Is Meditation Punk? An Investigation
Posted on April 6, 2015
April 6, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey
Before you begin reading this, do me a favor. Pause whatever music you might have playing, turn off the television if you’re in front of one, and put your phone face down and out of arm’s reach. Make your surrounding space as quiet as possible, and close your eyes, just for a moment, and breathe normally. How about this: Keep your eyes closed 10 seconds for every browser tab you have open right now. It’s okay. I’ll wait here.
How do you feel?
Do you feel calmer or less distracted? Maybe when you first closed your eyes, your brain was overrun with disparate thoughts—the to-dos of your workday, your plans for after work, that Mad Men thinkpiece you meant to read, your thoughts on all of these things in the form of status updates and tweets and photos and GIFs. We’re the first generation to, perhaps somewhat unwillingly and unconsciously, hardwire our brains to work this way. Our senses are perpetually overwhelmed, feelings are fleeting, and everything we experience is ephemeral. We focus on everything and in turn, focus on nothing.
My focus is a near-constant struggle. Until recently, I couldn’t even sit down to read or write something without looking at my phone, checking twitter, refreshing my Facebook groups, scrolling through GIF after GIF after GIF on tumblr, and on and on and on. I was a voracious reader in my teens and early 20s—I haven’t finished a book in years. I simply can’t concentrate long enough on a single task like that anymore. Of course, there are endless productivity apps and browser plugins and “life hacks” but none of them work unless the person using them can retrain their brain. That’s where it begins. Maybe you can relate.
We’re in the midst of The Age Of Distraction. There’s so much stuff, most of it utterly inconsequential, whizzing by our earholes and eyeballs at every waking moment that it’s impossible to keep up with or commit any of it to memory. But dammit, we try. And we fail every time. I write or read a tweet and a few minutes later, I’ve already forgotten about it and am on to the next thing. There’s always something new, or “better.” We’re constantly distracted, we can’t concentrate, we can’t commit to anything. We’re being clutched and coddled by technology, by the people using it, and by ourselves. We don’t own these devices, they own us. It reads like a plot point to a dystopian science fiction movie, except it’s real and it’s ugly and it’s embarrassing and it’s counterproductive.
The Age Of Distraction is happening concurrently with The Age Of Opinion. Now more than ever, people offer their opinions, whether they’re asked for or not, whether they’re well-informed, misinformed or poorly formed, on nearly everything. News, sports, events, bands, which of your tweets are problematic, literally everyone has an opinion on literally everything—and I’m not saying literally in that exaggerated form people sometimes do. Not having an opinion or simply abstaining from discussing something, now, appears to communicate weakness. It communicates an inability to engage in dialogue. Or something. It’s all very odd; under the right circumstances open dialogue can and should be productive and enlightening and ultimately educational, but seemingly the circumstances are rarely right, people are upset about things that ultimately don’t really matter, and as a result essentially everyone on the internet is angry—usually with complete strangers—for at least part, if not all of their day. Imagine feeling like you’re required to have an opinion on absolutely everything and then share said opinion no matter what the timing or circumstance. It’s an exhausting notion. Just thinking about it makes the back of my head hurt a little bit.
I’ve casually known Miguel Chen for a few years now—though I knew of him before, my illustrious girlfriend of over three years, Melissa, introduced us. Miguel is the bassist of Teenage Bottlerocket, but if you were to judge him based on the inherent energetic silliness of his band, you’d never know him as a thoughtful, contemplative, mindful person. In the past few years, Miguel has begun practicing Buddhism and meditation; he wrote about the intersection of punk rock and Buddhism earlier this year for Lion’s Roar:
“I spend about half of my time traveling with my punk rock band, Teenage Bottlerocket. Over the years we’ve been able to achieve mild success: I can make a little bit of money and support myself doing something I really love. Ever since I was a teenager all I wanted to do was play punk rock, go on tour, and see the world. It was an important part of my path even years before I would begin really contemplating such things. Eventually I did find myself actively looking for a deeper meaning. I was the last person I would have ever imagined would get into meditation, mindfulness, or spirituality.
Yet here I am: a few years into a daily meditation practice and finding myself happier, more connected, and alive than ever.
Meditation is a funny thing. This seemingly simple act—sitting on a cushion and being quiet—is actually an amazing tool that helps us start seeing things as they actually are. It helps us drop the illusion of how we think things are, or how we think they should be, and to just see and appreciate the truth. For me, this meant dropping my punk-informed attitude of ‘us versus them’ and instead beginning to see connections that we all share.”
