Music, meditation, & mental health


This is the seventh article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist, and social worker. The others can be found here.

About 10 years ago when I was training as a social worker I studied and practiced the therapy of examining your past, culture, and values to understand yourself and others more; and became aware that music is quite an important aspect in my life. I had been brought up on classical music — unlike other members of my family I wasn’t that good at playing music, but I always loved to listen to it, even as a small child, and when I discovered pop & rock music in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s, that was it, I was hooked. ShaptavajraShawaddywaddy, Abba, Queen, then all the early 80’s Ska, and synth pop: Soft Cell, The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Ultravox, OMD, and New Order, leading onto indie rock like The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnyman, The The, and The Cure. I began to get into heavy metal rock a bit too, such as Iron Maiden and Whitesnake, and progressive rock such as Pink Floyd and Marillion. 

Going under

However, I know now that some of the music I used to listen to contributed to a build up of feelings of despondency, which culminated in a relatively serious few months of depression for me in the early 1990’s, when I was aged 21.  This peaked during my final year degree course, where I needed a couple of weeks’ break from the course.  Thankfully I received some excellent student counselling and I completed the degree course.  During the depression I suffered with insomnia, cold sweats, anxiety (being prescribed medication for anxiety), migraines, occasional panic attacks, apathy & overeating. There were other social factors too that contributed to the depression, such as too much alcohol & cannabis, peer pressure, the shock of my first attempts at working life, living away from home for the first time, & the pressures of the final year degree course; but I feel that a lot of the music I was listening to was a major contribution. I would enjoy the music, but then later feel heaviness and sadness in my heart. A lyric from one song comes to mind:

It was a bite of a night gone wrong and the effect of listening to negative songs.

Who sang this & what song, answers on a postcard please? Another song that springs to mind is called ‘Going Under’, a charming little song about alcoholism:

Can you understand it’s the way I choose to be.  Everything seems so easy this way but I’m going under fast. Slipping away. Am I so crazy???

Listen to the voice of Buddha

The anxiety I experienced made me want to find out how to deeply relax. I investigated yoga and Buddhist meditation, discovering that there is a direct correlation between your breath and your state of mind, and so by learning to breathe deeply you can completely dissipate and even eradicate any feelings of fear and anxiety.

In The New Meditation Handbook there is an explanation of how to experience inner peace and contentment just through breathing meditation:

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides, and our mind becomes still. A deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within.

Perhaps the mental health distress I was experiencing in the early 1990’s was awakening me to a potential higher level of consciousness. The interest in meditation led me to Buddhism. I became fascinated with Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, karma, & emptiness (the nature of reality), then later his teachings on love and compassion.

For a while I stopped listening to music. In 1995, I sold my whole record collection at Darlington Market for £5. I missed out on most of the Britpop of the 90’s, not listening to music until the early 00’s, re-discovering Madonna, U2, the Chilli Peppers, and one of my favourites, World Party.

The 7 years or so where I stopped listening to music was one of the happiest periods of my life. Partly I believe due to me not listening to any music, but also partly to do with my enthusiasm at the time for my meditation practice and me living in a community of likeminded people. The happiest times of my life have been when I’ve been living with others, whether friends or family, and the unhappiest times have been when I have been more isolated, with little social contact.

In time, I think I have matured, and now just take music for what it is; the music that I like being a simple pleasure to enjoy in the moment, which uplifts your spirits. There is a danger that any pleasure becomes meaningless or a big distraction, leading to strong minds of attachment to worldly pleasure; but I have found that with mindfulness and an uplifting of the mind, music is great! I have now realised the middle way between hedonism/pleasure and austerity/no pleasure. If it uplifts your mind and has no damaging side effects, then why not enjoy a little music to help you experience happiness from within.

This Strange Engine, called Marillion

I am grateful to have re-discovered Marillion, whose new singer Steve Hogarth put the soul back into rock music. Some of their songs are quite spiritual, with a whole album entitled ‘Happiness Is the Road’ mostly about staying happy in the moment. Then they have classic tracks such as ‘The Space’ and ‘This Strange Engine’, seemingly about the love and interconnectedness between our self and others. Their concept album ‘Brave’ is about a lady in mental health distress — suffering from epileptic seizures and contemplating suicide. That may sound heavy, but listening to it can be quite uplifting, perhaps cathartic, helping us release the negative emotions we can all get sometimes. Other songs include: ‘Gaza’ (about being a child caught up in a war torn country), ‘A Voice From The Past’ (about not having good sanitary conditions in the country where you live), and ‘El Dorado, (where there is empathy for people who have recently been caught up in the refugee crisis).

