“The writing of music is an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvement in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desire out of the way and lets it act of its own accord” – John Cage, Silence (1961, p. 12)
1948, New York City.
A quiet Manhattan loft space.
Enter, John Cage.
From his high creative sanctuary, overlooking the river, this soft-spoken, Californian composer would soon preach a new way of listening to the world.
A way that would shun the ego.
A way that would question our addiction to control.
A way that would liberate a generation of artists and audiences alike, by opening them to the wonder of the everyday.
Perhaps this way sounds familiar?
To meditators, it should. For Cage’s path traces the same journey we take through our own practice, from a life filled with urgent seeking, to one that embraces the joy of witnessing the world, as it is.
The work of John Cage (1912-1992) – composer, philosopher, mushroom collector – expresses the very essence of Zen.
And by spending a few minutes with his ideas, we might find ways to deepen our own practice, ways to enrich our life, by opening to the world of sound.
To appreciate how Cage might aid our journey, we must first remind ourselves of where we are right now – what is the difficulty that we seek to overcome, with the help of meditation?
Endless, exhausting, desire.
The mind’s relentless need for things that are not here.
It is this that cuts us of from the world.
It is this that stresses us out, wears us down, brings sickness to our souls.
The feeling that there is always something missing. Something wrong.
This condition is known in the Buddhist traditions as dukkha or dissatisfaction – a mental suffering or anguish that we carry with us almost everywhere we go.
Preventing us from finding depth in our moments.
Pulling us along so thin and unnourished.
“He shouldn’t have said that”, “Where can I get better coffee?”, “I need to feel different”
“This place is too loud”, “Why can’t they stop!”, “This chair isn’t comfy”
“She shouldn’t be here”, “He should have been nicer”, “This is unbearable!”
These are the ways that dukkha shows up in our lives.
Such thoughts epitomize what Ajahn Brahm calls the “fault-finding mind” – our default way of operating in the world.
A way of seeking to improve upon life by shaping it in our own image.
“Life needs to give me what I want”
But what happens as we obsess with shaping the world to fit our own agenda?
What happens as we focus in on the injustice of the child’s cries, puncturing our afternoon peace?
The arrogance of the person at work? The lateness of the train?
What happens is that we miss everything else.
We miss our lives by obsessing over the things we do not want.
Seeking to escape from this moment into another, into a better moment, is the essence of dukkha – the dissatisfaction that the ancient teachers diagnosed as our condition.
And it is this constant retreat from life that leaves us unnourished and unfulfilled.
Consider: How do you expect to feel wonder, joy or compassion, if you are not open to the world?
Seeing this, many of us are brought to meditation.
We see that we must soften this addiction to control.
We must forge a new path – a new habit of openness to what is.
So, we go along to mindfulness groups, tune into Headspace, read books on spirituality.
We buy a meditation cushion, a singing bowl, tell our friends about the practice.
We build a new routine to counter our old habits.
Habits that no longer serve us.
And, for many of us, we turn to the breath.
For most, the breath is their first object for meditation.
Their first friend,
Their primary tool on this new journey
An all-purpose sanctuary to handle the days torment.
And for good reason.
The breath is portable, simple, familiar.
It feels like relaxation too!
For many, attending to the breath brings great benefits, great joys.
A soothing reprieve from the endlessness of seeking.
A way of tuning into the body,
into our ground –
a space beyond the whirlwind of thoughts.
But we must be careful.
For the very intimacy we have with our breath can also limit us.
The breath is something we can slow down,
Something we can manipulate and transform
It is something that we can get involved with and, in so doing,
turn our practice into another occasion for control.
After all, the breath should be relaxing.
The breath should sooth my mind, dissolve my difficulty.
And, seeking this, we can forget to be open to the unique feeling of each breath.
We can begin to breathe mechanically, rigidly, on purpose, thinking this voluntary act will generate our desired ends.
We start treating meditation as just another way to get what we want, something Suryacitta calls the “vending machine” approach to practice.
“I’d like this today. This tomorrow. And enlightenment in ten years’ time.”
And this doesn’t work.
This doesn’t work because meditation’s power does not come from forcing.
