John Cage on Meditation

I met John Cage once in 1988 at art school, knowing little about him, other than his fame for the piece 4’33”, a silent, avant garde piece, which I first heard in an 8th grade music class. It confirmed to me then that we didn’t have to play by conventions for a contribution to be valid, and that there was something psychological and spiritual about music.  He was a gentle, pleasant man with white hair and kind eyes when I met him.  He was nearing the end of his life and seemed happy to interact with young people, all of whom he incorporated into a scripted, but free-form performance at the campus’ chapel. Sounds were made inside and outside the building for the performance according to his score.  One performer was quite distant and in charge of ringing a bill or something as I recall.

He once said “Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.”

John Cage on Meditation

John Cage on Meditation

While we must have a necessary interest in the self to survive, one of the main concepts of Vipassana Meditation is to observe the sensations of the body but have no vested interest in whether or not the sensations are pleasant or unpleasant (since they are transient). The point is to observe compassionately, but with awareness of impermanence.  In this sense, the composer John Cage on meditation may have been quite critical of the “Like” and “Dislike” binary methods modern technology has forced us into using in order to represent ourselves and our opinions so narrowly.  It constrains the truth of our full human potential to mouse clicks.  While it doesn’t limit us all, it limits some, as many of us don’t know we can leave the box that contains our ideas to explore new ones at any time. Or ditch the box entirely, for that matter.  Cage’s musical notation was visual art as well.

The most recent thing that struck me about John Cage’s philosophy as it concerns meditation was his interest in silence as a purification method, allowing humanity’s natural goodness to come forth once the pre-programmed bile and nastiness has been purged:

“I noticed in New York, where the traffic is so bad and the air is so bad … you get into a taxi and very frequently the poor taxi driver is just beside himself with irritation. And one day I got into one and the driver began talking a blue streak, accusing absolutely everyone of being wrong. You know he was full of irritation about everything, and I simply remained quiet. I did not answer his questions, I did not enter into a conversation, and very shortly the driver began changing his ideas and simply through my being silent he began, before I got out of the car, saying rather nice things about the world around him.”

There is power in silence, which extends beyond the immediate self.

Truth or Consequences of PTSD

Enduring Peace - Photogravure by Jon Lybrook
Enduring Peace – Photogravure by Jon Lybrook

This weekend we heard about a friend that had been traumatized at seeing the death of a child. The friend whom this had happened to, and his wife had actually been first on the scene. This child died in his arms.

This friend had soon mentally locked into the story about this child dying in his arms, and identified with it so deeply, that he couldn’t escape. It consumed him.  This is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It can hit any of us for any random event we are mentally unprepared for dealing with. The friend’s response to the horrible event was to twist every new event and every new story to somehow be about or connected to that event. His own life story had essentially stopped because of the event, in fact.  It stopped because he couldn’t accept the reality of what happened and move on. It hit some core issues with him and his wife both I’m sure, since she was also on the scene and a part of “the story”. Those deep-seated issues having to do with trust certainly come up in PTSD victims.  Hoping the ending of the story is he was able to let go of it on such a personal level, and his strong personal identification as a participant in it. This is the ego at work, stressing out while trying to change the reality of our simple or complex delusions about ourselves and the world as a whole.

While we do not generally inflict trauma on ourselves and can not control that, we can and should try to control how we respond to that trauma as best we can. If we just leave everything up to fate, after all, that would be foolish.  If our minds are not prepared for an event, then they must expand and unwind to embrace the reality as laid before us, without shame or embarrassment, but with compassion and acceptance.  This is the way things are, and we have to accept it. This is also how we learn and grow. Resisting this natural process of mental development results in a feedback loop of minor mind-body pain that gets amplified over time, until the person becomes debilitated and dies from the pain, the neglect, or the morphine. The good news it does not have to be this way!

Vipassana meditation can help with PTSD, the main cause of which is not accepting the reality of what had been experienced. While I am not a mental health professional I have had a personal interest in this subject and have found vipassana meditation to be an effective method to understand the process of how and why we suffer.

We have to accept unpleasant facts so we have a clear basis of reality from which to plan our course to make the reality better – and truly better – not just what we think might be better.  And this is where Vipassana meditation comes in. Vipassana is not a religion, but a meditation technique that was taken from the basic meditation techniques taught by the Buddha himself 2500 years ago.  It’s a pure study of the interworkings of the human mind, and how it interacts with the body. Rooted in science and based on actual results, Vipassana meditation can be the fast track to identifying some of the core issues limiting us as individuals, and providing actionable methods for addressing our limitations super-effectively, while making best use of our native virtues as well!

Interview with S.N. Goenka ENGLISH from Dhamma server Spain on Vimeo.


Experiencing Self vs. Remembering Self

Alot of emotional things can come up during meditation, resulting in added physical stress while sitting still.  This is one very effective way to learn about what you feel and how your emotional and rational selves co-exist of course, is to meditate.  Freudian psychology referred to this also in terms of the conflicts arising through battles between the subconscious and the ego.  Conflict in the brain causes physical pain.  Harmonious co-existence of our two selves is the simple result of acceptance – sometimes profound, sometimes, through exhaustion of all other options!

This video I found via the great people over at Brain Pickings, stretched my skull a little (as Alan Watts used to say).  In it, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the phenomenon of the two selves, and how our idea of happiness is very different between the two respective experiencing and remembering selves.

My question is how strong is your conviction in general, if you can’t sit by yourself in meditation without moving for an hour, and without generating stress and anxiety that cause physical pain?  What is your remembering self inflicting on your experiencing self, and why?

