Aldous Huxley may have foretold these current noisy times when he wrote Brave New World in 1931, but he also provided something of a cure-all when he famously wrote, “After silence, that which comes clearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Today silence is as endangered as the environment. As audio ecologist Gordon Hempton noted on a recent On Being with Krista Tippet podcast, there are at most a dozen truly quiet places left on the planet, which makes the practice of stilling the mind through meditation all the more necessary for artists and humans of all stripes.
For the following Minnesota musicians, meditation has helped balance the chaos of the loud world and the auditory rush of music making with the quiet inner soul so crucial to the creation of original thought, songs, and musical pieces. Here in their own words (edited for length and clarity) are four area songwriters, talking about their meditation practice and providing tips for anyone looking to dive deeper.
I’ve been meditating since 2000. I’d really been getting interested in Joseph Campbell, and that really sparked something in me. I was getting very interested in that realm of possibilities within myself, and I wanted to cultivate that. So I looked for meditation groups in Chicago, and I attended a close one, and all it was was just sitting. It was Zen meditation on a Tuesday night, something that I did every week, and I kept with it. There was a period of time in my life when I wasn’t doing it, but I got back to it once we moved up here.
I think it just keeps me in check. Every time my ego might be getting bigger, I’m able to see that subjectively. It’s a moment to reset, really. It’s something I usually do in the morning. It’s a great way for me to start the day, just to let go of everything and just let myself be as I am and accept how that is, and not necessarily trying to get away from how I feel or my thoughts, but just sitting with them and seeing where I’m at.
Meditation helps put a mirror up to the ego, and to observe it, and it gives you a moment to check yourself, really, and to just see yourself from a different point of view instead of just your ego mentality. Understanding that that part of you, the ego, exists in a way throughout the day, and it’s just a part of you that you use to be in society. But there is a moment in time, which is meditation, where all of that drops off and it feels nice to take a break from that. You know, it’s okay.
There are moments, especially being a musician or any artist who has to promote themselves, it becomes difficult. I have to step into those shoes, but I have to realize I can step out and not always walk in them. There are times when it’s necessary that I have to promote myself, to play that role, but it’s only part of me; that’s not all of me. There’s much more in my life going on than music, or promoting stuff. There are a lot more levels to me than that. So checking up on yourself helps you not to get too high. I’ve got a song called “Not Quite So High,” and that kind of talks about that.
But music is super-connected to my practice, and it inspires me, so that’s why I write a lot about that sort of thing. For me, meditating can be a way to empty yourself so that you can receive the creativity that is all around us; to be open to catch what’s going on and to be able to digest it and give it back in your own unique way. You can’t necessarily maybe do that if your brain is too full or there’s too much chatter.
Art comes in many forms, and it can come from anywhere and anybody, but I feel like meditation plays a part in my creativity in that way. When I’m doing that, coming up with riffs and whatnot, that’s a meditation in itself. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner or work in the morning, I’m just focusing on whatever comes comes, and again, it’s just a matter of having a clear mind in order to accept and flow what is coming in and out of the ether.
For me, my main [meditation teacher has been late British philosopher and Zen master] Alan Watts. I listen to his lectures a lot and I connect with that.
The 45-year-old leader of Little Man celebrates the release of his new album, In Between the Lions , September 27 at the Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge.
My first dive into meditation was when I was in seventh grade. I was taking taekwondo and the master would have us do a visualization before we started fighting. So we’d visualize natural places--waterfalls, forests, and oceans—and so that was my first real look internally. Then I started getting really more internal and artistic, and in eighth grade I got sort of alienated from people, and I would prefer to read, or paint, or listen to music. It was a shifting time for me.
Then in college, I was a psychology major at UMD and I studied with the head of the department at that time. He was very progressive, from California, and in part of our curriculum we learned meditation and yoga, so two or three times a week we were meditating for an hour, and that’s when I really got into it.
Now I use my practice to turn things off and go internal and hear what rises out of my headspace when nothing else is stimulating it. It’s a form of mind training; it goes from audible, to quiet, to silent, and then I can feel this reverberation in my heart space, and it’s super cool.
With music, meditation is a way of letting go of expectations or the hope of... You’re creating something, but then you’re surrendering the fruits of your labor to whatever it may be. So this practice is of thoughts arising, but not attaching to them or letting them take you for a ride. So it’s really been a strengthening process for me.
I think people are so afraid of meditation, because they don’t think they’re doing it right. I think our minds are predisposed to negativity. It’s like that vestige fight-or-flight to protect ourselves, and you can go this negative way, but to be able to feel a thought arise and not get hooked into it can be so freeing. Our thoughts are just coming up and coming up—it’s just a wellspring of creativity, and our minds are full of stories and they may or may not be true. But then harnessing what is underneath that, constantly answering that, “Who am I?” question, and constantly digging, digging, digging and see what it uncovers. It’s fascinating; there’s always something to uncover.
