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I've been practicing and managed to access first jhana, but I haven't found a solution to one obstacle that often frustrates my meditation: earworms.

(Earworms are musical fragments that play repetitively in the head, and which I experience the majority of the time. Outside of meditation I have tried to control earworms using various anecdotal techniques, but the best I have ever been able to do is replace one earworm with another.)

When I sit to meditate and I have an earworm going I find it impossible to break free of it. The problem is that whatever part of my mind is playing the earworm seems to be running on a separate thread from my attention. Without an earworm running I can focus on breathing and then feeling and everything else fades into the background. With the earworm running everything fades into the background and then the earworm grabs more attention. It's like trying to fall asleep with a fire alarm going off, and the closer you get to sleep the louder the alarm gets.

I've tried running white noise machines and focusing on the white noise, but the earworm seems to be independent of outside audio stimulus other than music. Is there some music-like sound that is still conducive to vipassana?

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  • What kind of meditation are you practicing?
    – Lowbrow
    Nov 5, 2022 at 16:02
  • How have you managed to access jhana? Are you still living an ordinary life or have you been able to find solitude away from worldly affairs? I am genuinely curious.
    – Remyla
    Nov 7, 2022 at 11:47

5 Answers 5

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This is part of a much more fundamental problem that may take a serious practitioner years if not decades to resolve: stopping the Inner Dialog aka inner monolog aka inner gossip.

Inner Dialog is a samsara-typical (that is, "normal" yet pathological from the dharma-path perspective) habit of the samsaric mind to reinforce and sustain itself through continuous reproduction of samsaric narratives. If you carefully observe your mind throughout the day you'll see how this goes on almost non-stop all day long: the mind talks to itself replaying parts of its conversations with people, having imaginary arguments, giving imaginary lectures, posting imaginary tweets -- and playing fragments of songs. This serves to sustain and reinforce the samsaric view of the world and keeps the mind tied to - and entrapped in - the said view and the corresponding reality.

(Nowadays scrolling through social media to consume a stream of news, memes, jokes, and comments serves the same function. Social media is society's inner dialog, capturing people's attention, reproducing Samsara. So before you can even start working on stopping your inner dialog you have to wean off the mobile phone and SM feeds.)

Learning to overcome and stop Inner Dialog at-will takes years of unceasing efforts. Having stopped Inner Dialog you effectively stop a tiny part of samsara cycle reproducing itself inside your mind. It is a big deal!

There's not much to suggest in terms of the actual practice outside of just making repeated attempts (both during the day and inside meditation session) to include the Inner Dialog in one's awareness and to stop generating it. Focusing outwardly on the external perceptions and bringing attention completely in the here-and-now helps to remove resources from the background chatter.

What you called earworms is but a small part of this very important practice. Sorry, no silver bullet!

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A piece of advice on dealing with ear-worms in general (i.e., not in a specifically Buddhist sense)... One trick you can use is to monkey-wrench it. Focus on the ear-worm directly, and then (mentally) add in discordant notes, out of synch rhythms, animal sounds, etc; nothing to break up that catchiness of it. Make a joke of it, and it should close its hold.

Ear-worms happen because the egoic mind is over-stimulated and bored. The act of producing them keeps the mind occupied, and the repetitiveness of them keeps the mind soothed. In meditation you can deal with them either by expressly focusing the mind — on a fixed visual point, on the breath, on a physical sensation, etc — or by stepping back (mentally) from the tune and watching it as though it were an object separate from you. The egoic mind wants the ear-worm to be immersive, something that seems inseparable from the self. Your job as a meditator is to disentangle yourself from it. Let the tune live its normal life as a (mental) object, but train the mind not to make the tune its entire world.

Things like this come and go. They only stay if the egoic mind latches onto them as though they were an integral part of the self. cut that latter bond and they won't trouble you.

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  • liked "the egoic mind latches onto"
    – blue_ego
    Jan 3, 2023 at 15:42
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Lol... it's the way in which the earworms are framed that gives you a clue to their repetition. I used to get these - when I used to meditate - and dealt with them by including them as part of the session rather than framing them within a critical light.

All you are noticing is the learning part of the mind. The mind likes to know things, and if those things are bundled into a rhythm, it loves it simply because it appeals to its restless nature to know something, anything.

I once saw a young, beautiful child on the bus. She was about 3 years old and she was singing "Old MacDonald had a farm Ee i ee i o" on repeat for the entire 30 minute journey, and when she wasn't singing it, she was humming it. The parents looked at each other, smiled and the mother said, "ahh... we helped her learn that", but little did they know that this marked the child's maddening descent into the world of neurosis. It has to be this way. A child must succumb to the world of form otherwise they will grow to be mentally malformed. Neurosis is the better option of the two.

Back to your question: try to notice, not the earworms, but the particular quality of whatever it is that notices the earworm. Does it have a critical texture or is it kind?

Spoiler: mindfulness is never critical.

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    responding to Max's comment: "Spoiler: mindfulness is never critical." - That's wrong mindfulness. Right mindfulness is always judicious, discerning, right wisdom conjoined with right view, being critical in the best way. The way 'mindfulness' is usually taught, has more in common with Idiots, who can be non judgmental choiceless awareness zombies.
    – frankk
    Nov 5, 2022 at 9:01
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If an earworm is happening, then first jhāna is not happening at the same time. It seems insurmountable because you've spent your whole life training to let the earworm and mind do whatever it wants. It takes lots of practice to unlearn bad habits and retrain and replace with good ones.

MN 20 is a good sutta to read. The secret is to practice the elements of MN 20 all the time, not just 20 minutes of "formal meditation" a day for example. All the time, you train your mind to think what it wants to think, and to cease thinking what you don't want to think.

The Earworm doesn't keep going by itself. It goes because your mind is giving it permission. You can interrupt it. Note your progress in how quickly you can interrupt and temporarily halt the earworm. Just like practicing your golf swings or shooting basketballs into a hoop, it takes time and repetition. The earworm gets interrupted more and more frequently by your right mindfulness, and the silence between the next infestation of the earworm grows the more you practice.

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If you quit listening to music, you should eventually stop having earworms. The Buddha praised sense restraint. On Uposatha, one of the extra precepts includes not listening to music. AN 8.41

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning themselves with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I, too, for this day and night will give up dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning myself with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its seventh factor.

The Buddha giving instructions on sense restraint MN 107

When they have ethical conduct, the Realized One guides them further: ‘Come, mendicant, guard your sense doors. When you see a sight with your eyes, don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of sight were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming. For this reason, practice restraint, protect the faculty of sight, and achieve restraint over it. When you hear a sound with your ears … When you smell an odor with your nose … When you taste a flavor with your tongue … When you feel a touch with your body … When you know a thought with your mind, don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of mind were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming. For this reason, practice restraint, protect the faculty of mind, and achieve its restraint.’

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