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.