MUSIC, TRANCE AND MINDFULNESS

My last post  contained a music video called “Dronology 101: Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk” (scroll down to read) and prompted a couple of interesting responses from readers.  In this post I want to start to address these remarks.  You can read the comments by Charles and James by looking in the Replies Section to the Right.

I can’t tell you how many times I feel asleep while working on this music video; often waking up with a smile on my face at the irony of me falling asleep during an art piece that I hoped would capture the interest of an audience.  Granted, unlike Charlie, I did not usually work on this after drinking coffee.  For me, the video was a metaphor for the painful process of waking up (i.e. becoming perpetually mindful) in the Buddhist’s sense.  So having practiced Zen for over 10 years, I identified with each and every one of the people and animals in the  video.  However, as an artist I am also interested in whether art and music can and should strive to induce mindfulness among viewers/listeners and this interest is behind the current series of posts.

 

Like Charlie, I have difficulty with most minimalist music, finding that I either tune it out and start thinking about something else, fall into reverie or physically fall asleep.  On the other hand, like James, I like the use of drones if and when there is something else going on in the music.  This, of course, is just my opinion and could see someone making the argument that even in the most  repetitive of music, one should be able to mindfully find variety and nuisance enough to maintain their attention (See Langer’s take on “mindfulness by using the Search feature on this site).  I once attended an Aftican Drum class where the instructor had each of us playing a simple repetitive pattern over and over.  As a jazz drummer, I kept hearing complicated riffs that I wanted to play.  Not being allow to do this I, at first, become bored and wanted to leave.  However, after about 15 minutes of this process, I suddenly became aware of what other drummers were doing and how my simple part contributed to the larger whole.  As I let go of my personal needs and interests, I shifted temporarily into a non-ordinary state of consciousness, a trance, to use a term that Charles brought up in his comment.

Because drones and repetitive drum patterns often accompany trance states in traditional societies, Westerner scholars have spent a lot of ink trying to account for the relationship between music and trance.  Part of the problem is that the term “trance” has no universally agreed upon definition and the nature of the trance state (both external behavior and phenomenology) varies greatly from culture to culture. Efforts to find a universal psycho physiological marker of trance has lead only  to the observation that in a trance a person is deeply relaxed but not asleep.   Summaries of studies of the music-trance connection suggest that  the most that can be said is that music can lead  to trance if and when those participating (ie. playing instruments, singing, dancing or simply witnessing,) want to and expect to go into a trance. If you play a drone instrument within hearing distance of someone, for instance, they will not automatically go into a trance. 

This is similar to hypnosis; a subject will go into a trance only if he or she allows that to happen.  I once volunteered to be a subject in a class  I was taking in hypnosis.  The teacher guided me through a variety of relaxing procedures and I willingly allowed myself to become completely relaxed, although I was aware of the teacher’s voice and aware that other students were watching.  Once relaxed, I felt very comfortable and did not worry about what I was going be asked to do or about what the others were thinking about me.  The usual thought processes slowed down and although I was aware of the teacher’s voice, I felt like I was in a state of “semi-awareness” (to use the term in Dronology 101).  At some point she told me that she was going to ask me my address and that I would not be able to remember it.  I recall briefly thinking to myself something like: “I could remember that if I wanted to but it would take too much effort and would require moving out of this wonderful relaxed state”.  So there was a conscious decision on my part to play along with the hypnotist’s request and not try to come up with my address, even if others might think that my inability to do so meant that I was deficient in some way.

 

As I said the term “trance” is not well defined and seems to refer to a wide range of situations where, temporarily, the usual left brain process slow down or stop completely. Since our left brain processes are responsible for how we define ourselves, we often strive to keep them going and view any shift away from their dominance as a cause for concern.  This can happen in minor ways when we forget something we should know or do something absentmindedly.  However, sometimes, more than most people acknowledge, we experience marked shifts of this nature.  In Western culture, where left brain dominance is almost universally considered to be the norm, shifts in consciousness of this nature are viewed as signs of mental illness or procession or some other undesirable phenomenon.  It is generally agreed that a person’s specific experience during such shifts of consciousness and their understanding and reaction to it afterwards, depends on their mental set and the setting during the incident.  This idea was especially useful in understanding altered states attained by using psychotropic drugs, but has also been used to describe shifts occurring under non-drug induced situations.

