Who enjoys music?

One of the most interesting things that happens in my meditation practice is when I observe experiences arising and realize that I’m not making them happen. I come to the realization that I do not “own” these experiences. In fact, even the sense of ownership of my experiences that normally dominates my mind comes to be seen as another unowned experience. Normally the conscious mind assumes ownership of experiences, but in fact it’s a kind of plagiarist, claiming experiences when it has nothing to do with their creation.

Probably this is gobbledegook to most people — I’d recommend just watching your experience and recognizing that your experiences “just happen.” This is a practical way of coming to recognize the truth of the BUddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self.

An article I recently read gives evidence to back up this radical notion that all our experiences are unowned.

Francesco Riganello at the Santa Anna Institute in Crotone, Italy, and colleagues played four pieces of classical music to 16 healthy volunteers while measuring their heartbeats. The team then repeated the experiment with nine people who were in a vegetative state. In addition, they asked the healthy volunteers to describe the emotions they had felt while listening.

The pieces, each 3 minutes long and by different composers, were chosen because they have different tempos and rhythms – factors previously shown to elicit positive and negative emotions.

Riganello found that the music affected the heart rates of both groups in the same way. Pieces rated as “positive” by healthy volunteers, such as the minuet from Boccherini’s string quintet in E, slowed heart rate, while “negative” pieces like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony increased heart rate.

Ordinarily we’d listen to music, and the conscious mind makes the assumption that it is listening to the music, and that it is enjoying the music. But in fact the listening is still taking place even if there is no possibility of conscious thought or attention, as in the case of people in a persistent vegetative state. The enjoying may be going on as well, to the extent that the body and parts of the brain are still engaged in the activity of producing physiological responses to the music.

That last statement I made in fact is rather challenging! Can we have enjoyment when there is no one there to do the enjoying. Well, why not? Normally we’d say there could not be the activity of “listening and responding to music” unless there was someone there. And yet clearly “listening and responding to music” does take place in the absence of consciousness.

This challenge should lead us to question our notion of a unitary self, and our notion that the conscious mind is central to the existence of our selves. The practice I suggested above — where we observe experiences arising and realize that we’re not making them happen — is a way to make this more experiential, and to help free us from delusions we have about the nature of the self.

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