Pluto Photos Illustrate The Granular Nature of Truth

In 2006, New Horizons Spacecraft left earth in search of better data about the solar system.  This week it achieved a significant milestone in the mission and returned some stunning data about the only planet ever to become publicly demoted from planet to dwarf, after over 75 years on the top charts.

Below are before and after photographs of Pluto from the NPR Website.  The left shows Hubble Space Telescope’s image of the former planet compared with the flyby image returned by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The difference in what is now known about Pluto’s shape and topography visually is nothing compared to the granular geologic and biological data that can be collected by spectroscopy during this flyby.  These photos show that only by going after the truth and finding it for ourselves, first hand, will we see how little we really knew.  And how fuzzy our assumptions are seen in hindsight, and how clear they seemed again here in the present.  To sum it up:

True understanding is subverted the moment we are comfortably satisfied  with our understanding of the truth.

“True understanding is subverted the
moment we are comfortably satisfied
with our understanding of the truth.”

– Jon Lybrook

The Passing of S.N. Goenka

While I never met the man in person, I learned meditation from him. Taking advantage of the increasingly affordable video recording technology of the early 1990s, Vipassana teachers worked with Goenka-ji to record his “Dhamma Talks”, which are still used to train new students to this day.

Training people to remove themselves from suffering is serious business, and Goenka-ji did it well. By providing training passed down from Burmese monks and from the words of the Buddha himself, Mr. Goenka distilled 30 day meditation retreats into 10 days of hard, but empowering training for those opting to participate.

In Goenka’s approach to Vipassana meditation, which is the central means to enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism, they are so concerned with following the instructions of the Buddha literally, that most teachers go on to become scholars of the ancient Pali language. This allows them to understand the meditation instructions given in the 2000 year old transcriptions of the Pali Canon and Tipitika from the Buddha himself, which had previously been taught through oral tradition. Goenka-ji maintains that the Burmese monks kept the instructions free from their own interpretation throughout the years, unlike many other sects of Buddhism.

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

I’ve already elaborated on my experience with learning the vipassana technique in this web journal. Here’s an account from another “old student” who learned from Goenka in the 1970s:


This quote seems most relevant and on-topic for Independence Day.

We must train our minds to understand that not everything someone says or does is the truth. We have the ability to believe or to not believe what is being reflected upon us from those around us.

When we come into contact with a mean-spirited person, we must feel compassion for them because those who are reflecting pain onto others are struggling within. We must also keep ourselves safe by seeing and practicing the skill of not believing everything someone says to us. By not taking things personally, we can develop a deep love for ourselves through knowing that it is our thoughts and perceptions of ourselves that create endless possibilities or the opposite, boundaries due to our lack of confidence.

We can create our own journeys of pain or pleasure when we no longer leave others in charge of how we feel.”

Borrowed from


Negativity will make you a grouch!Happiness is our natural state of mind.  After all, it is in our best interest to be happy.  If that is true, then why do so many of us seem so miserable most of the time?

It is because mental negativity is addictive and feeds on itself.

The Buddha taught that whenever any kind of negativity arises in the mind (anger, hate, jealousy, or sadness in particular), the solution is to observe the physical sensations associated with the emotions and face them.

Physical sensations associated with negative thoughts might be a faster heart beat, harder breathing, blushing, muscle tension, stomach pain or any number of biochemically driven, fight or flight responses.  Rather than immediately picking up the bottle, a doughnut, drug, or other mechanism for escape, recognize these signs, and be with them for a moment when they arise.  Feel the feeling and know it will pass.

As soon as you start to observe this state of mental impurity objectively, it begins to lose strength and slowly withers away.  At first this requires patience, but over time and with meditation practice it happens faster.

But how to observe it objectively?  The trick is not to focus on the object or cause of the negativity (be it a person or event).  Focusing on the object of the negativity will cause the negativity to multiply and build strength. Once you know what the cause is and have learned from it, dismiss the cause and focus on the sensations.  Realize it is in the past and you are in the present.  See how these thoughts are harming you and allow yourself to let go of them.

This allows the mind to break the biochemical cycle of anger, and disrupt the root cause of misery and be happy once again.

Just one of the many, many gems of wisdom I’ve taken away from S.N. Goenka’s  Dhamma Meditation training through his famous 10-day retreats which I attended two years ago this month.  One important fact about these meditation courses which I like is they are non-sectarian in nature.  While it stems from the teachings of Buddha and how he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago, it is not about selling Buddhism, or classes. They teach a universal meditation technique with the goal of greater mental focus, gratitude, and happiness in daily life.

Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms,
so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas,
whether desirable or undesirable,
will never stir one of steady nature,
whose mind is firm and free,
who sees how all things pass.

– Anguttara Nikaya 6.55

Reacting and Meditation

“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”

“Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.”

the-grapes-of-wrath-18That was Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I’ll never forget the ending of this great John Ford movie with the surviving family members driving off into the richly toned black and white sunrise in their old truck.  Beat up but still running because it had to, I would argue that truck symbolized their lives.

Goenkaji had great advice for we who live in our heads too. He said, in effect:

Whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it — recognize the physical sensations associated with the negative emotions, and face them. Accept them for what they are.

Do not focus on the object person or event associated with the negativity, or the negativity will multiply.  Observe the sensation, and let it go.

Mental impurities cause unhappiness. As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away. Once all unhappiness is eradicated, all that’s left is happiness.

Paraphrased from the Art of Living, by S.N. Goenka.