Bhikkhu should be the authority on this matter. Furthermore, I agree that we do not need to meditate somewhere where it is unpleasant, but letting the mental state of boredom arise is something that should probably be abandoned by any serious practitioner (meaning the concept of a “very boring place” doesn’t exist to an experienced monk).

Secondly, Thanissaro said: If you see any sensual passion coming up, you sidestep it. You put it aside.

So what would be the point of meditating with music if all you would be doing is sidestepping it?

” Again, it’s the craving for or clinging to pleasure that’s the problem, rather than the pleasure itself. ”

Well I notice when people phrase statements like this what they are really saying is that it is TOO much craving or clinging for pleasure that is bad.

In other words, “I can experience pleasure but not cling to it.” I really don’t believe this that much though; because if you put the CD on (or whatever) then you by definition have at least a subtle craving, and there is clinging even though it might not quite have the connotation that “clinging” normally does.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 2, 2012, 4:59 pm

You are absolutely right, when I said “we should try to abandon pleasure” I meant the pleasure of the five (or six) senses.

But that (abandoning the pleasure of the five or six senses) also is not a requirement for Enlightenment. It’s not even possible, as long as we have human bodies. It’s attachment to and craving for pleasure (or any sort) that we’ve to relinquish.

“Whoever avoids sensual desires
– as he would, with his foot,
the head of a snake –
goes beyond, mindful,
this attachment in the world.”

Which makes my point for me: it’s attachment and sensual desire (desire equalling craving) that we’ve to avoid.

The Puttamaṃsa sutta, which you linked to, makes the same point:

if lust for the five sense-objects is comprehended, there is no fetter enchained by which a noble disciple might come to this world again. [Emphasis added]

You can’t point to passages saying that we shouldn’t be attached to pleasure and use them as a basis for arguing that pleasure should be avoided.

…the general Buddhist attitudes towards any pleasure of the flesh is that it should be avoided

But that’s impossible. Some food tastes pleasant. The warmth of the sun when we’re chilly is pleasant (which is presumably why the Buddha is depicted as sunning himself). Pleasure (and pain) cannot be avoided.

The Sallatha Sutta contains probably the best description of the Buddha’s teachings on pleasure:

“Monks, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. A well-instructed disciple of the noble ones also feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither-pleasure-nor-pain. [Emphasis added.]

The uninstructed one,

“As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling … Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it as though joined with it.”

As for the well-instructed, their attitudes to pleasure are quite different:

As he is not delighting in sensual pleasure, no passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He discerns, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling. As he discerns the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling, no ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

Basically, experience the pleasure but don’t invest in it or attach to it, and recognize it as an impermanent, transient phenomenon. Furthermore:

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it disjoined from it.”

So there’s no identification with the pleasure. It’s “not me, not mine, I am not this.”

Thanissaro said: If you see any sensual passion coming up, you sidestep it. You put it aside.

So what would be the point of meditating with music if all you would be doing is sidestepping it?

I think you’re failing to make the distinction between craving for pleaure (sensual passion) and pleasure. Sensual passion (craving, clinging) is to be sidestepped or abandoned. Pleasure is not. The pleasure that I find arising from meditatively listening to music has nothing to do with craving or clinging. In fact the pleasure that I find arising from meditatively listening to music would be destroyed by craving or clinging any kind of enjoyment, just as in meditation, pīti/sukha are destroyed by craving. It’s “letting go” or non-clinging that leads to the arising of pīti/sukha in both formal meditation and in taking music as an object of meditation.

Well I notice when people phrase statements like this what they are really saying is that it is TOO much craving or clinging for pleasure that is bad.

Well, that’s not what I’m saying. My experience is that any kind of craving for or clinging to pleasure is counterproductive (I wouldn’t use your word “bad” in this context).

if you put the CD on (or whatever) then you by definition have at least a subtle craving, and there is clinging even though it might not quite have the connotation that “clinging” normally does.

