Music is usually regarded as a performance art: we either watch and listen as others perform it, or do so ourselves whilst others watch.
It has other uses however, including for personal transformation. In this it is most effective when applied in combination with meditation and movement. This page provides a brief introduction for those to whom these ideas are new.
What is meant by "personal transformation"? A simple example is academic study. We all go to school, and in learning to read and write our lives are transformed by the knowledge to which we then have access. Many go on to university with the aim of earning a degree.
But why? Because we anticipate that it will transform our lives. With a degree we hope to obtain an interesting and well-paid job. We envisage becoming a "professional", a confident, self-reliant individual able to contribute uniquely to society. We also expect to earn a comfortable income, perhaps even a generous one that will transform our lives because of the possessions we can then afford.
Music can be used to transform our lives in other ways. Singing is very healthy. Just doing it makes you feel good. Singing harmony with your friends is a great way to strengthen your friendships and share your enjoyment. Singing harmony with your partner deepens your relationship, smooths away arguments, and builds confidence between you. Playing an instrument is both relaxing and enjoyable. Playing with friends builds interpersonal skills that are also useful at work and in social interaction.
Here we will consider another aspect of music that few understand. Music has been used as a highly effective form of meditation throughout history. Everyone has heard of meditation, and most "know" what it is, or think that they do. In fact, it more often misunderstood and practised incorrectly. The simple truth is that everyone meditates from time to time, but automatically and unconsciously. It is a natural function of the mind that can be understood as part of a progression: concentration, meditation, contemplation and absorption.
Those who practise meditation consciously often take lessons from one or more teachers, and there are innumerable methods, schools and disciplines. Some are useful and beneficial, many are not. Few explain that "learning to meditate" should not begin by learning a technique, but simply by sitting quietly and observing the mind in its natural daily functioning.
As pointless as this might sound, a few hours practice will soon prove otherwise. When first begun, we immediately become aware of impatience, frustration and boredom. Our mind starts thinking, "Why am I doing this? Nothing's happening, so why should I just keep sitting here? It's nearly lunchtime, anyway, and I said I'd do fifteen minutes. How long has it been now? ..." And so on. These are the first challenges to be overcome, and they are emotional. We must first learn to quieten our emotions, and this is always very difficult for those who have never previously attempted it.
Here is the first use of music and meditation: by playing some quiet, relaxing music in the background, it is much easier to calm our emotions and relax. The feeling of "doing nothing" is no longer frustrating, since we are "listening to music".
It also emphasizes a most important point: meditation does not consist in "stopping your mind from thinking". That is not possible, and can be damaging if attempted with deliberate persistence. Rather is it a matter of simply observing the thought processes in the mind, calmly and with detachment. This is the first stage of meditation.
If the same musical pieces are used repeatedly for meditation, they can serve as a "trigger" for entering the meditative state of mind, the second use of music in meditation.
Once we are confidently able to sit peacefully, relax, enter the meditative state for a while - five minutes, fifteen, perhaps up to an hour - and enjoy the experience and the time spent, we are ready for the next stage; but that is a topic for another page.
The ability to play an instrument allows us to create music of our own, a very satisfying form of self-expression. Unfortunately, most people never get past the stage of practising an instrument. Not only can this be tedious, it usually becomes a chore that one seeks to avoid, and few persist for more than a few weeks before abandoning it; a great pity.
The same is true of singing. Only a few people are natural-born singers: most have to learn the art, and this is similarly tedious and dissatisfying until some confidence and skill is acquired. The best way to begin is not by taking lessons, but by chanting or reciting. It matters little what words, verses or poems are used, only that they should be pleasing, easily remembered, and generate both pleasing images in the mind and contentment in the heart.
Religious ideas and practices not only differ from those for personal spiritual development, they are in many ways inimical to it. However, it is worth understanding how music has been and is still used for religious purposes, since much that is useful, even valuable, can thereby be learned.
In the Orient, chanting is a required discipline for monks and nuns, both for its own sake and as a technique for entering meditation. However, Oriental meditative disciplines have a strong subjective focus. Attention is directed "inwards" to one's state of mind and feeling, and awareness of the outer, objective world is soon lost. There are important exceptions such as Qi Gong and the martial arts, to which we return shortly.
In the Occident, prayer has always been preferred to meditation, and according to the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions, this is always directed to God or a religious intermediary: an angel, a saint; or in the case of Christianity, to the Christ. Although chanting was practised, it quickly gave rise to the use of song in a religious context. Where Oriental monks usually chant on a single note without any attempt at musical art or expression, Occidental monks regard musical structure as essential, from the simplicity of plainchant to the unrivalled beauty of the best choral harmony.
Just as music can be viewed as a form of meditation, so too can be the various disciplines of movement such as dance, physical exercize, martial arts and so on. Here we look briefly at those most relevant for personal transformation.
In the Occident, perhaps the most famous, though largely unknown, are the Whirling Dervishes of the Muslim countries. Their costume consists of a long, heavy skirt, and they practice moving in a circle whilst spinning the body fairly rapidly. The skirt rises to form a rotating bell and acts as a "flywheel" to smooth and maintain the body's rotation. Once this can be done automatically, the practitioner is able to enter a state of meditation or trance depending on the particular school, and the state of heightened awareness thus experienced can become a form of rapture.
War has been an occupation of Mankind throughout history, and each race has developed its own skills, techniques and disciplines, commonly referred to as martial arts. However, whereas these are almost always confined to warfare in the Occident, they have much broader application in the Orient. Many teach side disciplines pertaining to medicinal practices including bone-setting, herbalism, and other aspects of traditional medicine. They are often linked with religion and spirituality, a marriage of opposites in the common Occidental view. Meditation is an important part of training in any true martial art, and in countries influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, martial arts can be used as a path to attaining enlightenment.
Japanese styles often include concepts such as the "beginner's mind" and "empty mind". Aikido has a strong philosophical belief of the flow of energy and fostering peace, as idealized by its founder Morihei Ueshiba. Korean martial arts emphasize the development of spiritual philosophy. A common theme in most Korean styles is the value of "inner peace", only achieved through individual meditation and training. All employ breathing and relaxation techniques to foster self-conscience and calmness, and to benefit the practitioner on different levels: physical, psychic and spiritual.
The best known that are applied especially to personal healing, development and transformation are tai chi and qi gong.
Our world today differs from that of the past in many ways. Never before in history has there been such an admixture and intermingling of widely disparate cultures, traditions, disciplines and arts.
By adopting the best aspects of music, meditation and movement from all the world's traditions, we have a unique opportunity to create a powerful new tradition of personal development and transformation.
This is a primary focus of the 52midnight website.