While the obvious answer is – do what you feel like! If you enjoy listening to music while meditating, then you should continue to do so. Equally, if you prefer silence and to tune into the natural sounds around you, go right ahead.
But is there any science around which is better? And which is the more traditional way to meditate?
Music: a modern meditation addition
Going back to the early days of Buddhism, there is no evidence of music as part of meditation practice. Then, meditating was done in silence or with quiet background noises – birds, bees, trees, people…
Music has only been introduced in recent times to accompany meditation. You can pick up CDs in the ‘meditation music’ genre and tune in to the relaxing sounds of nature – waves, rainforest, rain, birds…with a gentle backing track.
Some say this is because meditation in the modern western world has only focused on meditating as a form of relaxation, as opposed to a ritual or traditional practice.
When you receive a massage or other relaxation-focused treatment, chances are the therapist will play some soft meditation sounds to help you unwind.
Why meditate with music?
Even though music wasn’t a part of traditional meditation practice, that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Some meditation ‘experts’ say music can form a part of mindfulness – tuning out of your thoughts and what’s around you and focusing on the music. This is why many guided meditation apps and programs play background music with a mantra over the top.
An interesting article on Mindbodygreen.com explored the idea that mindfulness is used to ‘promote insight’. In this way, you can listen to music and explore how you feel while listening – how you connect with the music. And so it doesn’t even matter what you listen to; the act of perceiving the music and your reaction to it is what matters.
Of course, if you’re commencing a silent meditation, then music may not be the best choice. It’s all about what feels right to you, and whether tunes help or hinder your self-exploration.
Why meditate without music?
Others say you should only listen to music before or after meditation, to relax and prepare for the meditation. But when the meditation begins, you should slip into silence.
Music can be distracting, and may even become a form of multi-tasking – you’re focusing on your breath or a mantra and on the music. In this way, you may not be giving your conscious mind the break it needs and the chance for the subconscious mind to play.
In this way, music pulls you from your focus. It becomes impossible to truly focus on two things at once. And meditation, after all, is about a single focus.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to relaxing meditation music. But some meditation practitioners suggest silence for meditation, and quiet music for other times.
But the choice is yours. Try meditating with and without music and see which approach allows you to get the most out of your practice.