A couple of months ago my favorite Delta Airline headphones finally fell apart and I found myself at Fries Electronics looking at an long isle stocked full of possible replacements. I did not want to pay too much but I was keen on buying a pair that would seal off outside noise. Since there was no way to try the sets in the store, all I could do is peer though the clear plastic packaging and try to guess which ones might be highly insulated. Based on looks and a low price, I made my pick and hoped for the best.
When I took my new headphones to the fitness center the next day, I knew right away that I should have paid more. Not only did my new phones not muffle outside noise, they seemed to actually amplify it. The music pumped over the fitness center’s sound system, the clanking of barbells and other equipment, nearby conversations, as well as the shouts of encouragement from the spin class instructor all seemed to be funneled into my ear, along with the music on my MP3 player. For a week or so I compensated to some degree by turning up the music on my player to an uncomfortable volume. That usually allowed me to tune out the outside noises and focus on my music. Mostly however, I just complained silently to myself for not immediately returning the headphones and for being so cheap in the first place.
Most of the tunes I have on my MP3 player have been recorded from a internet radio station that plays non-traditional jazz. Many of the compositions I listen to involve blips and beeps on electronic instruments as well as both musical and spoken samples from other sources. One day I suddenly realized that sounds that I thought were part of the composition I was listening to on my MP3 player were actually sounds coming from the outside world of the fitness center. Surprisingly, it sounded pretty cool, even those sounds I had initially found to be annoying. After that, I was never certain which of the sounds I was hearing were part of the music and which were extraneous.
At one point, I remembered Jiyu Roshi telling me about an interview with John Cage on Public Radio’s “Fresh Air. Here is a excerpt from the interview taking off from where Cage and Terry Gross are talking about noises in New York City, burglar alarms specifically:
CAGE: …and they may last three or four hours. It’s quite, that’s quite a problem. I think
that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they’re curiously slightly varying.
GROSS: What if you’re paying attention to something else at the same time?
CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time. And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it’s more effective than sitting cross-legged. I mean to say cross-legged in relation to…
GROSS: In meditation.
CAGE: Yes. It opens the – I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn’t you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we’re able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that’s my faith.
Cage, whose centennial was celebrated all over the world last year, is perhaps best known for his composition titled 4″ 33″. It consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. (He used a stopwatch to time this.) In other words, the entire piece consists of silence from the stage but someone in the audience could, if they allowed themselves to, hear sounds from the street, sounds from the audience, and even internal sounds. What you hear when you listen to 4’33” is more a matter of chance than with any other piece of music — nothing of what you hear is anything the composer wrote.
The idea was to show the arbitrariness of the distinction between “musical” sounds and “other” types of sounds and show the richness of going beyond the usual boundaries of our attention. According to Cage: “If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.” ― John Cage
Upon remembering this interview, I realized that my “special” headphones were providing a similar experience for me and this realization allowed for an interesting shift in perspective on what I was hearing. Whereas before I judged the extraneous sounds as “noise” and internally fought against them, when I remembered Cage’s work, and acted “as if” I were Cage, I was able to relax and be more inclusive. I don’t know that allowing these external sounds into my “mix”, so to speak, necessarily made for “better music” but I sure found my listening experience to be much more engaging; in short I was listening with more attention than I usually did at the fitness center.
It is interesting that as I was working on this blog, Adam Baer, a music critic, published an article in the LA Times called “A Resonance on Dissonance” which is his account of an experiment to see whether he could come to like musical pieces that he had long disliked by listening to them regularly. His experiment had mixed results but Baer seems to endorse the idea that exposing ourselves to experiences that we usually avoid is a good thing. This is not exactly the same as what I’ve been talking about, but it seems to deal with the same general principle.
I’ve done some of this kind of experimenting myself with music genres that I generally don’t listen to and have been, on occasion, pleasantly surprised. More consistently I have tried to do something like this with visual art. Some time ago, whenever I would enter an art gallery or museum, I would scope out the pieces hanging on the walls and instead of gravitating towards those that appealed to me from a distance, I would first look (spending at least 2 minutes with each one) at those that did not.
As with Baer, I can’t say that mere exposure to such works brought about an instant reevaluation, but there were always a couple of pieces that I came to appreciate, which would not have happened had I proceeded on my initial instinct to ignore them. I think what happens in such experiments is that by taking some time really looking at a piece of art, (or listening to music) one comes to appreciate that the artist make choices in the creative process that made sense to him or her. Such realizations allowed me to somehow connect with the artist as a person and a fellow artist. This kind of insight has occurred rather dramatically, on more than one occasion ,after being exposed to a docent’s tour of art I didn’t particularly care for at the Oceanside Museum of Art. Being informed about details of the artist’s life and how he or she approached art somehow made me more accepting of and more appreciative of what they had produced.
Is the intent of such “experiments” to come to love all art and music? On this, I think I agree with Baer, who, although finding some value in exposing himself to unfavored music, goes on to say the following: Obviously, no one, regardless of exposure, training or even a role as a public music appreciator, need to like anything, and that’s a sentiment that should be embraced more in the still-rigid concert hall. Hate Mahler’s seventh symphony? Walk out like you would at the Viper Room. Find Liszt unbearable? Shout or fight about it. We’re allowed to seize up to more than the thorny stuff, and a lot of these composers never suffered a fool or composer they couldn’t stomach. Let’s be human, real about the subject, just like the people who wrote the tunes”
So, if learning to like everything isn’t the point of such experiments, what is? I’d suggest that they can help us to become more mindful in the sense of the term used by Ellen Langer, an experimental social psychologist who has devoted her career to its study. To explore Langer’s ideas, I now turn to her latest book “On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity”, (purchased for $0.04 plus shipping) which will be the basis for several blog posts in the future.
According to Langer: Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16). She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become. We don’t realize when we are mindless. We’re not there to notice. If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times. The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered. When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point. When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)
What Langer calls “mindfulness” seems to be the same thing as being “awake/present/alive” as I have used this term (see THE ARTIST IS PRESENT) and so the importance of exposing oneself to new experiences is essentially a way of becoming engaged and pulling oneself out of the habit of relying on self-imposed and conditioned expectations and rules. Expectations and rules that are no long relevant or useful in our lives can be responsible for suffering in Buddhist sense of the term.
In “TO KNOW FLOW OR NO FLOW?” we saw that some degree of challenge or difficulty is necessary in order to have a flow experience. So called flow personalities are likely to be consistently engaging in the kinds of personal experiments that I have been talking about here, not just in relating to art but in all aspects of life.
In my next post I’ll delve deeper into Langer’s book. In the meantime, I am talking with several venture capitalists about the development of my “Mindfulness HeadPhones” into a commercial product.. I can’t share the details with you yet, but you can be sure that they will be really, really cheap.
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