You might as well say that if you sit down to eat, or if you sit on the cushion to meditate, “then you by definition have at least a subtle craving.” If you want to do anything there’s some sort of desire present, but not all desire is clinging or craving, otherwise the only escape from clinging would be to refrain from acting altogether. Although this was the aim of certain practitioners at the Buddha’s time, this is not the Buddhist path.

But let’s say that sitting down to meditate (whether on the breath or on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”) involves some gross craving. Well, that just how it is. The whole point of meditation is to help us let go of craving, so if you sit down with craving in your mind that’s just something you’ll have to work through. And as you do that — as you let go both physically and emotionally — a great deal of pleasure and joy will arise. This is the pleasure and joy of non-attachment. It’s mindful and non-attached listening to music that leads to jhāna.

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Comment from John
Time: December 2, 2012, 11:58 pm

” But that (abandoning the pleasure of the five or six senses) also is not a requirement for Enlightenment. It’s not even possible, as long as we have human bodies. It’s attachment to and craving for pleasure (or any sort) that we’ve to relinquish. ”

I said “we should try to abandon pleasure.” Not “to become enlightened all pleasure must be abandoned.” In one sense it is impossible to abandon all pleasure if we have human bodies; however, the perception of normally pleasing things can be changed so that they aren’t seen as pleasing. This is why there are practices like contemplating the repulsiveness of food.

” Which makes my point for me: it’s attachment and sensual desire (desire equalling craving) that we’ve to avoid.

The Puttamaṃsa sutta, which you linked to, makes the same point: ”

If we are going to “[discern] the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling” then what is the point of listening to pleasant music while meditating? So that we can attempt to escape from it?

Furthermore, nowhere in this sutta is it said that it is alright for a contemplative to pursue any sensual pleasure.

“Basically, experience the pleasure but don’t invest in it or attach to it, and recognize it as an impermanent, transient phenomenon.”

I agree, but if this is supposed to be done, then why would you want to listen to music anyways?

The only reason you could ‘want’ to is if you had a desire to. And a desire for a sensual pleasure is to be avoided. The fourth fetter is “sensual desires” and the only reason you would seek to listen to music is because of a desire!

“Ven. Ānanda: The holy life is lived under the Blessed One with the aim of abandoning desire.”

The Samiddhi Sutta states

(http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn01/sn01.020.than.html)

Then the devata, coming down to earth, said to Ven. Samiddhi, “You have gone forth while young, monk — black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — without having played with sensual pleasures. Enjoy human sensuality, monk. Don’t drop what is visible here-&-now in pursuit of what’s subject to time.”

“My friend, I’m not dropping what’s visible here-&-now in pursuit of what’s subject to time. I’m dropping what’s subject to time in pursuit of what’s visible here-&-now. For the Blessed One has said that sensual pleasures are subject to time, of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks; whereas this Dhamma is visible here-&-now, not subject to time, inviting all to come & see, pertinent, to be known by the wise for themselves.”

“I think you’re failing to make the distinction between craving for pleaure (sensual passion) and pleasure. Sensual passion (craving, clinging) is to be sidestepped or abandoned. Pleasure is not. The pleasure that I find arising from meditatively listening to music has nothing to do with craving or clinging. In fact the pleasure that I find arising from meditatively listening to music would be destroyed by craving or clinging any kind of enjoyment, just as in meditation, pīti/sukha are destroyed by craving. It’s “letting go” or non-clinging that leads to the arising of pīti/sukha in both formal meditation and in taking music as an object of meditation. ”

If sensual pleasures are “stressful,” the fourth fetter is sensual desires, sensual desires should be sidestepped, and the holy life is lived for the purpose of the destruction of desire – then why listen to music?

“You might as well say that if you sit down to eat, or if you sit on the cushion to meditate, “then you by definition have at least a subtle craving.” If you want to do anything there’s some sort of desire present, but not all desire is clinging or craving, otherwise the only escape from clinging would be to refrain from acting altogether. ”

The Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta distinguishes between wrong types of desires and states:

“And how is desire outwardly scattered? Whatever desire is stirred up by the five strings of sensuality, outwardly dispersed & dissipated, that is called outwardly scattered desire.

