Mindfulness, Music Appreciation and Empathy

“Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the [Bach’s] B Minor Mass?” — Michael Torke, composer

Sometimes people will ask me whether or not listening to music counts as mindfulness practice. I’d say sure,* you can do pretty much anything with an intention to be mindful, but what makes a session of mindful music appreciation unique and distinct from a mindful breathing practice?


Music is a language of energy, a “vibe” of emotions and joy. It speaks to our core desires and feelings. It spans language barriers and political borders, making it a powerful means through which humans (and yes, animals, too**) can connect.

As with any form of communication we have the option to listen with our whole being, to open up our hearts and minds to what is being shared, or we can listen to music in the background, skip around songs on our headphones, try to make the music fit into what we are already involved in. While these latter options can sometimes come in handy in the energetic ebb and flow of daily life, a session of mindful music appreciation would encourage the former.

Art, Insight and Empathy

Like any great art, music touches the qualities of our experience that are otherwise beyond words. Wisdom, insight, love, fear and joy can all be communicated through subtle textures and vibrations of the musical palette. Appreciating music can be about more than just aesthetic pleasure — listening can be an act of empathy.

In a recent interview with Origin Magazine, Karen Armstrong, who is author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and founder of the Charter for Compassion, offers some insight into her personal experience with music:

“I remind myself that my pain is not unique. Everybody suffers. I particularly like chamber music. Beethoven’s string quartets express pain itself; it is not my pain.” (2)

Music can also be a mirror to help us better understand our own inner-world of thoughts, emotions and feelings. Vague inner-textures can find clarity of shape, catharsis and release through the teaching that is always available in musical art — listening can be healing.

All of this means that musical artists — composers, musicians and producers — must always be deciding what kind of energy they want to put into the world when creating a piece. Mostly, I imagine, that decision occurs beneath the surface of thought, in the realm of texture, vibe, energy and mindful attention itself — creating can be a mindfulness practice, too.

There is an emerging field of music therapy which is beginning to document the psychological and physical effects of listening to music. Research suggests the effects of deep listening to specific kinds of music to be fundamentally good for our bodies, minds and spirits (3).

To support and encourage a more mindful relationship with music, I’ve put together some suggestions for how to approach a session of mindful music appreciation. These are some guidelines I use for myself, but are of course, just suggestions. Most importantly, I’ve found, is to set aside any possible distractions and just commit to being with the music, as much as if you were on a date with a very dear friend.

Suggestions for Mindful Music Appreciation Practice

(You can download a PDF of this practice, here. Read through completely before pressing play.)

— Clear your schedule for the length of the time it takes to listen to the piece of music.

— Find a comfortable place where you feel able to fully commit your attention to the music. Set the space as your own private concert hall. Consider the lighting, air circulation (important!), fire exits, aromas and cleanliness.

— Turn off your phone, close the extra windows on your computer, let anyone else in your living space know that you are engaged for the period of time you’ve chosen.

— Consider if your body has been sufficiently nourished, so you might not get hungry or thirsty in the middle of the piece. For longer sessions, consider a small snack or supportive beverage to help regulate your energy.

— Sit or lay down in a comfortable posture — one that helps you remain attentive and alert, but one where you also do not need to strain or exert too much energy.

— Once you feel settled, take a moment to contemplate all that went into the making of the music — the training, composing, performing, recording and sharing of it. It is quite a special opportunity to be able to listen to musical art in this way. Allow any thoughts and images associated with this contemplation rise and fall through your awareness.

— Take a few deep breaths and relax into the sensations of your body breathing. Rest with your breath for a minute or two.

— Press play and bring your attention to the sensations of sound and feeling as the piece begins.

— If while listening to the music, your attention does wander, just gently remind yourself to return to the sounds and sensations of the music.

— If listening to the music stirs your emotions or thoughts, you can include those inner experiences as an extension of the music and appreciation practice.

— As the piece comes to a close, thank yourself for taking the time to listen. As it is customary at any musical performance to thank the musicians and composer for their efforts, even in privacy, find some way to do this which feels meaningful to you (bowing, applause and cheering, even in solitude, are quite acceptable.)