Before Miguel left on tour with TBR earlier this year, he posted a callout on Facebook welcoming anyone in the cities where they’d be playing to come and meditate with him for a video project he was working on. Without really thinking about it, I commented with my interest. Why not, right? I was grasping for something—not necessarily a religious experience, just a new habit I could hopefully form that would aid my focus and concentration. I’d never meditated before, or even considered it; a lot of punks, despite our self-proclaimed open-mindedness and inclusiveness, tend to blindly dismiss stuff like this as New Age bullshit. I was initially no different, but after the seemingly inescapable mental problems I’d been experiencing I was willing to try. I suppose that’s the real first step, willingness.
I met Miguel outside the front door of the Trocadero in Philadelphia, where TBR would be opening for Pennywise and A Wilhelm Scream later that evening. It was a pretty typical late March afternoon—cold, windy and bright. The Troc is in Philly’s Chinatown neighborhood, an area with sights and sounds and smells I’ve always enjoyed in the few years I’ve been here. It’s one of the best neighborhoods in the city, and one I don’t frequently visit, so I was already happy to be there.
The doors were a little over an hour away from opening. Fans were stirring nearby but no one was really lined up yet. Miguel flashed his tour laminate to the man working the door and I followed him through the door, onto the floor and eventually backstage, upstairs and into the green room area. Most everyone was out to dinner, Miguel said, so this was about as perfect a time to meditate as we could get, given the setting.
At first, Miguel expressed his gratitude for my willingness to meditate with him (and be filmed while doing so), but he wasn’t really directing me, which for some assumptive reason I expected. Instead I just quietly followed his lead, removing my boots and my coat, then selecting a cushion from the couch, placing it on the hardwood floor and sitting cross-legged. Miguel sat about five feet across from me in a lotus position—he told me he prefers the lotus but despite what many think, the best way to sit while meditating is simply whichever way that person is most comfortable.
Once we were both seated, and with his GoPro rolling, Miguel began directing us. I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth, in through my nose, out through my mouth, and closed my eyes. What I realized early on was that, in addition to being mildly uncomfortable simply due to never sitting in this position, I “fell back” easily. What I mean by that is, somewhat remarkably and unexpectedly, it was simple for me to just listen to Miguel’s directions, pay attention to the rhythm of my breathing and block out everything else. My mind was gloriously empty. Then, as Miguel spoke on, he directed me to think about someone I love, then to think about someone who’d recently caused me pain, then to think about all the suffering in the world, or as much of it as I could conceivably comprehend. Obviously, this was a way to center in on people—people I knew, and people I didn’t know—and in some sort of spiritual way, wish them well and free of suffering. But what I took away from it was that ability to focus, to really concentrate on one person or one thing, which I previously thought impossible.
As I gave the rhythm of my breathing undivided attention, I felt a wave of unfamiliar relaxation. Onstage the drummer of the opening band was soundchecking a snare drum, pat, pat, pat, but I didn’t notice until Miguel, mid-direction, pointed it out. I was intensely and singularly focused, but simultaneously so relaxed, that the otherwise irritation of a repetitive snare drum hit didn’t even register in my brain. A couple of minutes and a prayer later, I softly opened my eyes and involuntarily smiled. I couldn’t believe how calm and peaceful I felt in that moment. As improbable as it likely is, I want to feel like that all the time.
I returned outside the venue to wait for Melissa to arrive. Normally in this scenario, an early Saturday evening on a busy Philadelphia street, I would be restless, anxious, staring at my phone, waiting impatiently, texting M even though she’s on her way and whatever I’m texting her I could just tell her in person, like an adult, when she arrived. Instead of looking down, I looked up. I looked at the sky, and the colorful signs around me that signified restaurants and shops and salons and massage parlors. I listened to the wind as it whipped around my head, to the cars whirring by on Arch Street, to the footsteps of the people walking by. Instead of getting lost thanks to technology, I was just present. When M arrived, she noticed right away that something was different. “You seem much calmer, and not mad at everything like you normally are.”
Since that day at the Troc, I’ve been meditating every afternoon, ironically with the help of an iPhone app called Headspace. My hope is that once I get the hang of it on my own, I won’t need the app. Consequently I’ve felt calmer, more relaxed and just generally more present than I can ever remember feeling. After we meditated, Miguel asked me if I thought the punk scene could use more mindfulness of this sort, and less obtrusive and counterproductive anger. I had to admit that I thought we could.