Music as Meditation

Until the age of 20, my life revolved around music. From church choirs and orchestras, to school music programs, to popular music, my every moment had a soundtrack. Even in times where music was not in the air around me, my mind was thinking, producing and most importantly, feeling music in and around me.

But then, the music stopped.

What do you do when the thing which you love so much is no longer available to you? When that ocean of joy has been poisoned to the point that it loses all warmth? When what once was your refuge becomes a blasted wasteland?

I'd spent two years, 36 credit hours, and an untold amount of passion poured into a music degree, only to realize that the career I had thought was before me, was in fact entirely out of reach. I was seeking a music business degree at a school that forced you to spend at least 80% of your credit hours on performance, which is something I had no desire to do. I loved music, how it moved us as humans, but my talent to personally create it was moderate, at best.

So I did what the process was designed to do, I let it weed me out. I quit. It was the first hard choice I had to make about my own life, but I knew it was my only viable option. I knew I had other options that would allow me to end one pain; what I did not realize is how it would open the door to yet another entire category of pain.

Its been... more than a few years... since I dropped my music degree. Lets just say that its more than half my lifetime ago. It is strange that, for how much it had dominated the first half of my life, the later half (plus some years) of my life has been impacted so little by music. Its not just that I haven't made music, but that I've gone many consecutive years without even finding a new band or album to add to my collection. During my prime as a music-lover, I was adding music nearly weekly.

Burnout was a part of it, but not the whole thing, either. Yes, in the space of a couple years, I went from music being the most important thing in my life to something I mostly hated. Not that I hated it in and of itself, but in how our society failed to value it in a way that I felt was correct.

As the years have moved on, I filled that gap more and more with other things. Technology, friends, a family, brewing beer, books, podcasts, and random hobbies; they have all, to a greater or lesser extent, tried to fill the void left in my life by the shelving of music. In some respects, each of these have filled small pieces of me, but none on its own came close to plastering over the gaping hole inside me that was left when the music died.

When I walked away from a life lived in melody and rhythm, I knew that my life would never be the same. What was not obvious at the time, and only in recent years has come to light, is that I was losing more than my passion and a planned career, but also, mental stability.

Wait, hold on, did you read that right? Yeah, you did. Never would this have been an outcome I would have expected. It wasn't even something that I would have been able to comprehend as possible for anyone, much less someone like me who is so incredibly stable. (Hint: I'm not that stable, I'm just that bad at recognizing my own instability.)

As I came to understand and accept my own struggles with anxiety and depression, I knew something in my life needed to change. Back during my time as a Christian, I had for a time attempted something called "centering prayer", which is a cousin of meditation. The training I received, slim as it was, in this practice defeated itself, making me think that my scattered brain was unable to be successful in this endeavor. What I didn't realize at the time was that not only was the training poor, but that the entire concept of "centering prayer" flawed since it had a goal in and of itself, namely communing with a non-existent god, instead of what it should be, which is a tool to understand more about yourself.

My scattered brain was just a symptom of a deeper issue. Music had been a balm, soothing my anxiety and depression during childhood, but that relief had gone unused during my adult years. It had been a relief valve for the bottled up pain, frustration, and heartache, allowing me to ease those strong feelings that had no other pathway out of my tortured mind.

Over two decades had passed, where all of that compressed emotion had festered deep down in me. It shouldn't surprise you that when everything inevitably blew apart, it did so in spectacular ways. If you were guessing that it erupted, exploding out of control over all those around me, you'd be right. For many months, I had no idea why this was happening, why the tight control I had forced upon myself was no longer working, and why everything was spiraling out of control.

But how did I realize music was the missing element? Reflection. Lots of it. The summer after I dropped my music major, my girlfriend of a couple years dumped me unexpectedly. My junior year in college was spent wallowing in heartache from the breakup, with no relief valve to express and process all that pain and grief. My senior year, while I had finally gotten over her, was one spent reveling in bitterness and hate. The world has shit on me; it was time to shit back on it.

The next two decades were not all that much better. I spent many years centering in on the pain, never dealing with it and with no way to let it out. The pain, the grief, and the hurt folded in on itself, becoming a black hole of despair. All those hobbies and interests were there to distract me from the problems inside of me; from the deepening well of blackness hiding behind the bright facade I showed to the world.

Then it all fell apart. Everything. Abruptly. Completely... and something had to change. I didn't know what, and it took a long time to realize it had to change, much less what I needed to do to change, but it had to change... and it did.

Given my previous experience with centering prayer, I thought meditation wasn't something for me. I tried a couple times, but it just didn't make sense. How could this work? It made no sense, but I kept at it. I studied it, read the research about it and tried to debunk it. So many books, so many websites, all espoused the benefits, but I couldn't find them inside me.

What finally made it work was realizing meditation wasn't something magical, it was just a tool and process. Meditation itself isn't //the// way, as it was often billed to me, but merely //a// way. Meditation can be the path to let you walk up to the darkness, and to view it without being overwhelmed by it, just as music had once been for me.

Music no longer worked for me as that relief valve. I don't know why; maybe I'm just too out of practice. Maybe my sense of self had evolved to the point that the deep connection I once felt to music was too attenuated to be useful as a siphon for that pain. I still don't know why, but I know that music was no longer my way.

Meditation is the tool for today, and while it is a useful one, its still just a tool. Tools wear out when you use them, and I'm pretty sure it will wear out for me as well. At some point in my life, I'm sure it will need to be replaced. It is not that meditation will become worthless, but that as I grow, as my skills evolve and improve, another tool will likely become better suited to my needs at that time. I have no idea what that will be, but I now know how to recognize the need to change and the warning signs indicating that change is coming.

In the end, I am grateful for meditation, just as I am grateful for music; for the role that both have played in my life. I never set out to use either of them as I have, but I am fortunate to have found both when and how I did.