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4’33” – What John Cage Taught Me About Meditation

The other day, John Cage and I were sitting having a coffee watching the world go by…ah If only! What a time to be alive  If I had a time machine I would definitely go that time.  But what has that got to do with meditation? Nothing really on the surface but 4’33’ has taught me something so useful, so wonderful I would like to share it with you.

I’ve always struggled with meditation.  I can’t visualise for a start so any guided meditation is just a specified amount of time in hell while I agonise over my lack of ability to find myself on a beach / by a lake etc. Secondly the moment someone says…. Empty your mind, that’s it, I’m done for.  Suddenly my mind sounds like the general hubbub of a pub that’s 6 deep at the bar; I know I’m not alone in this.

I am very fortunate to have my Makery HQ in the middle of our South Devon woods.  Quite often I will take a break from making just to sit – I love it there. So here’s the thing.  There is never silence in nature, so why would we expect to find it in ourselves? Meditation for me is not about silencing the voices nor sweeping out the sensations of the body and mind away. It is about noticing them. Fully.  Noticing what I am telling myself. Noting the sensations of the body.  Being with myself fully.  With that comes a sense of calm of connectedness. With that comes the clarity. 

I recorded one of my ‘sitting sessions’, taking a bit of a liberty in that the original 4’33’ has 3 movements but I’m not that much or a purist.  So just 4’33” of sitting. Please let it run all the way through and see how you feel at the end. 

And here is a truth – sometimes in the middle of my meditation a thought like ‘Oh S**t balls, I’ve forgotten to pay the childminder’ comes hurtling into my head like a high speed train, suddenly I’m not calm.  however with the gentleness of my attention, I notice that thought.and return to the now…..to the gentle white noise of the wind in the trees and the bird song.  

Expectation is a dangerous and a wondrous thing, it gives us hope and takes us in directions we never thought possible – We often believe we have ‘failed’ at meditation simply because our reality does not look or feel like our expectation, that’s not terribly helpful. Our expectation gives us a framework, our reality moves us forward whatever we might think to the contrary.

This quote sums up for me the expectation of meditation and the reality of it

“Originally we had in mind what you might call an imaginary beauty, a process of basic emptiness with just a few things arising in it. . . . And then when we actually set to work, a kind of avalanche came about which corresponded not at all with that beauty which had seemed to appear to us as an objective.

Where do we go then?  . . . Well what we do is go straight on; that way lies, no doubt, a revelation.  I had no idea this was going to happen.  I did have an idea something else would happen.  Ideas are one thing and what happens another.

— John Cage, “Where are we going?  And what are we doing?”Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), pp. 220–222.

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