Monday, April 03, 2006

Buddhist sutras, birdsong and the subliminal jukebox

I just got back from a ten day silent meditation retreat in rural Herefordshire (in the Vipassana tradition). The only music I heard for the whole time was lovely S.N. Goenka's rather guttural chanting of Buddhist sutras (on tape) several times each day, and the Herefordshire birdsong (oh-so-sweet at this time of year, and it just kept getting sweeter as the meditation went deeper). After the evening "Sitting of Great Determination" on the sixth day, I came out of the meditation hall to be greeted by the singing of a blackbird in a tree immediately in front of me. It was so joyful and beautiful I felt like dancing to it, despite my painful knees...but I'm not quite sure how you dance to birdsong, and one is not meant to distract others during these courses, so I restrained myself.

S.N. Goenkaa blackbird
S.N. Goenka and a blackbird

A curious phenomenon which I experienced was the "subliminal jukebox" where songs not necessarily of my choosing (or liking!) would play very distinctly in my mind, with incredible accuracy and detail. I've noticed this happening before in situations where I've been on my own, away from recorded music for periods of time - long solo bicycle journeys, etc. Sometimes it just happens to be something I'll hear on the radio, say, whilst queuing in a shop. But on other occasions, my mind will pick up on a word, phrase, memory or suggestion and then subconsciously select some stupid popsong that's "relevant" in often a very stupid or superficial way (but which I may not have actually heard for years) and start "playing" it. Often I'm not even consciously aware that it's there for a minute or two, and then, suddenly noticing, wonder "What's that song doing in my head?" Eventually, with a bit of thought I'll spot the connection. It really is like something completely external to me choosing the songs - something with a childish sense of humour and terrible musical taste!

During this meditation course, it started with a handful of songs I happened to have heard on a "classic rock" radio station at a friend's flat the morning before I travelled up there ("Love is the Drug" by Roxy Music, "Highway Star" by Deep Purple, "Bullet the Blue Sky" by U2, etc.) This became very annoying after a while, but these songs gradually receded, only to be replaced by what seemed to be the entire works of the Grateful Dead (to whom I'd been listening extensively in the previous weeks via the wonderful Internet Audio Archive collection). That was strange, in that I was hearing amazing jammed-out versions of songs like "Scarlet Begonias", clearly, note-for-note, and wondering if my "inner ear" was "hearing" an actual live recording I'd mentally stored away in perfect detail, some composite of multiple versions, or if my brain was somehow generating an entirely new version which was never actually played (using "depth structure" algorithms?). The Dead eventually gave way to a mish-mash of the unlikeliest stuff, and then, as the meditation deepened, the subliminal jukebox fortunately became a lot less dominant in my head.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey i hear beautiful bells!

12:57 PM  

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