Metta and Classical Music Study

I’ve been a student of the classical guitar since the mid 1980’s, and of metta, or Buddhist loving kindness practice for almost that long. There are a number of things they have in common, and so I thought I’d bring these two subjects together, and let each shine their light on the other…


First of all,

Music and metta both come from an overflowing heart

The notes you see on a page, even if they are played in time, are not yet music – they need love to make them come alive.

In a similar way, the phrases we repeat, by themselves are not metta, or loving kindness. As I heard Ajaan Pasanno say, the object in metta is the feeling we can generate, which is one of warmth, and of kindness.

Both music and loving kindness come from an overflowing of joy, of gratitude to our teachers and traditions, and of generosity. Both feel to me like a gift.

When we practice metta, we’re the first ones to benefit from it

In time, metta can and should improve all our relationships, but the practice simply starts at home, with ourselves. This is just like how it is with music too, where before anyone else gets to enjoy your playing, you get to appreciate and delight in it.

Both music and metta take discipline

There was something unique in formal music training that I’d never heard about with other kinds of music. Before, I played whenever I felt like it, but with classical study, I learned that people aim to practice consistently, however they happen to be feeling.  In metta, and in any other meditation practice also, the foundation is made up of having regular practice, and not just sitting whenever we’re so inspired. This way we get to meet all our different states and qualities, and bring them into the practice.

Metta and music both take concentration

I remember one teacher telling me the adage that ‘half an hour of concentrated study is worth more than hours of practice when you’re tired or distracted’. The same is true in meditation.  It’s more productive to keep a good quality of attention than to have longer sessions.

Both have a method to follow

To my lasting gratitude, there is a method that’s been developed to advance in playing my instrument. People have looked at the elements of playing and figured out how to approach its full development, step by step.

In the same way, metta practice has a method that works gradually, one step at a time.

In both, what’s difficult is separated out so that it can be worked with.  There’s a rule in music study, that if something is difficult, and we can break it down into manageable parts, we can learn to play it, and this builds confidence over time.

In both, there can be beauty in simplicity

A clean line, a simple phrase, good tone, a clear idea – all these can be surprisingly uplifting. Similarly, we don’t need a complicated meditation practice. Sometimes a simple practice is more effective, and if we do it well.

It is as Rumi said,

The beauty of a carefully sewn shirt
is the love that it contains

Here we can see the advantage of being gently process oriented, as opposed to goal oriented. As Thich Nhat Hanh has taught, practice should be enjoyable, then we’re sure to see good results.

In both, be creative and make it your own

In both metta and in formal music training, we’re encouraged to keep making progress

This is where it gets challenging at times. We can get complacent, feeling that ‘it’s good enough’, and at that point a good friend or teacher is needed to encourage us to take the next step.

Both take patience, and humility

I’ve heard that Ajaan Chah, the great Thai Forest master said, ‘I don’t teach much, I just teach people to be patient’. In music study and in metta practice, this has great benefits. For one, it’s more comfortable, which is already a gift to oneself. For another, being patient means… we …slow …down… and can be more attentive to what we are doing. We actually learn more that way, just as the saying goes across all classical music training, that ‘slow is fast’.

In both, appreciative joy is a great help

There are so many great examples of teachers and players, and when we admire and celebrate their good qualities some of that comes to us. It’s true. This is something that is taught in Buddhism as well. You’ll notice that this is a far cry from the childish, petty ego, that is jealous of anyone else’s success. Being inspired is an essential part of both of these paths, and we’re blessed whenever we can open to the good things that others are doing.

In both, we can learn a lot from watching our teachers

More than what they say, the effect of watching our teachers is direct, immediate, and lasting.

In both, there can be a feedback loop of practice and performance

In metta and in music, we go out into the world to see how we’re doing with our formal practice. After a while we can actually enjoy seeing where we can improve. Instead of thinking, Oh, I missed those notes today, or, Aacch, I really messed up and got impatient, we can see it as the step that is right in front of us.

Metta and music are both part of something larger

As Ajahn Pasanno said in one of his talks during the metta retreat in 2008,

‘Loving kindness doesn’t stand alone – it’s part of the spectrum of Buddhist teachings, both in terms of it being a support for those teachings, but also a result of those teachings…’

Similarly, art comes from life and culture, and enriches and adds to it.  Most accomplished artists will tell you to study broadly, and not just in terms of your own instrument or field.

And lastly, as I tell my students,

This is something for your whole life.

You may not make money, or become famous from music, but you won’t regret it. It adds to your whole life. And the same holds true for meditation practice.

At this point, if I had to choose between music and metta, I’d take the inner discipline, after all, there are plenty of miserable artists and musicians out there, so by itself that’s clearly not enough. What I’ve  found out is that a healthy spiritual life is the basis for everything worthwhile. Fortunately for us, these two – the spiritual and the artistic- can be perfectly compatible.

The arts give us a way to share the life we’ve received, to give the gifts of solace and refreshment to others. They give us wonderful ways to be together, sharing the best things we’ve found. Metta and meditation, and the spiritual life, on the other hand support us in all that we do. They help keep our priorities in order, and they give us the overall vision and the strength to live well.