The chaos of 2016 underlined our frail grip on personal agency. We are at the mercy of forces way larger than than us—hatred, terror, Trump—and the reality (or some version of it) is that our small part is even smaller than we had previously hoped. We cannot control the world (even when we think we can, it’s luck taking us for a ride)—the best we can do is try to control our minds to mediate our perception of it.
I started meditating a few months ago to cope with increasingly frequent feelings of helplessness, to appreciate the moment I’m lodged in instead of taking it for granted, or worse, dissociating. In retrospect, I guess I was getting a head start on my New Year’s resolutions (which also include eating a cup of broccoli and a cup of watercress a day, and avoiding internet porn as much as humanly possible). Meditation’s purported effects on the brain and its makeup made it attractive to my inner tinkerer who considers self-improvement a lifelong process. I can’t attest to increases in gray matter or the cortical thickness of my hippocampus, and I know that I have a long way to go to repair the attention deficits that I suspect have been induced by working full-time on the internet for years. But can certainly say I have more perspective on my own thoughts and my engagement with them. It’s never been clearer that I am not my feelings, and that certain sabotaging beliefs that threaten my self-image are not just best avoided, but wholly avoidable.
Meditation gives you ample practice in letting thoughts move through you without stopping to consider them. My goal when I meditate is to clear my mind as much as possible. As a result, I have found that in waking life that I’m much more readily equipped to bypass the notion that I’m not smart or useful or worthy enough via the principles of meditation. “Swipe left,” I remind myself. I do it, and I’ve found that I’m more capable than ever of moving on to more constructive thinking. Whatever metaphysical changes meditation brings, whatever spiritual growth it promises, I am satisfied by its practical effects on my way of thinking. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve had an overall more relaxed outlook since I’ve started meditating, and even if it is, I’ll do whatever I can to preserve that coincidence.
My pragmatic appreciation of meditation dovetails soundly with my love of utilitarian music—dance music and slow jams (aka music to fuck to) are my favorite modes of sound. Since I started meditating I’ve been fostering an interest in ambient music, which I used to consider too boring to withstand (I like beats—hence the dance music and slow jams). Now I can’t get enough of it as accompaniment to my meditations. I actually started out using the app HeadSpace for its guided meditations, but once I absorbed the principles (scan your body up and down for feeling, count your breaths, let thoughts pass through you), the repetitiveness of its “Take Ten” series as well as its guide’s voice started to really get on my nerves and distract me, which is the opposite of what you want in a meditation.
So I started to experiment with music. I love KLF’s seminal ambient album Chill Out, but it’s too active and varied to really work as meditation music. Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is too beat-focused (its heart is ravey), and Selected Ambient Works Volume II has some tracks that work for me but is mostly filled with unnerving, woozy sounds that don’t just distract me from clear-headedness, they scare it away. Some of the Ambient album series by Brian Eno (who’s credited with coining the term “ambient music”) works, although dissonant field sounds can creep up on you, shaking your concentration.
Brian Eno’s new album Reflection, though, is the perfect meditation score. It was released on New Year’s Day, and would seem to have been perfectly timed for those taking up meditation as part of their New-Year-new-me programs, except that in his artist’s statement on Reflection, Eno says, “It seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation.” Take it from me, that’s not the only way to listen to it.
What I hear when I put on this gorgeous, 54-minute piece of music is a warm pool of sound. Dulcet, sustained tones vibrate against my brain and make it tingle even more than it normally does when I reach peak clarity and enter what feels like a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping. Sometimes I follow Eno’s notes like ripples in a pond, seeing how long I can hold onto them as more pile on, as chimes and whistles sound in the background, as an organ’s chord attempts overshadow his entire scheme. This is music that glistens all over my brain.
Eno composed this album, a single track, by programming a system of algorithms, as he explains in that aforementioned statement:
One rule might say ‘raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones’ and another might say ‘raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones’. If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes - very rarely - they will both operate on the same note…so something like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.
Such a high-minded process led to something that can be felt intuitively. He’s also released a (rather expensive) app that is home to a “generative” and visual version of the album that is constantly changing according to the time of day. I haven’t explored that component of this project yet—it’s already generated plenty for me, as it is.