It comes from being open.
So, we need something that we cannot force,
Something more naturally beyond this “I”, this “me”,
if we are to keep our practice fresh, powerful and alive.
And for this, we can turn to the world of sound.
Sound’s power, in this way, is revealed by stepping back in time once more.
To New York, 1948, John Cage, the loft.
High above Hudson, in his Bohemian wonderland of whitewashed walls,
Cage stands looking out, reflecting upon the city.
Recalling how he spent his youth feeling the weight of what came before.
A musical tradition demanding that he “express” something new,
Demanding that he find novel ways of controlling nature’s voice,
Achieve status as a “great artist” by manipulating the world appropriately.
Yet, he had always been uncomfortable with this task.
His ego, he felt, had been no spur to greatness.
In fact, it had been an obstacle to appreciating the sound-world, as any skilled listener should aspire.
What drew him to music was not a desire to control sound, but a bewitchment by it –
a magnetism to the rich soundscape of the everyday.
He had taken delight in the curious resonances of ordinary objects.
Kettles, teapots, glasses, taps.
He found that the world was already singing.
Bearing its soul in a way that enchanted him, freed him.
But as soon as he tried to express himself through these sounds,
Their song was silenced.
And so was he.
So, Cage had determined to return to this enchantment.
And to deliver us its partners of wonder and surprise.
What was important about sound was not its capacity to express oneself.
But that fact that it is totally beyond oneself.
That it is unfamiliar, unpredictable.
Sound is not me and it’s not mine to control.
But there it is, always dancing in the background.
The wind singing in the trees.
The creak of the building.
An old tin-can, being kicked down the road.
What Cage realized was that these very things can be the instruments of our own freedom.
By 1948, Cage’s journey towards the unfamiliar had been gaining momentum.
He had created instruments from old cars –
Brake-drums, spring-coils, hubcaps, metal –
the so-called “junk” of the world,
and percussion pieces like no one had ever heard.
He threw these rogue sounds at things more familiar too.
His famous “prepared piano” using springs, screws, coins and bolts to dissolve the purity of its strings
Producing works that welcomed the bewitching rattle of civilization itself.
The Perilous Night (1944) Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945) Sonatas and Interludes (1948) – these are more alike Indonesian Gamelan, than works of a western mind.
And though their raucousness can initially unsettle those who listen,
their alien landscapes are also oddly pure, soothing and poignant.
He had found a strange sweetness amidst the “ugly”.
By welcoming in the things he had considered unsavory and impure,
Cage found something astonishing.
He found that that they became beautiful.
By turning towards them, he found that these things “become transformed, and we become transformed [too]”
He saw that he could change his own psyche, by determining to pay attention to the junk.
As he turned towards the clatter of the springs, screws, the nuts and the bolts – the unwanted “accidents” of life – he saw that they became enchanting – their own symphony of musical delights.
What had made his daily soundscape unappealing was no more that his agenda – his ego-narrative about what all these sounds mean.
“This one isn’t relevant”
“This one is distracting”
“This one shows how inconsiderate that person is!”
But by dropping his agenda, and practicing openness, he saw that the unwilled and the uncontrolled, can become our friend once more.
It can enchant and deliver us from the suffocation of our own story.
Hopefully, we now glimpse the value of Cage’s words.
For his path perfectly mirrors that we seek to tread in meditation.
And it reveals sound as an ally in this quest.
Our practice is to suspend our judgements, to turn towards those experiences that we did not want.
Just to be open.
And observe the enchanting play of the world unwind and transform our minds, all by itself.
For when we stop feeding our I-stories, the mind’s energies are put into something magical
A natural capacity to untangle its own knots.
And so return to its natural state of peace and of joy.
The radical transformation of sensory experience, in meditation, comes through openness.
this willingness to welcome in the things that previously caused us to retreat,
and see that these too is acceptable.
The gravel crunching underfoot
A motorcycle speeding past
The sing-song cadence of the conversation over the fence
We begin to see that “this isn’t what I planned” need not translate into “this is a problem”.
Cage favored the term “experimental” to describe his musical works.