So, yes, a desire for a sensual pleasure through the ear is counterproductive, but a desire for other things like

“There is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion, thinking, ‘This desire of mine will be neither overly sluggish nor overly active, neither inwardly restricted nor outwardly scattered.’ ” aren’t bad.

“You might as well say that if you sit down to eat, or if you sit on the cushion to meditate, “then you by definition have at least a subtle craving.”

“The warmth of the sun when we’re chilly is pleasant (which is presumably why the Buddha is depicted as sunning himself). ”

There is a difference between the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be a master at any of the themes of which I am speaking, this has just been my general perception of the Dhamma.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 3, 2012, 3:19 pm

Crikey, but this is getting a bit out of hand in terms of length and the time required to reply.

I said “we should try to abandon pleasure.” Not “to become enlightened all pleasure must be abandoned.” In one sense it is impossible to abandon all pleasure if we have human bodies; however, the perception of normally pleasing things can be changed so that they aren’t seen as pleasing. This is why there are practices like contemplating the repulsiveness of food.

The clarification in the first part of this is helpful, because that’s not what you originally appeared to be saying. And I agree of course that it’s impossible to abandon pleasure. But when you say “the perception of normally pleasing things can be changed so that they aren’t seen as pleasing. This is why there are practices like contemplating the repulsiveness of food,” that’s only true up to a point. The purpose of reflecting on the repulsiveness of food is to reduce craving (not pleasure). Of course that might also bring about a reduction in the pleasure one gets from the taste of the food. That would be a natural outcome. At the same time, that practice is traditionally seen as being suitable for those who are prone to craving. For those who are prone to ill will, the traditional teaching (detailed in the Visuddhimagga) is to surround oneself with beautiful things:

“…well-proportioned walls, posts, and steps, with well-prepared frieze work and lattice work, brightened with various kinds of painting, with an even, smooth, soft floor, adorned with festoons of flowers, and a canopy of many-colored cloth like a Brahma-god’s divine palace, with bed and chair covered with well-spread clean, pretty covers, smelling sweetly of flowers…”

…etc, etc, etc.

The point here is to deliberately evoke pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure.

You might want to wonder, for a moment, why Buddhist temples are adorned with beautiful art. It’s not to distract the monks from Enlightenment :)

I’ve already dealt with “The only reason you could ‘want’ to is if you had a desire to. And a desire for a sensual pleasure is to be avoided.” I’d suggest going back and reading that part of my response again. Not all desire is craving. Otherwise any desire to become enlightened would be an expression of craving and enlightenment would be impossible.

I’ll just deal with one other point:

If we are going to “[discern] the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, and escape from that feeling” then what is the point of listening to pleasant music while meditating? So that we can attempt to escape from it?

“Listening to music while meditating” is potentially misleading of course, since it might suggest having music on in the background while meditating, while what I’m talking about is experiments with taking the sound of music — but not “The Sound of Music” :) — as an object of meditation.

But, “what is the point of listening to pleasant music while meditating? So that we can attempt to escape from it?” I’m not sure what the “it” stands for here. I presume you mean the pleasure experienced while listening to music. But the answer is a qualified yes. There’s no attempt to escape from the pleasure, but pleasure is something we need to learn to work with skillfully in order to develop equanimity toward it. In my few experiments with meditating on music I’ve found that it’s possible to experience pīti/sukha, and then to progress through the jhanas to the point where pīti and sukha vanish, leaving a non-dual state of one-pointed, equanimous peace. This is, in fact, the normal progression of samatha meditation.

When you ask about the point of, in effect, cultivating pleasure in order to transcend it, this is exactly what one does in jhāna. One sits down to meditate, usually experiencing the hindrances. One works with the mind and quiets it, and as a result pleasure and joy “born of seclusion” arise (seclusion here meaning “seclusion from craving”). With continued practice, thinking ceases and pleasure and joy “born of concentration” (i.e. concentration on music, or the breath, or whatever) arises. Eventually both pleasure and joy vanish. The point of cultivating them is to transcend them. The way to the peace of fourth jhana lies through pleasure and joy.