— Take a few minutes to digest the experience. You can do this by doing a breathing meditation or just relaxing. You can also write or journal about the experience if you’d like.

*As a mindfulness coach, I always recommend daily breathing meditation as a core practice, and to use other exercises as a supplement.

** Mr. Christopher is a big fan of jazz.

(1) http://www.quotes-museum.com/author/Michael_Torke
(2) Origin Magazine, Issue 13, p. 83
(3) http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/2006/pr-brainwave-053106.html

Images of Perseverance: Ursula’s Life-long Dream

I recently caught the story of Ursula Populoh, a fibers-enthusiast who has begun an undergraduate course in Fiber Arts at the age of 70 at The Maryland Institute College of Art,

Mrs. Populoh grew up in Germany during the aftermath of the Second World War, and after emigrating to America, she focused on running a business and raising a family, not having the opportunity to pursue secondary education until recently.  From an interview in Juxtapositions:

“We walked by a studio, and I saw a dress form,” she explained. “I started to cry, because I wanted so badly to be here..”

It took a long walk in the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain for a friend to issue the final encouragement which convinced Ursula to pursue her dream.

“I remember so clearly when we walked up this steep hill, and she said, ‘Well, go.’ And I looked at her as if she would have lost her marbles. I said, ‘I cannot go to college, I am 70.’ And she said, ‘So? You have the time.'”

Ursula’s commitment to her dream is an inspiring reminder that life does not progress in neat or predictable packages. Despite what others might want us to say or feel, richness comes when our individual path diverges from that of others.

“The exchange of thoughts of the perspective I have compared to my classmates in their 20s is really interesting. Because, when we talked about feminism, I can tell them what Germany was like when I was 20…When I told them when I was a child-no TV, no anything-they cannot even imagine being without social media. I think that’s really, really interesting.”.

You can read the full article about Ursula here, and watch a lovely video of her below.

The Slow Web – A More Mindful Internet

Jack Cheng, a Shanghai-born, U.S.-based writer, has recently published an article on ‘The Slow Web,’ a movement aimed at cultivating a more mindful relationship with the Internet and digital technologies.

“..Timeliness.  Rhythm. Moderation. These things dovetail into what I consider the biggest difference between ‘Slow Web’ and ‘Fast Web’.  Fast Web is about information.  Slow Web is about knowledge.  Information passes through you; knowledge dissolves into you.”

One of the outcomes of a regular mindfulness practice is the ability to more easily absorb distinct pieces of information. The way we use our tools — for both learning and labor — reflects our aspirations and supports a specific way of being in the world.  Increased concentration means knowing our limits and using all our senses to skillfully string together moments of awareness.

“Fast Web is destination-based. Slow Web is interaction based.”

I aim to run Living with Mindfulness in a Slow Web fashion:  publishing material after several rounds of proof-reading, posting the most relevant articles only after I’ve read them thoroughly, and not spending too much time worrying about how many times a web page has been viewed.

I’d recommend reading Jack’s article, and, if you’d like to, please leave any thoughts about how you practice mindfulness on the Internet in the comments below.

Beauty-ful “Mindful Drawings” by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Paula Kuitenbrouwer keeps a lovely online portfolio and shop of “Mindful Drawings.”  Most masterful artists would likely have developed a refined quality of mindfulness, but Paula’s work breathes from a deep and clearly-articulated intention to work from a place of mindfulness.

“I carefully prepare my drawing session by laying out all the tools. I think long about what I want, and I pay attention to the composition. I also do research, because I like to know what I am drawing. When I draw a bird, I study that bird in real as well as with the helps of books. When I draw a flower, I have it seen in nature or it is right before me on my table. I read about the flower, and I like to study and know its Latin name. The same counts for bugs: I do not draw any bug I haven’t seen or studied.”


More examples on the Mindful Drawing website

Oprah on Her Mornings

“I meditate. I don’t look at my mobile device. The greatest days are where I take the time to be silent.” – Oprah Winfrey

via Third Metric


Third Metric is redefining success beyond money and power, to include well-being, wisdom, wonder and our ability to make a difference in the world.