I use Insight Timer, the meditation app. I just use it for timing the length of my meditation. I usually do it 11 minutes a day, and it quotes your stats, so if people want to see I’m legit, they can. I’d also recommend Meditation for The Love Of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton. It’s really beautiful, with many different versions of meditation.
The 38-year-old Duluth-launched singer/songwriter and yoga instructor heads to Bali and India to lead workshops on creativity and yoga in the winter, and releases her new album, The World Is Your Lover, in the spring.
I’ve been meditating for 25 years. I got into it in college. I always felt like I had some sort of inner dialogue going on. When I was in college, a couple friends of mine went to Thailand and met a Thai monk and meditation teacher, and we started having these conversations about what they were learning, and it felt like the mindfulness practice that they were talking about was something I was already familiar with. It was like being shown a map of something you’d already suspected, and I saw the benefits right away of tracking what’s going on internally.
Finding a path of internal refuge and healing and getting to know the full spectrum of one’s own self or spiritual inheritance—that’s accessible, and powerful. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist meditation even. There are contemplative traditions in Christianity and Judaism and Islam; from my understanding they have their own methods of self-inquiry. That there is a way out. One of the main teachings of the Buddha is that there is suffering, and that there is a way to unravel or find one’s way out of suffering, and that starts with the mind. They say the “heart-mind” so the mind doesn’t mean the brain, it’s more our inner presence or sense of self.
Musicians are probably intentional about meditating because I think most musicians experience a kind of meditation, or a zone, when it collectively starts to happen and then when that’s really happening authentically, I think there’s connection with the audience, and then there’s sort of a drawing in. You can tell that with bands who have quote-unquote chemistry.
I had a very profound moment at a Wilco concert at the Palace Theater, where I was watching the proceedings kind of as a meditator and I thought, “Music is always in the now, and people are now riding the wave of the unfolding now because they know and love this song.” So their minds aren’t going anywhere else. They’re singing along, and they’re feeling the feeling of the song, and I thought, “This is like group meditation.” And if you’re catching it, there’s a consciousness shift in a really live experience that’s like church—that’s like a human experience: People know they love it; not all of them are conscious of why, or the mechanics of what just happened, but they had an amazing time.
The 53-year-old leader of American Pleasure Dome is a painter, Buddhist, and singer/songwriter who recently released his self-titled debut record with APD.
I’ve been meditating for 20 years. I was really fortunate to find Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis early on, and it was through finding that community that I started meditating. I also took a mindfulness course in college, and I remember in that class solidifying those ideas of Buddhism and the ideas around non-violence and compassion and what it is to practice radical acceptance and radical love and really being interested in that warrior path.
For me, meditation has been a way to reduce the noise and become more of a listener of my own heart and mind. It’s a way to be intimate with yourself. It’s just helpful. The meditation I do is the vipassana, which is basically seeing things as they are. I’m so interested in truth. What is truth? I want to get underneath the things that we think, and get to the core, and all of my songs have really been an effort to understand my life, and our life, and what it is we’re doing here. So it’s an extension of my practice. Sometimes I write stories, or songs about another person, but it’s always got dharma in it; it’s always about how do we as human beings see how precious our life is and how we can really be here for it.
Songwriting is a spiritual practice. I always tell people in songwriting class that I follow the shiny object when I’m writing, and part of meditation practice is concentration, and being able to follow a train of thought, or follow the shiny object. But also to be able to add a little distance… I really practice through meditation being the observer, and it really strengthens my ability to see myself in a way that’s not so full of myself. So much of what we experience is just a result of us being human beings, being the kind of animal that we are. You know, it’s not personal. So in a way, I use that tool in my songwriting. It’s not personal. When I’m writing, I want to be effective. I want to write truth, so it’s easier for me to get out of the way because I’ve practiced seeing more clearly with my own heart and mind that is messy and that has shadow, and light.
Because of meditation, I have practice with sitting with that kind of discomfort, and so my capacity for discomfort and understanding that things come and go has grown. In the creative life, it’s all about things coming and going. It’s all about trying to grab on to something that is spirit. I’m always trying to write with this emotional center that’s connected to something greater than us. It’s a collaboration, and so the more quiet I can get, the more I can learn to really listen to the truth of my own heart and mind, to what the chords are doing, and doing that from an observer point of view.
I love Pema Chodron. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times is a wonderful book about grieving and tradition. Another wonderful book that I go to a lot is [Chodron’s] The Wisdom Of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, and I love Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, and Sharon Salzberg has a book called“Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience that I absolutely love. I always return to those.
The hard-touring 43-year-old singer/songwriter is currently “working to be a balanced folksinger mom as the parent of a 9-year-old” and gearing up for the release of her new record, Ordinary Love, in February.