Meditations on San Francisco
I think the first time I felt meditative in public was at a
show. For those unfamiliar with the band, the LA doom metal duo provokes intense reactions in a crowd through seismic ambient drones. Watching them perform is an out-of-body experience; everything inside you seems to vibrate as they play. I loved it. Over the years, I’ve sought out other music with a similar physically transformative vibe. This brand of experimental music has become my kinda meditation.
You can’t live in San Francisco for too long before the more traditional forms of meditation float into your orbit. For a while now I’ve been interested in trying to quiet my overactive mind with some peaceful sitting time. So my coworker Sarah Han and I created an event with San Francisco Zen Center that merges traditional Zen practices with nontraditional art and music that has a deeply introspective quality. We’re calling it “Meditations on San Francisco.”
We worked with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, one of the founders of the Root Strata label (in my book, the place for blissful ambient music), to help curate a lineup that includes some of my top acts in town: Barn Owl, Date Palms, and Danny Paul Grody. Their pensive instrumentals are gorgeous, deeply emotional, and, well, should sound pretty amazing in the Zen Center’s dining hall and courtyard. We also invited artist David Wilson, who’s inventive with his installations, to help us create an interactive element to the night.
I asked David Wilson, all the bands, and the Zen Center staff to be part of a photo essay shot by Margo Moritz, and to muse a bit on what meditation means in their lives, with the idea being that there’s no standard way to space out in this town. Their answers might not involve the voluminous output of a heavy metal behemoth, but they all have methods for getting out of their heads and into something kinda magical – if I can get a little less rock ’n’ roll and a little more woogie about things for a moment.
“To me, meditation is inseparable from music. At its strongest, it is the state of bliss I find when my guitar amplifier is at full volume and I stand in front of it soaking in the aural and physical force, carried away in the ringing overtones of guitar feedback. Here it is possible to find this visceral, time-destroying period of oneness where you can feel these typically untouched aspects of your mind opening. But I can also find that place alone, in a quiet space with an acoustic guitar. It's all about listening and focusing on the vibrations that take you there.”
“Meditation is sitting on a dune at Ocean Beach – the drone of crashing waves lulling me deeper into a sea of weightlessness. Meditation is sitting with a guitar, playing a phrase over and over until detailed nuances of each repetition begin to surface. Like the ocean, music is a meditative vehicle for me. Sound can be a plane, a point of reference, a point of entrance. Whether it’s the drone of a harmonium or the drone of the sea, sound can sustain a deep awareness, a meditative state that reveals hidden truths. In reflecting on single notes and chords with patient demeanor, meditation has become interwoven into my guitar style. The deeper I drift into this weightless subconscious, the more effortless my playing becomes. Allowing notes and phrases to pass through me like a meandering stream, I feel connected to a creative power outside of myself.”
“Most of my friends like to travel. I guess I can see the appeal of it, but personally, I often end up with the feeling that 'Well, here I am, the same old jerk I always was, and being in Egypt doesn’t seem to be changing that.' Now, that’s a bad attitude, and when I travel I really am much nicer than that. Anyway, my point is that even if we could rocket off to some gleaming distant planet, it could never come close to the experience one gets in meditation, of the incredible changes always moving within us. Meditation offers the opportunity to actually be a whole new person in that way, to be a bright, brand-new individual in every moment.”
“I was never one of those people for whom meditation meant coming suddenly and terrifyingly face-to-face with the contents of my mind for the first time. I had long been comfortable being alone with my own thoughts; in fact, it took a few years of sitting to discipline myself not to meander pleasantly through the byways of my imagination but instead to let the thoughts just come and go. Sitting silently was not a problem either, but crossing my legs and being still was not natural to me, and I had to work to make the physical experience less of a struggle. I can't say for sure, a dozen years on, why I continue to sit, and why I expect I will continue for years to come, but I have learned that the mind does not need to run things, that thoughts are not imperatives, that the body mirrors the mind tightening around thinking, that the breath is a miraculous event, and that sitting upright with an open chest is a radical act in the face of wishing to self-protect.”
“To me, meditation is a state of mind, a calm openness where time is transformed. Thoughts, feelings, reactions, and sensations may come and go, without the overt judgment of consciousness. This sensation of transformed time is more like floating instead of running in a sequence. I seek this through practicing yoga, certain activities like running or swimming, in listening to or improvising music, or just spacing out in beautiful places. A lot of the music that I create opens me to this state, especially the projects Date Palms and Darwinsbitch. To me, I feel a need to decompress from everyday life as often as I can, and this music is one of the ways I get there.”
“Meditation for me occurs during performance. When I am able to shut down and focus on the frequencies, I enter a state of pure ‘nothing,’ no outside or environmental influences. If I am not focused and feeling a sense of calmness, it is really difficult to reach this state of nothing. I studied Eastern religions in college and part of the class was set aside for meditation. This was my first introduction to meditating, which I continued to do for a year, but like a lot of things in life, it was difficult to find the time. I liked the idea of being able to reach a Zen state during performances, not feeling the audiences' presence. It feels like it's just myself and sound in a pitch-black room. It should be mentioned that the music I compose almost always has a backing drone as the core of the piece. This type of music forces the listener to deep listen to the frequencies, and pushes them towards a Zen state. It's not a selfish endeavor for myself to reach the state of nothing during performance; I am also interested in creating an atmosphere of meditation for the listener as well.”
“It's about taking out the garbage daily from my subconscious mind. My personal practice is rooted in Kundalini yoga and has a significant focus on sound vibration as well as the breath. The states that can be achieved with persistent practice have been used for healing, creativity, and spiritual growth for thousands of years.”
“Meditation to me is a good long walk through the woods, whether imaginary or not.”
“When I was growing up, my dad would meditate every day after getting home from work. I think it helped make him a good dad and a good person. My brother lived in a Shaolin temple for seven years and practiced kung fu and meditation intensely. He's married now and is the kindest and most generously spirited person I know. He once told me that his main goal is just to be honest. My mom is the wild one of the bunch. She has taken to meditating in recent years, in part I think to connect with my dad, who is no longer alive. I meditate these days too, mostly before I draw. As we get older, our minds become louder, more dominant voices, and I think it's important to make space to listen to that other gut voice that actually knows what to do.”
“Meditation is a very malleable word for me. I've never practiced or studied it in any formal context, but I believe it's possible to attain a level of calm and clarity through many kinds of experiences. For instance, listening to and playing music definitely lends itself to an introspective and a quiet state of mind for me. Repeated phrases, vibrations, and tones have a trance-inducing effect. It reminds me of when I was a child in the passenger seat of a car and I'd instantly fall deeply to sleep without fail. The white noise and constant motion had a lulling quality to it.”
The Meditations on San Francisco event has sold out, but you can visit SFZC other times for meditation inspiration and instruction. And you can experience the artists we've invited to be part of the evening at other venues by following Barn Owl here, David Wilson here, Danny Paul Grody here, and Date Palms here.