A Year of Living Without

Zen Habits author Leo Babauta has embarked on a “Year of Living Without” Project. It’s an experiment to fine-tune his lifestyle in order to “Make Room for Life”

This approach is in line with how I view a lot of my own Mindful Living practices, and people who know me well might share that I’ll often undertake these kinds of projects as well; sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of necessity.

For Leo, July was no coffee month and he claims he” had absolutely no difficulty in giving up coffee, not the first day, not the first week, not at all..”

Next month, Leo will not be sitting down for more than 30 minutes at a time, a big move for anyone whose work requires them to be connected to the internet.

Read more on Leo’s blog.

Mindfulness & ‘Internet Brain’

Last week blogger Andrew Price shared his story of turning to meditation to help overcome “Internet Brain,” which he described as “..jumping from one diverting link to another, and sampling little snippets of text and imagery for as long as they hold your increasingly attenuated attention… [a]ny task that requires the sustained and focused application of your brain has become impossible.”


Andrew’s Profile at Good.is


Anyone who has sat down on social media for any significant length of time could likely relate to this experience.  It’s not a fun to emerge from a session of internetting (for yourself or an employer), with a fuzzy brain, and wondering if you accomplished anything at all.

So how does mindfulness relate?  

Mindfulness meditation helps us become familiar with the inner urges which would make us jump from one thing to the next, be it a webpage, a candybar, or tv show.   It helps us to keep our values and intentions in mind while we open ourselves to information in the world around us.

When meditating regularly, my work life is much easier. I can take a break in the middle of a larger project to look up a critical piece of information or check for an important email and then catch myself immediately if I start to get sidetracked. I found that I can work consistently and productively for longer periods of time—and this means that I have more free time as well.

In her film Connected, director Tiffany Schlain explores the idea of being and feeling “connected” in the age of the internet.   What she shares about her personal experience, studies in brain chemistry, and attempting to ‘de-tox’ from technology once-a-week, is a wonderful exploration in mindful living in the age of “Internet Brain”


If you’re interested in learning mindfulness practice, send me an email at [email protected] to discuss one-on-one or group coaching, in-person or, ironically, through the internet.

Huffington Post: Why Companies are Turning to Yoga and Meditation to Boost the Bottom Line

“I may be weird, but I’m also in charge of the company.’

– Mark Bertolinin, CEO of Aetna, Mindfulness-at-work Advocate.

A recent article by Peter S. Goodman tracks some of the corporate wellness programs that utilize “Mindfulness,” “Meditation” or more broadly branded programs like Chade Meng-Tan’s “Search Inside Yourself” to promote employee well-being.

“Approximately one-fourth of all major American employers now deliver some version of stress reduction..”

“Aetna determined that workers in its most stress-prone positions were racking up medical bills that exceeded those of other employees by an average of $2,000 a year. Last year, Aetna reduced its health care costs by 7 percent — a savings the CEO pegs in part to limiting stress through meditation and yoga.”


“I have so many action items on my plate at all times that I can’t ever get my brain clear,” Kubly says. “This is a chance to just clear out. If you’re doing what is right for yourself, then you’re doing what is right for your organization. You get clarity, and that helps you make better decisions.”

And the article goes on to explore the link between well-being, profit, long-term & short-term costs and ‘conscious capitalism.’

“A business enterprise can be far more than a bunch of numbers that create a bottom line and return profit to shareholders,” Linton says. “Businesses have an opportunity, just like people, to say, ‘What are we here for?’ My goal is to align the self-actualization of the business with the self-actualization of the people who actually work here.”


“The popularity of the wellness initiatives amounts to a recruiting tool, say the company’s human resources people. Such programs also help explain why 91 percent of Promega’s employees stick around from one year to the next, according to the company, minimizing disruptions and holding down training costs.”

Mindfulness is becoming super-popular in corporate circles, but the basic practice is still the same:

“If at any point during our meditation you feel yourself losing focus, like you feel the workday creeping back in, the breath is always available,” Lyle says. “The breath can anchor us into the moment.”

If you’d like to read the full article from the Huffington Post here.