These songs have helped me increase my compassion, to move away from my own trivialities and selfish concerns, to be more aware of people in less fortunate situations than myself, and to do something about this. In the book Universal Compassion there is an explanation of how contemplating and meditating on compassion can help move our mind away from our own self-concern:

Instead of being concerned with our own problems, which serves only to make us depressed and unhappy, we should consider the difficulties of others. In this way, we will begin to feel sympathy for them. If we apply this to everyone we meet – friends, neighbours, strangers, rich or poor – we will find every ordinary being has problems.

While my empathy and compassion are increasing with this music, I am also reminded of ‘bliss’. As well as finding Marillion’s music meaningful, I find it blissful — the sounds of the guitar, the keyboards, the colourful lightshows during live gigs, all appearing to my mind and contributing to my bliss. The guitarist Steve Rothery plays many beautiful melodic guitar solos. and there are times when I just close my eyes, listen to the beauty of his music, and go into a small meditation, savouring each note that is being played.

There is a Buddhist practice of mentally offering beautiful things to your Spiritual Guide or Buddha, or of mentally giving away pleasant experiences, which has the effect of increasing and refining the enjoyment of bliss even more. Recalling a blissful experience in meditation can help you to concentrate in meditation. When not in meditation too, recalling a blissful experience can help you feel happy and focus on what you are doing.

Remember Stan ‘Your biggest fan’

Connecting with the singers and musicians can be a positive experience.  Fandom is an interesting concept. The whole set up at live gigs where the band are up on stage, at a higher level than you, and you can be singing and dancing, raising your arms up in the air etc, which can lead to us exaggerating our admiration of the singers and musicians we are enjoying, perhaps literally putting them on pedestals and idolising them. These days I either like to be at the very back of a live gig and observe everything that is taking place, or to stand a few rows from the front and take in and experience everything that is occurring. I see myself more of an observer of the music, taking a step back from it. I don’t totally immerse into the music and be one with it.

The singers and musicians themselves would probably say, don’t look up to me!? Mentioning no names, but many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this article have had issues with depression, drink & drug addiction, and relationship issues. Some of it I guess goes with the lifestyle, and some is just part of being human. Perhaps when I was younger there was a bit of transference taking place when listening to some of these people sing and play music in that there was a subconscious redirection of the feelings I had for the singer to feelings the singer has to the person they are singing about. Then, if they were unhappy feelings from the singer, I would subconsciously get unhappy. Today, I see pop & rock stars in a different light. They are very much human, like the rest of us; and some can be people that you can connect with and get to know. Despite similarities to us, they can have a very different lifestyle, the highs and lows of live shows and touring, the loneliness once back to normal life at home, fame & some fortune, big boosts to their egos, and clashes of personalities and disharmony when a band stagnate or split up. I now try and see musicians I like as fellow humans and encourage them to keep playing and performing, and to also try as much as possible to get on with each other, to keep on helping make their fans and themselves happy through the music they play. In the book Universal Compassion, it is said that:

If we sing a pleasant song to make others happy, so that they forget their worries even for a short time, this is also a virtuous verbal action.

In September 2018 I went to see Soft Cell play their farewell show, at The London O2. One song that surprised me was ‘Frustration’. It sounded as if they had stripped it down musically to its original version and added a few up to date topical lyrics:

I’m just an ordinary bloke, I wanna do so many things, I listen to my wife she’s nagging me, I listen to my kids they’re screaming. They want more things. They want iPads. They want mobile phones. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m having a nervous breakdown.

It sounded so relevant to our lives and society today. I think Marc Almond identified at an early age how dissatisfied many of us can be in our normal, material, domestic lives. Such songs of suffering can raise awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of many aspects of our lives and contribute to dealing with the fear and stigma that still exists in our society towards mental health distress.

I have followed Marc Almond’s solo career a little over the years. Marc has been a ground breaker and pioneer in many ways. Having difficulties with a learning disability – autism I think — in his early life, receiving threats and beatings on stage at early Soft Cell gigs, and his example of being a confident gay man in our modern society has helped shape a better society. Those within the LGBT group, and vulnerable people such as those with learning disabilities and/or who have mental health difficulties, are more accepted and included in our society these days.

The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum

I work in social care with adults with learning disabilities and I have also worked in mental health services. I understand sociology a bit and that is why I am sharing this article — to contribute to a social change towards people who have mental health difficulties. I love watching old clips from the 1970’s and 1980’s of our society and the popular music back then. There were some top pop and rock bands with some quite apt and ground-breaking names. Madness, Soft Cell and Fun Boy Three with their song; ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum.’ Mental health issues were just beginning to come to the forefront of societal view, and these bands and songs have played a part in raising awareness of the institutional care and abuse received by people with mental health problems. We now live in a slightly improved society in terms of both how we treat and view those with mental health distress, and hopefully this improvement will continue.

