Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jukebox Karma

Music is profoundly human. Making music and listening to music are two of the most uniquely human activities. There are species of birds whose songs approach the level of what we would define as music, and there are even exotic birds who hold twigs in their feet and use them to tap out a drumbeat on a tree branch as part of an elaborate mating display. But no other species invests quite as much emotional content in music, and takes music as far, as humans do. It is one of our most essential ways of articulating and expressing meaning in our lives. It can also be one of our most neurotic forms of self-indulgence. Music has the power to stir up and perpetuate emotional states of mind, both positive and negative.

I find myself thinking a lot about music right now because of its sudden, noticeable absence from my life. I have just begun a year-long (or more) stay at a Buddhist monastery where music is regarded as a form of entertainment and escape that is unnecessary and distracting (though, truth be told, it is occasionally indulged in private....one of the senior nuns here recently succumbed to a swooning infatuation with Jacques Brel love songs, which she confessed to us with a guilty, self-deprecating giggle). Except for liturgical purposes, listening to music, singing, dancing, whistling, and other musical expressions are not permitted in public here.

Music has a way of getting inside your mind and planting seeds there, leaving behind a kind of echo of itself, a psychic residue that can linger even for years, in some cases for a lifetime. Musical memories are stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. Studies of Alzheimer's patients show that even when most other memory and cogitive functions are compromised, songs and lyrics from decades ago can often be easily recalled.

A Buddhist teacher I once studied with, Bill McKeever, called this phenomenon "jukebox karma" -- the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives. Many contemporary meditation practitioners, myself included, often find jukebox karma to be one of the most irritating obstacles we encounter within our own minds. There we are on the cushion, trying diligently to meditate and keep our minds centered on some object of meditation, and instead we find that our mind stubbornly wants to keep replaying the chorus from some godforsaken Billy Joel or Rod Stewart song we heard on the radio. Gack! We try to let it go and come back to our meditation, but a moment later we are back at it. The jukebox karma is just too strong.

For the past week, I've had several songs from Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" recycling themselves through my mind every time I start to become quiet. On the scale of musical choices to be stuck on, it's not a bad one. It's a great album, full of meaning and power but not laden with the emotional baggage and mental associations that make many other albums treacherous territory. It was the last album I listened to before leaving New York, as I packed up my last belongings and prepared to leave my life (including my CD collection!) behind to come here. But no album, however good it might be, is much appreciated when you can't get it out of your head for a week.

I trust, or perhaps I should say I hope, that as I spend more time here and move further into practice, further away from the CD collection I left in safekeeping with a friend in New York, my jukebox karma will begin to soften and my mind will make room for other experiences to emerge besides old Marvin Gaye albums. But the Buddhist teachings on karma say that karmic seeds, once planted, are always there in the mindstream. Even if it takes lifetimes, they remain there until they meet with the proper conditions to sprout, and then they bloom into fruition.

Here's hoping that many of the jukebox karmic seeds I planted during my teenage heavy metal years do not soon meet with the proper conditions to come back and haunt me.


Anonymous said...

I am quite certain I'm afflicted with this condition more than ANYONE else is ;-)

In fact, I can one-up you: I call it the GLOM. Wherever I am-- the gym, walking down the street, in a store-- my mind will seize whatever vocal/musical pattern is evident and tirelessly repeat a few bars of it, no matter how inane or in bad taste it may be! It is endlessly frustrating and rife with the opportunity to practice the paramitas of patience and loving-kindness (both for myself and some of the ridiculous artists that help devise these melodic mind-traps!)

Here's to the jukebox running out of juice...

Anonymous said...

One other thought came to mind in relation to this post: My ex David told me about how, during one of his visits to Goa, India in his younger years, he was a witness to a celebration in some tiny village one night where many musicians formed an ensemble and jammed out a beautiful, spontaneous tune. When it was over, he made a comment about recording it next time, to which they responded with confusion. They couldn't understand why anyone would want to hear that particular tune in that particular way again... What a contrasting notion to, say, the music industry as it exists in a country like the U.S.A. where musical "hooks" are infused into every possible aspect of our experience (radio, music videos, tv shows, commercials, ring tones and so on.) No wonder we suffer so much from jukebox karma when the seeds of clinging are planted so deeply!