Vipassana and Jazz

 

The completion of the 10 day Vispassana Meditation course in 2013, as taught by S. N. Goenka, has had a profound effect on my mind. It is a simple technique that contains the potential to free the practitioner from suffering both mentally and physically, and enables one to experience the present moment of reality free from the delusion of craving and evasion.

Background

Since moving to Japan one year ago, I’ve had a strong pull to reconnect with an organized spiritual practice. There’s something special about the spirit here in Japan that strongly inspires me; perhaps its the thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that are omnipresent throughout the country. A couple months ago my wife and I went through a movie watching phase with the topic being Eastern Thought. After a couple weeks of watching many amazing films we came across the American made documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers”. It’s about a maximum-security prison in Alabama that used the 10 day Vispassana Meditation retreat on 20 volunteer inmates. The program had been used with great positive results in India’s prisons and was also successful in Alabama. This inspired us to do some research.

After the movie, I referenced it’s website and found a link to the main Vipassana Meditation site (www.dhamma.org). I found the closest school to my Tokyo home was in Chiba where they offer classes year round. With summer leave just a month away and course availability open, I signed up (my wife also signed up to take the course 2 weeks before me).

Having been exposed to Buddhist and Shamanistic thinking since childhood by my mother, new age mysticism from my dad, and then venturing out on my own to learn many of the teachings and practices of Zen, Osho, Yoga, Carlos Castaneda, Stuart Wilde, Dan Millman, Tom Brown’s spirit that moves through all things, NLP, Stephen Hayes’s Kasumi-An Dojo Tendai Mind Sciences, and Richard Bartlett’s Matrix Energetics…just to name a few, I felt like I knew a little about what I might be signing up for, but nothing specific other than what I had learned from the Dhamma Brothers movie (which didn’t go into the specifics of the technique at all).

Upon being accepted into the course, I received an email with some basic guidelines for what to expect:

What Vipassana is not:

It is not a rite or ritual based on blind faith.

It is neither an intellectual nor a philosophical entertainment.

It is not a rest cure, a holiday, or an opportunity for socializing.

It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

What Vipassana is:

It is a technique that will eradicate suffering.

It is a method of mental purification which allows one to face life’s tensions and problems in a calm, balanced way.

It is an art of living that one can use to make positive contributions to society.

In essence, it is the exact technique that Buddha used and taught to thousands to free oneself from suffering. And in the true spirit of what he taught, it is a nonsectarian technique that can benefit anyone without infringing upon any current religious beliefs.

The 10-Day Course

“You are performing a deep surgical examination of the mind” – S. N. Goenka.

The course itself was actually 12 days; they call the first day ‘day zero’ because everyone is traveling in and getting registered, but shortly after the afternoon checkin, turn in of all reading and writing materials and anything else that could otherwise distract attention, we jumped into our first instruction, practice, and undertook Noble Silence (9 days of no talking and non physical gestures — we were to make as if there was nobody else at the course other than ourself). They used the 10th day to break the silence in order to transition us back into normality of the world. Each day consisted of 10+ hours of sitting on the floor in meditation, eating vegetarian meals, a one hour discourse, and then sleeping…4am to 9pm every day.

The first few days were dedicated solely to the practice of Anapana. This is a breath sensation observation meditation that focuses, calms and concentrates the mind. If all you were to do was Anapana, you would find amazing benefits to all aspects of your life due to the increased ability to concentrate on tasks at hand and not let your mind wander and distract you.

Then we moved on to the heart of the practice…Vipassana. Summed up from my perspective, Vipassana is the technique of experiencing true reality of the present moment as it manifests as sensations throughout the body. The goal is to purify the mind and liberate yourself from the cravings and aversions you have to the present moment. It teaches you to become aware of the habitual mind body reaction patterns that run on the subconscious level by using the simple tool of observation. This detaches you from emotional patterns and allows you to accept reality as it is, as opposed to how you want it to be.

