The idea of portal travel has long been stirring the imagination of humankind. It dates back to at least the first century BCE, as found in the Buddhist suttas that promise all sorts of supernormal achievements through meditation, yoga, the use of herbs, and incantations – reducing one's body to a single atom or expanding it infinitely to encompass the whole universe; becoming weightless, thinner than air, or impenetrably dense and heavy as a brick… Among all the other spectacular transformations listed in the suttas, there is one’s ability to be anywhere in an instant – by an act of one’s will and the will alone. And if one so wills, to be in many different places at once.
One sutta tells the story of how the Buddha, accompanied by his disciples, crossed the flooded Ganges River without availing himself of any visible conveyance, playfully vanishing into the air and reappearing with his order of most enlightened followers on the opposite side, from where they launched into witty banter at all the other “Path and Fruit” seekers busy building a raft to catch up with their supreme guru.
Although the method of transportation as imagined in Buddhism is far more nuanced and elegant compared to its "Beam me up, Scotty" model used in Star Trek, it is unlikely to be more instructive in terms of “know-how” – far less helpful than a workout series of five-minute daily pushups and stretches toward success and happiness, as led by your Zoom instructor.
According to the Visuddhimagga, a Buddhist manual for miraculous transformations, the acquisition of supernormal abilities in Buddhism comes through the attainment of direct knowledge of everything considered separately and combined. Then it takes a journey beyond that knowledge. But as a precondition for the attainment of direct knowledge, you must have complete control of your mind already, trained in the following fourteen ways: “In the order of the kasina, in the reverse order of the kasina, in the order and reverse order of the kasina, in the order of the jhana, in the reverse order of the jhana, in the order and reverse order of the jhana, skipping jhana, skipping kasina, skipping jhana and kasina…” For all practical purposes, let us just leave it at that, for it alone may take you a few reincarnations – to figure out what kasina and jhana mean and, in light of their definitions, complete this preliminary course on mental absorption.
Given the inaccessibility of ancient wisdom on the subject, augmented by a hefty dose of skepticism over the outcome, may we suggest another method of portal travel? It is the simplest, safest, sanest, most operable, efficacious, and enjoyable, by all other criteria…
What we have in mind and employ in practice every day is a portal vehicle of a fundamentally different type. It does precisely what it promises, no more, no less – deliveries without traversing physical space and in no time. These portal deliveries are direct and never go astray. Short or long haul, it is the kind of conveyance that runs solely on the energy of our moods, memories, and imagination – renewable, sustainable, pure as sunshine, greener than grass. Its onboard passenger capacity is virtually limitless: one or one thousand at a time is no issue at all. This transport comes in many shapes, forms, and colors. All so varied and endless, perpetually unfolding in new directions, yet each one is so compact that the entire fleet of your choice may fit in your coin pocket. We are talking about music here, its infinite transportive and transformative potential. The user manual is brief and as follows: Plug and play!
We risk running out of ink in addressing the question of how music transforms us, for it does so in far too many ways for a paragraph or two and on as many levels. Suffice it to mention here in passing that the psychophysiological effects of music are so strong at times, so pronounced that in some situations music spells real danger and is subject to legal curtailment. This has nothing to do with the moments of letting oneself go in the act of ecstatic dancing, which music is capable of inducing – dancing in a manner that explicitly “outstrips the modesty of nature” and “offends human dignity” in the eyes of the Victorian prude. No, this point concerns tasks such as urban driving, in view of the maximization of its safety.
It is for a reason that we are advised to abstain from high-intensity music behind the wheel – the type of music that is characterized by the complexity of its rhythmical elements, excessive volume, fast tempo, and intelligible lyrics. Such music is an encouragement (essentially a hormonal boost) for assertive, more reckless maneuvering and stimulates interaction with passengers, which still further depletes the driver’s attentional resources. Behind the wheel, we should opt for soft and non-lyrical music instead, for it elicits the lowest affective arousal and provides for better performance on the road.
All these points barely scratch the surface of music as a moderator of behavior and performance. But you get the drift, don’t you? If not, there is a nifty book called Strong Experiences with Music by Professor Alf Gabrielsson, a psychomusicologist who over 500 pages describes and explains how music is much more than just “organized sound.” Music heals, fosters social bonding, activates complex perceptual and cognitive processes, facilitates deeper insights into one’s thoughts and feelings. It brings people into closer contact with their innermost selves. By giving extraordinary dimensions to ordinary events, music opens the gates to vastly new experiences and emotions. It offers consolation to the troubled and takes the dispirited to seventh heaven…
Let us spill the rest of our ink on music in its capacity as a transportive medium. Listening to Holed Coin performing live on the Sunset Terrace one evening, you may very soon feel everything around begins to swirl and the line between what is real and imaginary is dissolving in favor of the latter. Guided by subtle cadences, you are slowly submerging into a blissful universe of your own invention, to the depths of interiority where all references to the external are obliterated. What remains is music and yourself. Or, in just as perfect concordance with the moment, you may feel weightless, out-of-body, floating above the ground, glimpsing other worlds from your new metaphysical heights and merging into something greater than you have ever dreamed of…
Imagination is the parallel universe of María García, the vocal part of the Holed Coin collective, musically notable for its yearning to reach beyond anything quotidian and concrete. She chooses The Finishing by Stavroz to elucidate the idea of music as a portal vehicle. “It conveys so much calm and warmth that I almost feel a ray of sunlight caressing my cheek. It takes me to a place so wonderful, it does not lend itself to words in common usage. The realm of inner peace.”
