On nights when my mind is racing, along with my heart rate, I fall asleep to makeup demos and lipstick arm swatches. I used to get the ASMR tones of Kylie Jenner’s tutorials from her daily posts on Snapchat, with her velvety voice saying, “heyyyyyy guyzzzz,” and “ob-ssssessssed,” but she’s dropped that account. Thankfully YouTubers have made 20-minute-plus compilations of the posts, and it instantly lulls me to sleep. I opt for this over the celeb story readings from the Calm app because, well, it’s free and it works. But Jenner’s voice got me thinking: Am I meditating?
Now, I fully understand I’m not meditating in the traditional sense. But my phone has become kind of a guide with sounds. I’m also a huge fan of sound baths, and I save #soundbaths on IGTV and on Pinterest to use when I find my mind is racing faster than my physical capabilities. Sounds really do have an effect on me, my energy and my thoughts. But I wasn’t exactly using it to “get into the present.”
So, I reached out to meditator Jeff Warren, co-author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics with Dan Harrison and founder of the non-profit Conscious Explorers Club. I wanted to know how sound plays a role in meditation and relaxation.
Using sound and music to meditate
FS: I’ve always known that sound has a place in meditation, but I assumed it was mostly as a small part of the calming atmosphere. I’m starting to think there’s more to it. How is sound used in meditation?
JW: Some guides use music as background to help you get in the spirit of meditating. So, you’re not really paying attention to it, but it creates a soothing atmosphere, and you’re doing your main meditation on top of it.
And then there’s actually using sound as a meditation device that’s every bit as powerful as the breath. Say you’re listening to the music for meditation. You’re listening to every pause, every drop. You’re really trying to send your attention to the frequencies. And that’s hard to do because music creates a trance. It can pull you in, and then you’ll lose touch with what’s going on in your practice. In that case, you’re pretending to use sound for meditation, but really you’re just zoning out.
That’s where I’m a little bit skeptical. If you’re meditating, and you’ve got this sort of droning sound in the background, you can end up being in this middle ground. You’re not quite getting that state shift that can be achieved with meditation, like with pure immersive music practice, nor are you sharpening up the skills you could with pure meditation.
Although, it’s got to be about users’ choice. Everyone is different, and it might be just what someone’s nervous system needs. It’s hard to generalize. Ultimately, meditation is about what works for you, what makes you happier in your life, more available to your friends, or whatever your long-term interest in practice is. That’s the litmus test. If listening to a droning soundtrack is making your life better, then who am I to say that needs to be fixed?
Is it legit to fall asleep during meditation?
FS: Is it off-label to use meditation for sleep? I wonder if it devalues the spirit of being in the moment.
JW: It’s all about what kind of practice are you doing and what the intended goal is. It’s legitimate to have a practice that helps you fall asleep if that’s what you want. But, that’s different than a practice to help you wake up in your life. Those are two different things.
Meditating is like playing sports. There are so many different kinds of sports, and there are so many different kinds of meditations — and each has different effects. I’ve created meditations for Ten Percent Happier that are for falling asleep. I think it’s a legitimate way to use meditation. And more than that, you can use meditation to help people get into lucid dreams, and help take advantage of the creative problem-solving at the hypnagogic state of sleep onset. All of those are different kinds of practice, but they’re not the same as a practice that’s going to help you be more mindful in your life.
FS: What are the characteristics of a good voice for meditation?
JW: Different people are going to prefer different voices. I can only speak for myself personally, I like a voice that’s warm without being mawkish. If it’s too sentimental or too exaggerated, it ends up being about the voice and that can be distracting. But I do like the sense of a personable companion. Some people like a neutral voice, whether it’s a Joseph Goldstein type of thing. And I like that, too. It all depends on the mood I’m in. But I would say, people tend to like that continuum; either the super precision, clear, ungarnished voice or a warmer, friendlier voice. What voices do you like?
FS: Me, personally?
JW: Yes, you, Lisa.
FS: I like when it flows. I find, if the tonality goes up and down, unless it’s intentional in doing that, it distracts me.
JW: That’s good insight. And that’s actually part what is called a “transmission” or “social contagion.” Basically, your vibes are transmissible. If you’re agitated or guiding in a fast phonetic way, you kind of create that effect in a listener. Most people don’t want that in meditation. When people speak slowly and calmly, with a nice equanimous tone, that will carry over. As someone who is very hyper, as soon as I start guiding, I always slow down because I don’t want to transmit that. Even now as I’m talking, I’m like: “OK, I was a bit excited before, I’m going to kick back, get calm.” What’s interesting is the mystery of why some teachers, whether it’s their presence, their tone or their voice, can create stronger effects than others.
Sound baths online: The good and the bad, not all are equal
FS: I wanted to talk about sound baths. Do you think they’ve become more popular? Or am I just noticing them more now?
JW: They’re definitely more popular now.
FS: Why is that?
JW: They’re fun. They’re trippy. It’s like doing psychedelics — without doing psychedelics. I’ve had some wild experiences from sound baths. They play with your brain in this really interesting way. Of course, you have people who suck at doing sound baths and people who are really skilled at it. It’s not unlike going to a light ayahuasca ceremony. It can be very enriching and it can be healing. Anyone can create a practice and guide you to a strong effect. You can zone out or it can create a sense of clarity. It all depends on what tones and what sequences and how skilled the practitioner is.
The traditional way we talk about sound and music is that you have these different brain waves that are loosely correlated to states like sleep onset or deep sleep. This is a bit of a generalization, but some of the claims around the music and the tones are that it can move you into these different states by entraining the brain. That’s what the claims are, but buyer beware. I wrote a bit about this in my book, The Head Trip, but there’s a lot of conflicting research on it.
Beyond singing bowls and sleep…
FS: What else should we know about sound and meditation?
JW: The most important thing is: Whatever works! If it’s having a positive effect in your life, that’s the litmus test. If you quote me on anything, make it that. The other stuff is information about how to make decisions about meditation, but ultimately, you have to do it how it lands in your life. I just want people to know that it’s legit.
FS: I love the idea that you can use meditation for various things. You can use it before bed, you can use it when you wake up, you can use after a meeting and sit down and be like, what just happened?
JW: That’s right. Those are not all the same techniques. A love and kindness practice has very different effects than a strict mindfulness practice, than a concentrated music practice, than a falling-asleep practice, than a practice to help to get creative ideas. Those are four examples of different practice. They overlap in some ways, but there’s ways of fine tuning them to be more targeted to the specific thing you’re interested in. The whole point of practice is to bring meditation into all parts of your life.
While I’ve edited my saved #soundbaths to skilled practitioners (I thought maybe it was me and I was off for some of them) and varied my meditation videos (so I’m not just using them when going to bed), I take Warren’s advice of “whatever works” most seriously. Yes, this means I’ve continued using Jenner’s ASMR videos to “transmit” my energy into a sleepy place.
You know that old adage: If the Lip Kit founder’s voice works, don’t fix it.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Welcome to Street Meet, FLEETSTREET’s series, where we meet up with trailblazers and thought leaders to deliver unique insight and inspiration into issues our audience cares about.