Most importantly, Vipassana has to be practiced and experienced; it has little practical value as a philosophy or intellectual concept. You gain insight and wisdom only by your own hard earned discoveries. It is not something that can be learned though a book; instead, you learn truth by experiencing reality through your own mind and body, not somebody else’s explanation. All and all it’s an incredible technique that I will continue to practice daily. Definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, both mentally and physically. Riding the ups, downs and breakthroughs after blockages was extremely fulfilling and inspiring.

Vipassana and Jazz

During one mediation, sitting completely motionless and feeling excruciating pain in my legs and back, I think, “I have to stay in this position another 30 minutes, how am I going to endure this?” I think of my Vipassana instruction, “Don’t react, just observe. All pleasant feelings and all bad feelings come from the same place; just observe and know that everything eventually changes.” Breakthrough moment: I suddenly think about my musical experiences with jazz…tension notes, dissonance with harmony, dissonant chords, cross rhythms, the beauty in playing things slightly “off” from center…these are some of the things that make jazz music so wonderful to me. Without tensions in music it would be monotonous and static, never going anywhere and creating dramatic variance. Back to the present moment: I related these split-second thoughts to my immediate pain and realized that my physical discomfort was equivalent to the dissonance in music. I think, “Stop reacting to the pain by wanting it to stop. Instead become curious about it. Remove the label of ‘pain’ and become objective with what exactly is being experienced. Like a scientist in a laboratory who is just noticing and taking notes without becoming emotionally involved with what’s being observed, I became detached and removed from my reactions and just aware of the present moment. Upon experiencing this I suddenly felt my pain, under the microscope of awareness, shift and change slightly…so interesting. It was a Matrix movie moment where I was pulled out of the fake reality and aware of the matrix for what it is.

Applying this mindset to listening to music

“There is no bad music, just negative labels you attach to how you think you perceive; if you experience the music for what it is, just an organization of sound, then you can enjoy all the sounds that enter your ears” – paraphrasing of concepts regularly expressed to me by the great NYC jazz improvisation teacher, Richard Tabnik.

Music is sound vibration being transmitted through the air. Everything in the entire world is also vibration, so in essence we listen to and experience music by feeling it. In this sense there is no separation from the music and the perceiver…they become one and the same. Vipassana teaches us to feel sensations in the body and to observe them objectively. When we listen to music we can experience the sounds for what they are and notice how our bodies are effected by them. Observe the mind reactions both negative and positive, “This is terrible”, “I don’t want to listen to this anymore”, “I like this”, “I want to hear more”. Find the place of balanced detachment where you are aware of these reactions, and you are perfectly content for them to exist without being pushed to one side or the other through craving or aversion.

Remove the instant labeling that the mind wants to give to the music you’re listening to…”This guy sounds like Joe Henderson”, “This solo isn’t as good as the last one”, etc…The lists of mind chatter are endless and always interfere with the actual present moment of sound reality. Find the place where you feel the music in your body and experience the sensations objectively. Subjective mind gets in the way of true experience. A whole new world of listening can open by lowering the volume to the subjective mind.

Sit with Dissonance

To become familiar with the multitude of tension notes in music and build objective tolerance to their dissonance, play simple chords on a piano: Root, 3rd, 7th (the basic structure of the chord), and then systematically add tension notes one at a time. Start with Root, 3rd, 7th and add a flat 9th. Next do Root, 3rd, 7th and add a sharp 9th. Then add a sharp 11th, and then a flat 13th. Then try all the possible combinations such as Root, 3rd, 7th, flat 9th and sharp 9th. Root, 3rd, 7th, sharp 9th and flat 13th, etc… The most important thing is to play the chord, let it sustain for a long time, and let your ears soak in the sound and subtle differences in tension qualities…just sit with it without reacting. Become intimately related with each variation and feel the vibrations. In the cosmic reality of music there is no difference between the intervals of a major 3rd (very pleasant sounding to most ears) and a minor 9th (very unpleasant to most ears)…there are both simply vibration.

In conclusion

Vipassana meditation will be of huge benefit to my life as a jazz musician, family man, military professional, educator, record label operator and beyond. It is a simple pragmatic tool to help deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday life and to become a more calm and happy person. Only having scratched the surface of the discipline, I’m happy to have entered the stream and am excited to continue along the path.