If you don’t meditate, or haven’t been doing it for very long, then these things can be hard to understand. It’s easier to get “from the inside.”

Anyway, I hope this helps.

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Comment from Mike
Time: February 22, 2013, 2:35 pm

Thanks for this article. I’d been thinking about the distinction between meditating and listening to the music I love … this really helped clarify it.

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Comment from Michael
Time: March 3, 2013, 4:32 pm

Hey, while this doesn’t directly relate to the article, its a question regarding meditation that I’ve wanted an answer to for a while. I have just recently started to meditate, with my goal being to gain the ability to focus better, clear my mind, and get rid of brain fog. I’ve tried looking up which meditation technique is best to attain these goals, but all I find is “meditate”. Currently I just spend twenty minutes a day practicing the “rising and falling” exercise (shortly described here: http://www.vipassanadhura.com/howto.htm#e ) I’m wondering if I should continue to practice this exercise, or if using a different technique would be in my best interest.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2013, 5:35 pm

Hi, Michael.

I’m afraid I don’t have time to read and assess those rather extensive instructions. I did take a glance at it, and what I saw looked fine, although I didn’t look very deeply. I suppose I wonder why you’re asking. Are you unhappy with the technique you’ve learned?

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Michael
Time: March 3, 2013, 5:50 pm

I’m not displeased with the technique, but being a beginner(started a week ago today) I wanted to get a more experienced person’s opinion on what I should do. If you think its fine then I’ll stick with it, I do feel like I’m making progress ever so slightly, but I’ve read that it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to attain a higher level of enlightenment, so I would like to know if there was a more efficient way before I dedicate myself to something new. But you’ve answered that question, so there isn’t anything more for me to worry about. Thanks for your time!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2013, 10:45 pm

Ah, yes. Just stick with the practice. We need to let go of any sense of being in a hurry. The desire for results makes it harder for us to relax into the present moment and become more fully mindful.

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Comment from Matt
Time: September 18, 2013, 7:31 pm

Thanks for your article! I quickly skimmed it and found my answer. I studied music therapy in college and for a long time I would have to listen to music to fall a sleep (a lot of Brian Eno and Harold Budd albums).

But lately I began studying Taoism and Taoist meditation, and I’m noticing how my attention needs to be elsewhere, not focused on the music. Though there are times when listening to music for meditation has my complete attention, and I feel in another world in the music itself (which is great for submergence and study) I find that equally important is “proper” meditation environments and techniques like you talk about here.

Trying to find my balance ^_^ thank you!

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Comment from Leanne
Time: October 24, 2013, 10:32 pm

To me this seems to apply to audio books too. I would not think of listening to one during my meditations but I am starting to wonder if I should ditch them altogether because it encourages multi-tasking, such as listening while doing yoga, housework, or when I cross stitch instead of having mindfulness in what I’m actually doing. Your thoughts?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 28, 2013, 9:41 am

It sounds like you know what you want to do. Why not try just listening to the audiobook when you’re listening to the audiobook, and just cross-stitching when you’re cross-stitching, and see how it goes?

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Comment from Intellect
Time: December 31, 2013, 2:35 pm

I was browsing the internet and I came across this site. My question is not playing music while meditating but does playing music in thought helpful?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 1, 2014, 8:42 pm

I don’t know what “playing music in thought” means. Can you explain?

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Comment from Intellect
Time: January 2, 2014, 11:32 pm

What I mean is thinking of a song or playing a tune inside of your head. While meditating I find this happening and I wanted to know whether it is helpful or against meditation progress?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 3, 2014, 10:08 am

Having music running through our mind while we’re meditating is definitely not something I’d encourage. Quite the opposite, in fact. Having a tune running around in your thoughts runs counter to the stillness we’re trying to develop.

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Comment from Intellect
Time: January 3, 2014, 11:54 am

Thank you for confirming that.

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