It’s great that today there is a societal shift towards people being more open about mental health difficulties. Fairly recent examples from the boxer Tyson Fury, Lady Gaga, and even Prince William and Prince Harry, about varying degrees of mental health distress they have experienced have been liberating for so many people. Maybe more and more people will also be able to find their ways toward meditation, mindfulness, and even Buddhism, which I think everyone can benefit from on some level.

I was in my early 20’s when I suffered with depression, and from documentaries I have recently seen about mental health it is not uncommon for the younger generation, say people in their 20’s, to go through some mental health difficulty. It is perhaps a phase many young people work through as they find their feet in life. However, mental ill health can happen to anyone! – young, old, male, female, rich, and poor. The mental health charity MIND says that:

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

I do believe that at least half the battle with mental ill health is sociological, in that as a society we need to acknowledge that we all have mental health distress e.g. stress, anger & grief, and that depression is very common. There does seem to be a more open attitude to mental health difficulties now.  Social media is playing a part in opening up these attitudes, with various support groups on Facebook and Twitter for people who suffer from specific mental health diagnoses.  Perhaps, though, there is a danger in getting stuck there, identifying with our mental health distress too much, and not looking for answers to help reduce and heal our distress?

clouds in skyI think half the battle is acknowledging that we can all get mental health distress, but I do believe we can all get better too! As stated, acknowledging our mental health distress is a first step, and eventually we can do this with every moment of our mind so that, as soon as any distress arises in our mind, we are mindful of it. When we do this, quite often the distress subsides. These are just thoughts. All thoughts and feelings are just temporary aspects of our mind. We can give our thoughts too much energy and, yes, some of them can be dark and scary; but they are just thoughts. My friend Marc in his recent live version of Soft Cell’s ‘Frustration’ sings about thoughts we may have towards our boss:

I could be a great dictator, Then I could, I could kill my boss, I have these thoughts, these dark thoughts, I wanna push them away, push them away.

This is the problem — we want to push our thoughts away, fight with them, suppress them, conceal them with something else, perhaps a sensory enjoyment, or some physical or verbal activity or distraction. In the book How to Understand the Mind it states that:

The true nature of our mind is clarity, which means it is something that is empty like space, always lacking form, shape and colour…. Our thoughts are only temporary minds, and very unstable. They suddenly arise and quickly disappear, like clouds in the sky.

If we could just learn to sit with our thoughts and feelings we would learn that they are just like clouds in a sky that come and go, and that underneath them is a clear mind, like the clear blue sky, the true nature of our mind, which is peace. Then if we learn to access this peace, which is inside all of us, we can learn how to stay happy & mentally strong all the time.

I find through observing my own mind that feelings of depression are like an inner anger inside us. Perhaps something we are annoyed about or unable to express, and therefore it stays inside us as we churn things over in our mind. It’s good to learn to express how we are feeling, and ‘get things off our chest’; but, also, meditation and mindfulness is another tool, and can help us become aware of any unhappy feelings in our mind, to try and let go of them and replace them with more positive feelings.

Nowhere Now?

Ward Thomas are two young sisters who mainly sing country songs, many of which they have written themselves. They’ve had a recent single called ‘No Filter’ which is about self-acceptance. They say themselves that it is about learning to accept who we are and to embrace every aspect of ourselves — in a world where we are tempted to cloak our lives in a filter online, with social media etc.

 

Buddhist contemplations on music

Music is everywhere, and is part of every culture, including Buddhist ones. There was one Buddhist meditation master in Tibet, called Milarepa, who used to sing all of his teachings. There is a story of Sadaprarudita told in The New Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness, the nature of reality, to him using sound as a basis. How is a musician able to produce their music? Where is it? Can you point to a part of the music, and say “there it is”? I love a good traditional rock band: singer, lead guitar, bass, drums, (& perhaps a keyboard) — and it takes all these parts and chemistry together to form the music of that band. There are many parts: the minds, intentions and memories of the individual members, the instruments they are using, and the collective chemistry and sounds coming from them as a whole. Not one of these individually is the music, and yet take even one of them away and the music of that band vanishes.

Where exactly can you say the sounds and music are? Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? This is contemplation on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music is not ‘out there’ anywhere. There is no real coming or going. Each elaborate piece of music or song was imputed by our mind on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the music we love.

