Where Music and Meditation Meet
Esalen Team
April 1, 2016

Many of us have experienced the power of music to influence our mood; now new research points to the positive impact listening to music can have on reducing the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Many of us have experienced the power of music to influence our mood; now new research points to the positive impact listening to music can have on reducing the level of the stress hormone cortisol in our brain. In the upcoming Esalen workshop, Tuning Your Instrument: The Buddha, the Brain, and Bach, cellist Barbara Bogatin and her husband, neuroscientist Clifford Saron, explore the intersections of music, meditation, and the mind. The seeds of the workshop were planted three decades ago when Barbara and Clifford were first dating.

“Cliff and I were just dating and he thought attending a meditation retreat would be a great thing to do,” recalls Barbara who is a graduate of the Juilliard School and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony for the last 22 years. “The idea of sitting on a cushion for 10 days in silence wasn’t appealing to me at first, but I decided to give it a try.” As it turned out, Barbara’s first introduction to meditation would be led by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

“The first thing I noticed was that the instructions sounded familiar to me,” says Barbara. “Quiet your mind, listen deeply to the sounds around you, follow your breath, and cultivate a neutral awareness of just what is present: this sounded a lot like what I do when I sit down to practice the cello.” In fact, according to Barbara, musicians are very conscious of their breath and practice non-judgment in listening to their music in order to be critical of the sound and not the self.

While music and meditation were often part of many dinner conversations between Barbara and Cliff, the idea of an actual workshop grew from research Cliff was conducting on the effect of meditation on the brain. He approached founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center Sylvia Boorstein to recruit participants for his study. Subsequently the three taught at a Spirit Rock event. “This was the first time we all worked together and integrated our various experiences. We learned so much from each other.”

The upcoming Esalen workshop is called Tuning Your Instrument as it speaks to both Barbara’s musical and meditative practices. Each day of the workshop begins with music. Bach is the perfect composer to feature, says Barbara. “There is so much variety and types of movements – some exuberant and others soulful and reflective.” What’s more, Barbara perceives a spiritual aspect to the composer’s work in addition to an emotional one. “He is not one of the composers to wear his heart on a sleeve,” she observes. “There is a slight emotional distance in his music: I feel your pain, but I am not your pain.”

Sylvia leads workshop participants in various meditations while Cliff presents new findings in meditation research related to how our brain functions, particularly its ability to adapt and change. “Cliff talks about neuroplasticity and will use my brain as an example in how it has changed due to thousands of hours of practicing the cello,” says Barbara. For many cellists like Barbara, a cellist’s bow begins to feel like part of the body and musicians feel an incredible control over this tool. Cliff then shares the findings of an experiment with primates where a rake used to acquire food becomes such an integral part of them that for some parts of the monkey’s brain, the end of the rake is represented in the same brain location that had represented the end of the monkey’s fingers.

Barbara also walks workshop participants through a piece of music. “I’ll deconstruct the music and show how I practice it as if it were a meditation: slowing down the mind and observing thoughts.” In fact, Barbara will often meditate before a musical performance to be, as she describes, in a more open-hearted space where she can express herself more fully.

Ultimately, Barbara hopes workshop participants will discover how practice (whether meditative or musical) can be done in a more conscious way. “To rise to a level of mastery you have to be very conscious of how you practice,” says Barbara. By learning the science behind how our brain functions, she adds, we can better understand who we are as human beings.

Learn more about Tuning Your Instrument.


Esalen Team