The idea of the “avant-garde” gave the impression of a deliberate attempt to break new ground, fueled by the ego.
While “experimental” well-communicated an openness to the sound-world.
To be led by it rather than by oneself.
And to be led to the experience of wonder, of surprise, at whatever results these experiments produced
Who knows what such sounds will do to us, unless we make room for them in our life?
By 1948, Cage was ready to take a step further though.
It wasn’t enough to simply “make room” for the strange sounds of life,
if he was still minded to “do things” with them – to order them as he saw fit in his work.
He felt drawn to remove his ego completely from the act of composition,
To let the sounds themselves be the avant-garde.
Leading the audience, the listener, himself, to places never experienced before
And for this, he turned to the mechanism of chance.
Removing the vestiges of his “self” from his work, Cage began using chance operations to determine the musical components of his pieces.
Using dice rolls, coin tosses, the ancient Chinese I-Ching.
Creases in paper, star charts, computer generated numbers.
These idiosyncrasies began to determine his sound choices, and sound’s length, intensity and tempo.
They allowed a more complete openness, free even of the “artist”.
For where the “artist” remained, with their desires and their agenda, there remained also space for disappointment.
A space where his experiments could either succeed or fail.
Chance took Cage beyond this, his Music of Changes (1951) for solo piano delivering him into this next stage of his career.
A stage he would dwell, Zen inspired, For the remainder of his life.
So be watchful, in your meditation, of those moments of success and failure.
There is no good experience or bad experience.
There are simply more things to pay attention to.
Whatever arises, that is your object.
Even “distractions” can anchor us back to the world.
This space beyond preferences, is where the real liberation lies.
Where find a place a real contentment
In a realization that we can be okay wherever we find ourselves.
Whatever imperfections remain inside of us.
These too can be beautiful.
If we simply set the intention to respond to them in a way different to before.
If we welcome them in. Be honest. Be open.
But to realize this, we need a place of silence.
We need a place and a time to welcome in the imperfect
And see that we can be okay with it.
We need to throw ourselves into the pool
Thrash around for a while
In order to see that we can swim.
For Cage this was 4’33” (1952) – the famous “silent piece”,
Where the performer is instructed to make no sounds at all
Just to sit, in openness, for four and a half minutes
and allow the sounds of the performance space itself to form the music.
For us, this silence means sitting down in meditation. Sitting still and being fully open.
Just seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching.
And seeing that this alone is enough.
For the world can be beautiful, when the mind gets out the way.
With time in silence, we see that it was not the world but me that was the problem.
We see that we have created the problem, in our thoughts of perfection and control.
And as we sit longer, we see something astounding about these thoughts too
We find that they are just as uncontrollable as the sounds that surround us.
They pop up, out of nowhere, like the birds chirping in the trees.
So we see that our quest for control was not only unwise, it was impossible.
Realizing this truth, Alan Watts tells us that there is nothing to do but to have a good laugh.
For we see that our “destination” is no more than the place we already are.
The way of liberation is a way of ease – a way of relaxing into our natural state.
A way of letting go of that which doesn’t serve us.
It is nothing complex that we need to strain to achieve.
And the only response to this is humour – something running through all of Cage’s work.
In his delight at the plight of his audiences, when after much bashing their heads against conceptual walls, trying to understand his music, they would finally realise “Oh, you mean it’s just sound!”
And Cage would burst out in laughter. Like the Zen masters of old.
For they’d finally seen the point.
That this was all they needed:
So, try bringing sound into your practice.
Allow it to be there, around the breath.
Or put it centre stage.
Welcome the “accidents” of the world into your silence.
And recall that these fifteen or twenty minutes are not about controlling our experience at all,
They are about being aware
The rattle of washing the dishes,
The hum of the refrigerator.
Geese flying overhead at dusk.
These sounds themselves are transformative.
Returning us to this world
An enchanted landscape
Waiting silently behind the blindfold of the ego
Revealed by nothing more than our attention.
Cage, J. (1961). Silence: Lectures and Writings. Wesleyan University Press.
Ross, A. (2007). The rest is noise: Listening to the twentieth century. Macmillan.