The point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemise it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

In the Buddhist story Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Buddha in rainbowMusic depends on other things for its existence, which means it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist? Everything depends upon the mind.

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than a rainbow appearing from an empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music even more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. Test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back. Any type of music, even heavy rock. Buddha would say: ‘it is all arising from empty like space.’

I love going to live gigs, but I always want the gig to last longer, maybe into the night. When it’s over, where has all that music gone? It’s finished, gone, now just a memory in our mind. So, when at a gig or when listening to music I try and savour every moment of the music, every note, relax and enjoy.

With a little help from my friends

Picture1.pngEverything in moderation. I’d recommend a good life outside of music too, good social contacts, loving relationships, a job, regular income, exercise, and especially spiritual meaning. Making music can be a way of offloading and expressing how you are feeling, but yes it can be quite negative for the listener if there is some transference of any negative feelings from the singer to the listener, and we can get really attached to music, it taking us to a completely different world where we can find ourselves too often, not dealing with the present people and challenges in our lives. Maybe though, through just accepting what music is, a simple enjoyable pleasure, and learning how to become mindful of every moment of our lives, we can enjoy music more, becoming mindful of every note and every sound.

I am grateful for all the music I have encountered in my life so far, even if some had a negative effect on me when I was younger. It’s brought me to where I am now, and I have learnt to listen to music in a different light. If I hadn’t gotten depressed when I was younger, I wouldn’t have found the answers to questions I was looking for, nor the techniques I have learnt to deal with and transform problems and difficulties.

Personally, I believe that whenever someone is having some mental health crisis in their lives, it’s almost like a spiritual or existential crisis. We are all very sensitive souls, and when we are getting way too sensitive to cope, this can be an indication that we need to try and get some help, talk with someone; and perhaps there could be a spiritual life of some sort available for you.

It’s great that people are now talking more about mental health in our society. Long may this continue! Please do seek help if your mental health distress is getting too much. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have it. Find someone to talk to about it.

Over to you. Comments for the guest author and other readers are very welcome.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 37 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

7 thoughts on “Music, meditation, & mental health”

  1. Hey! This is so cool 🙂 Music is definitely a powerful force. It helped me deal with mental dis-ease my whole life. It helped me understand that I wasn’t the only one who experienced such torment. I liked Human League, The Cure and The The too, these artists are so wise in their understanding of what the mind can do, and beautifully able to articulate feelings that so many of us bury. Listening to their songs and going to shows was a catharsis and helped me to discover compassion for everyone else relating to the same feelings being expressed and led me to Geshela (tho He was there all along). But I always knew that there was no solution in the music and its obvious that the artists themselves are struggling. Kind of a let down… I also fell madly in love with Sinead O’Connor in the 90’s and felt like we could connect in some sort of fairy tale way of empathizing with the whole world. Imagining we were like ephemeral friends helped me to survive. But it wasn’t refuge and now she is courageously demonstrating to the world what mental illness can do – sort of like a martyr I guess. I remember a line from a Cure song, ‘the times it hurts just to breathe.’ Those times are scary and really suck!!! And it helps to know you aren’t alone – that other people are listening to that song too – which helps me generate effort to turn my mind to Dharma – doing it for all of us. There was a period of about 3 years when I didn’t listen to music at all but now that a lot of my favorite songs are on YouTube – I listen to them when I need to feel that connection or to uplift my mind. I try to invite Geshela into my experience and only listen to a few songs at a time so that I don’t get too involved in the negativity but stay focused on using it as inspiration to bring samsara down. Thanks for all you are doing to help people accept, understand and appreciate what the mind can do. Lots of love!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Sounds like u have had similar experiences with music, and similar taste. I think Phil Oakey from The Human League comes across well and prob doesn’t have too many traumas etc. I listen on youtube to a few songs too, to relax when I am too tired to meditate. It’s sometimes nice looking back and checking where u have come from and how u have developed. I still enjoy occasional live gigs but reckon in time I’ll maybe listen to less music, to be less distracted, but as explained music can open your heart and be transformed with mindfulness…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some really excellent points and my self-cherishing loves the fact we are of the same era. I used to hang out with members of Marillion in my home town, I think I should have paid more attention to their music but I was too shallow to find meaning in anything back then.

    I love the contemplating what is music, the space between the notes making the whole, very profound.

    Very interesting to notice the link between mental health and music. On beginning the spiritual path I found I could only listen to classical and opera, and I had never been interested in it before. As though the depth and complexity of the music was a better reflection of how my internal world was developing.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts so well and meaningfully. I thought I knew who you are but I don’t now .. hmm a mystery 🧐. ❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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