To Valeron, music is the air he breathes daily and quite physically so – in and out, as an avid listener and prolific producer. On the receiving end, music is the flow of reverberant energy that sweeps him into the whirlwind of emotions, immaterializes and carries him away to imaginary places and the situations imprinted in his memory, to the happiest moments and not so sunny, but all equally meaningful, replaying them in all the details that cannot be recalled quite as vividly without music.
Some psychologists would explain this phenomenon of amplified vividness and the feeling of being carried away, immaterialized, with reference to what they call peak experiences. Abraham Maslow coined this term to describe primarily mystic encounters at first. Upon broader and closer observations, he extended the concept to encompass the experiences triggered by other stimuli, especially music – the experience of being taken over by it. He generalized the notion to denote the responses to anything that comes close to perfection, be that in nature or culture.
Peak experiences imply any occurrence that gives rise to the feelings of infinite horizons opening up to the senses, something that makes one feel more powerful and helpless at the same time. They are the experiences of rapture, ecstasy, wonder, and awe; of being totally absorbed by the event, lost in space and time; the impressions of something extremely important and fulfilling happening. It is these experiences that have the greatest effect on a person and, like flashlights, illuminate everything in their contexts. It is the peak experiences that are remembered most clearly and they register in memory all the elements in their spectrum. It comes as no surprise that music, especially good music, helps in recalling the moments of the past – if not to say that it is music that retrieves them from oblivion.
It is also known that the frequency of peak experiences correlates with the level of psychological wellbeing – one is a proportional expression of the other. The higher their peaks, the more intense the experiences are, the more there is to learn from these experiences, the greater one’s positive transformation is as the result. As you may suppose, the most powerful peak experiences obtain from their confluence – when one peak experience coincides with another. Their combinations prove most transportive and transformative.
It is in this light that Ulises confesses his preference for the kind of music that strikes him as unusual, strange in a way. It is this aspect that makes music interesting – both a piece of music as such and as it transports him to places that are equally peculiar. Wandering through some unexplored territory – in a metropolis or in a desert – while listening to music that is as unfamiliar as the surroundings — is his formula for amplifying peak experience, making the most of it. This way, the outcome is much more than the sum of its parts.
Describing music as a transportive medium, Ulises also remarks on how it operates as effectively in another sense. Just as it has the power to take us back in time to the beautiful scenarios engraved in our memories, music is also capable of generating imaginary itineraries for our real experiences in the future. This is achieved through the emotional connection to the places which we would never consider visiting – but for the music that positively signifies these places against all odds.
Manchester in the 1980s is a perfect case in point: the city in “the south of the north, facing its own erasure” in tune with the “policy of managed decline”, a dystopian poverty-ridden gangland, a “weedy zone of hollowed-out ruins”, the “whole complicated bloody mess of a situation”, the “sort of place one leaves only to return for funerals”, packs of “stray dogs roaming the wasteland” of the eerily depopulated city center counting some 300 residents and boasting a giant “distinctly lavatorial” shopping mall, blasted in the final courtesy of the IRA with a 3,500 pounder car bomb, bad weather… Who in their right mind would have ever dreamed of traveling to Manchester back in the day, had it not been for the massive explosion of its music scene that made all the difference, turning the city into a seminal incubator of global club culture?
Music is transportive in the sense that it compels one to actually go to places, very much despite their intrinsic appeal or total lack thereof. On his own admission, this is precisely how Ulises, an Argentinian producer, ended up in Berlin a decade or so ago – carried across the world by the transportive vibes of House for All (Ruede Hagelstein Ecstatic Dub).
Just as stories transport one back and forth in time and from place to place, so does music. One may argue that music is just a narrative, but it is transportive in a more personal manner. As a much more abstract medium, it does not lock one into the structure of a plot conceived and formulated by some other person. More of an atmospheric phenomenon, it lifts and flies us around solely on the wings of our own moods, memories and imagination. When music takes over, we vanish into it and everything around undergoes some kind of transformation, perceptual and cognitive. Whatever the situation, music enhances our experiences, and all the bare facts of that situation fold into a story that fulfills our passion for meaning.