With regard to “setting”, a person who has this kind of experience in a church may well experience it and understand it as a “religious” experience of some sort.  In some cultures, such experiences a viewed as instances of possession by some foreign entity or spirit.  In traditional societies where trance is common and accepted, it is not seen as a big deal.  However, in the West, where there is no appropriate set and setting, it can be frightening.

When the Set and Setting is Right, even Westerners can enjoy TRANCE.

Apparently it is rather common in the West for youth to have such experiences spontaneously but as Maslow found most end up denying or forgetting them since they were experienced as a dangerous loss of self-control.  I recall when I was around 10 or 11 having two experiences of this type; they both took place when I was on my own and in a large crowd of strangers.  I did not freak out but, I remember being concerned about what was going on afterwards.  As it turns out, my best childhood friend, a guy who was mature,  smart and creative for his age, also had had similar experiences and also had a name (“trance”) for them.  And so we would sometimes sit around and discuss our trance experiences.  I recall that it was quite comforting to me to have a name for these experiences and to know that I was not the only one who had them.   Although I did not think in these terms back then, I believe that my friend and I realized, at a rather early age, that what most people accept as normal consciousness is a limited way of being.  I feel grateful to my friend for helping me attain this insight at such an early age; most kids seem to discover this later through the use of psychotropic drugs or not at all.  I like to think that this friend was also responsible for my later academic interest in altered states of consciousness and in Eastern meditation practices.

 

So does meditation involve going into a trance?  Again, it depends upon your definition but in Eastern spiritual disciplines the state is referred to as Samadhi and is sometimes translated as “trance”.  It is understood that Samadhi is something that can vary in intensity but essentially involves the kind of slowing down or diminishing of left-brain thought processes that I described above.  When this happens, one expands awareness or consciousness beyond the internal dialogue that is thought to be normal consciousness.  From my understanding of the literature, this mode of consciousness, the awakened consciousness, will gradually become the normal, everyday consciousness of those who consistently practice meditation and other practices.  Using the word trance to describe this state is misleading because of what we usually associate with this term (stupor, unconscious, sleep etc.).  The Zen state does not necessarily entail a curtailing of left-brain activities but rather an opening up (See Fehmi’ on “Open focused experiences” by using SEARCH on this Site) to right brain activities in a balanced form (see James Olson”s  The Whole-Brain Path To Peace).  Doing so allows one to respond to whatever is happening in the present moment and not be “ruled”, so to speak by old conditioned responses that govern the left-brain. This is what “mindfulness” is all about.

Whether or not we use the term “trance” to refer to these kinds of shifts in consciousness, I believe it is accurate to say that they can vary in intensity. It may be best to avoid that word altogether simply because it carries some negative connotations in the West where generally, at least until recently, right-brain thinking has been considered normal and variations away from this as problematic.  I should add that such a shift can be problematic depending on the situation.  As Charles rightly points out, moving out of right-brain attentiveness to a lecture can negatively affect a student’s grade.  Stopping to groove to music being played in a department store while there is a fire is not a mindful choice.  So, yes, what we are referring to as trances could be dangerous under certain circumstances.  On the other hand, vigilantly maintaining a self-protective left-brained orientation can be harmful to one’s health  

 

This leads back to the issues raise by both James and Charles regarding the function of repetitiveness in music and how this may affect mindful listening.  However, the “Dronometer” on my computer is alerting me to the fact that this post has gone on too long.  So, I plan to return to this at a later date.  Before I sign off, let me just say that I believe that someone listening to music can experience this left to right brain shift that I have been talking about.  There has to be a reason the music is a dominate form of entertainment in almost all cultures. The term “entertaining” has come to refer to anything that “engages or keeps our attention”.  If we are attentive to (mindful of) what we are listening to we are not attending to (or listening to) the internal dialogue that comprises our left-brain thought processes.  And so the degree to which we become entranced or mindful of a musical performance can vary greatly.  In the next post, I want to look at what it might look like to consciously practice mindful listening and riff a little bit about James’ comment on the use of repetition in music.

 

 

 

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.  To avoid robo-spam, comments are not allowed after two weeks of the article being posted.  To comment on older posts, respond to the current post and reference which article you are writing about.

Comments are closed.