Music communicates in a deep, special way; it’s a whole-body experience. For me, certain songs in particular have caused some “aha” moments over the years, moments of feeling suddenly shot through with deeper understanding and awe. I’m going to share some of my favorites with you. Give your full attention to these songs for a few minutes, like you would give your full attention to your breathing in the zendo. See where the listening takes you.

  • Chinese Translation” by M. Ward. Ward is a Portland-based singer-songwriter who’s been making indie-folk music for a couple of decades. This is my favorite song of his, from the 2006 album Post-War. The song follows a young seeker who “climbs a tall, tall mountain” looking for a wise man to ask three existential questions that haunt him. “What do you do with a broken heart/and how can a man like me remain in the light/and if life is really as short as they say, then why is the night so long?” There’s a twist to this lyrical story that is deeply spiritual.
  • At the Bottom of Everything” by Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst, the lead singer, is known for his sad songs and sad voice. But this song isn’t sad at all, despite its premise. It’s about two people on a plane that’s about to crash into the ocean. They are minutes from death. One of them asks the other, “Where are we going?” And he starts singing her this song. By the end, the singer is “happy just because/I realized I am really no one.” This is the most joyful song about death you’ll ever hear.
  • I am Not in Kansas” by The National. This song is from The National’s latest album, I am easy to find. In this song, the speaker is free-associating about his life and how it’s winding down. Everything around him has changed; he doesn’t recognize this new world. He is “not in Kansas,” he has grown up. “My shadow’s getting shorter,” he sings, “I’m a child at the border.” The song speaks for itself; my explanation can only fall short. “Time has come now to stop being human/time to find a new creature to be.” Give it a listen!

These are my top three for Zen-like inspiration and killer lyrics, but here are a couple of instrumentals I’d recommend for deep listening, too:

  • Mad Rush” by Philip Glass. This piano piece is worth listening to for all its 13 minutes and 47 seconds. If you can clear your mind and just focus on what you’re hearing, you’re in for a deeply meditative experience. Glass is a composer who also worked for a long time as a plumber and taxi driver.
  • Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons. This is an imaginative modern take on Vivaldi’s work. If you don’t have time for the whole album, skip ahead to song 13.

Enjoy the music.

—Susanna Rose ■