I had once thought about writing a book called, “Keeping Busy, Can’t Complain—Staying Happy through Total Distraction”, and with the amped up social crumbling currently underway, the notion of staying totally distracted doesn’t sound like a bad thing. There’s little wonder we’ve witnessed an upsurge in the great escape brought on by Virtual Reality headsets. I’m sure the experience is very cool, but as difficult as it can sometimes be, I’m thinking it’s a far better thing to be operating consciously in this world than the Matrix reality of VR. Contrary to the satiric book title above, total and immersive distraction does not a life make. Getting to know your mind does.
However, as anyone who has tried to meditate knows, our minds are not what we think. The continual assault of thoughts, ideas, images and stimulations we automatically receive doesn’t stop when we take a little time to sit and try and settle our minds. Many of us, in fact, pride ourselves on doing anything but settling our minds. In fact, some of us actually think we are capable of multi-tasking. In most instances, those who think they can are usually male. Those who actually may be capable of doing so certainly are not.
But lest we suddenly tangent off into a distraction this column had no intention of purporting, I will get to the point: Silence. Let me be clear, that is not a command. It is however a place from which many of us recoil, fidget, cough, flinch, sputter, tremble shudder, cringe, dodge and do all in our power to avoid. So many of us are terrorized not by marauding foreign hordes, but by having to sit, alone and in silence.
Eugene Castillo, a world-class musical director and principal orchestra conductor (Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra among others), recognized this with every grand pause, movement break, or pianissimo symphonic ending. He could feel the discomfort arising from the audience behind him as those silent moments were held. Someone would clear their throat, shift in a chair, unwrap a candy or need to applaud. The question Maestro Castillo asked, was where did their minds go when the music suddenly stopped?
In 2006, Luciano Bernardi published a study entitled, Cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory changes induced by different types of music in musicians and non‐musicians: the importance of silence. Silence had not been Bernardi’s initial focus. The plan had been to use physiological metrics to test subjects as they listened to a variety of musical tracks and demonstrate the impact on such things as blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. Any rock n’ roller probably could have told them what happens to heart and breathing when listening to Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling stones. The unpredicted and unintended emergence from this study was what happened when the music was turned off.
Bernardi and his colleagues discovered that when they inserted random periods of silence at the end of these musical pieces it had a rather dramatic and opposite effect to those measured while the music was playing. Rather than arousing the heart and breathing, the silence elicited relaxation.
Castillo thought there was more to be found. His experience wielding the baton had shown that the usual reaction to silence was more often one of discomfort than that of relaxation. He wanted to see and hear for himself what would happen between the sound and silence. To do so, he created Symphonic Serenity, an hour-long excursion into the variety of mind experiences that emerged between the juxtaposition of music and silence.
Using selections from Bach, Mahler, Dvorak, Haydn, Saint-Saens, Holtz and others we find ourselves gloriously transported by the brief musical selections, and then suddenly, jarringly and rather unceremoniously set adrift. Left to its own devices, the mind searches vainly for the next stimulus. The operative word being vainly. And then encountering no impediment to the now unencumbered mind, interacts with the silence it finds, eventually settling and relaxing.
But what was it that was interacting at this intersection of vibration and resonance? Yes, Castillo’s interest was in providing an opportunity for the listener to look at his or her mind and how it was being influenced by this alternation between stimulation and deprivation. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by what it was that was actually interacting to bring about these mind shifts—these intangible interactions.
It doesn’t take a great deal of science to recognize that people are very uncomfortable around those things that change them, especially those they can’t see or touch. It’s one reason why people ardently resist and almost religiously want to discount meditation. It’s why science itself has had a great mistrust of things social or even worse yet, psychological.
At the abrupt end to the Jupiter movement of Gustave Holtz, The Planets, and we are rocketed off somewhere beyond the outer reaches of the solar system, the mind, suddenly is left to its own reverberation of silence. Its synapses still willfully, longingly reaching out to each other, hesitant, uncertain, now deaf. Is there a here here, they ask? Is there a something equally longing for us to synaptically embrace? The mind is left searching for a connecting affordance dangling on the precipice between two moments of nowness. The listener carried along by the wondrous waves of music and then suddenly lofted into spaciousness: no net, no warning, no distraction.
According to the studies, the mind is still working, not necessarily filling the void left, like Wiley Coyote’s countless cliffless leaps, but rather at Castillo’s urging, finding a gentle curiosity at what might arise from this awkward collision of something and nothing. And then, after two or three iterations, the mind does relax. Everything relaxes.
There is no discounting that this experience, orchestrated by this consummate maestro, leaves us somewhere different than when we entered. The transformation is palpable but nonetheless untouchable and yet something emerged, an interaction took place that created this feeling of tranquility. The mind was busy and then suddenly relaxed, floating out over the expanse, like a glider cut loose from its tow.
At least in the glider example, we know the plane is interacting with the air currents and its infrastructure, but in Castillo’s marvelous Symphonic Serenity there is no fuselage or aspect ratio, and yet we are still uplifted. We are conveyed aloft by this intangible interaction as Castillo explains, “to begin a relationship with silence.” Is it oxymoronic to think that an interaction with an absence can still produce an emergent phenomena? The question leaves us with yet one more question. One those of us who spend time on the cushion meditating know well. What is the nature of this apparent yet silent mind?
For more information about Symphonic Serenity go to: http://eugenecastillo.com/mindfulness/