Welcome to the third installment of Using the Senses for Contemplative Practice. If you’ve already read the previous weeks’ lessons, jump ahead four paragraphs to “Consider hearing.” If not, please allow me to briefly introduce this series of teachings.
Our bodies are made for contemplation. Every time we feel a breeze blow across our skin, see a cloud in the sky, taste the sweet honey in our tea, smell the clean laundry coming out of the dryer, hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance, or even recognize the sound of our own voice, we’re given an opportunity to engage in contemplative practice.
Many of us think we need to step away from life in order to polish our contemplative practices. Indeed, an occasional retreat can be highly beneficial, but everything we need to engage in contemplative practice— and hence heighten our awareness, we’re already doing all day, every day. If you’d like to learn how to tap into this sublime gift, please read on.
I present six practices for you to experiment with. Each will require about five days of your attention, so you can probably cover each lesson in about a week. If you’d like to develop a new, powerful awareness through these practices, I encourage you to engage with them just a little every day for the next six weeks. You may never be the same!
You may choose to begin with this week’s lesson on the sense of hearing, or you may choose to read the full introduction and go back and begin with the first lesson on speech. It’s up to you.
As we continue this series, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong time of day to practice. Whenever it fits into your daily schedule is the right time to practice. There is no right or wrong place to practice, and no right or wrong amount of time. You can practice while you wait in line at the grocery store, during a coffee break, or instead of watching television. But it is true that the more regularly you practice and the more time you give it, the more quickly your practice will bear fruit, and the richer and more enjoyable your life will be.
Perhaps the most difficult sense to practice with is hearing. Unlike seeing, touching, tasting, or smelling, it’s difficult to restrain hearing. In daily life we are bombarded with noise. We’re exposed to a ceaseless barrage of advertisement, muzak, news, and programming from television, radio, smart phones, and other electronic devices in public spaces as well as in our homes. We’re immersed in the constant hum of traffic, of electronic appliances, of the chatter of fellow human beings—most of which is mindless, unnecessary communication. This constant barrage of noise is such a part of our daily existence that we rarely notice it.
But this ongoing disruption of silence depletes us whether we’re aware of it or not. The steady stream of noise clamors for our attention. If we don’t learn to guard our sense of hearing, our very life force becomes exhausted.
You may have experienced this during an encounter with someone at a party or some other gathering. Someone begins talking to you and you listen. The person who is speaking may talk and talk and talk and talk, needing no encouragement to do so. At the end of the monologue you find yourself worn out, even though all you’ve been doing is sitting and listening. It’s not your imagination that this experience has exhausted you. It has exhausted you because you haven’t taken care to cultivate and guard your hearing so that you attend only to what is necessary or beneficial.
When we see unnecessary things or hear unnecessary things our minds become filled with worthless thoughts. The act of indiscriminate listening and the unnecessary thought to which it gives rise, leaves us exhausted and worn out. This is both a physical and a mental process. Sound, whether words or other noises, enters our bodies in powerful ways, not just through our ears. Sound is vibration. It penetrates our physical body even as we process its meaning or distinguish its form from other sounds.
In the same way that we take care to feed ourselves with nourishing food, cultivating the gift of hearing means taking care to limit what we listen to—taking in only that which nourishes and enlivens, and shielding ourselves from that which depletes us.
We have choices we can make about how we live our lives, including what we choose to hear. When our sense of hearing becomes more discerning, and isn’t weakened by attending to unnecessary noise or natter, we begin to be able to hear what the Pythagoreans called “the music of the spheres.” The Sama Veda describes it thus: “The Earth, the Sea, the Sky, and the Stars, are all woven together by the gentle strains of divine music.”
Cultivating the gift of hearing allows us to live in harmony with the “unstruck sound” that resonates eternally, in all that has ever existed, all that exists now, and all that will come into being. It can be heard in the stillness of our own selves when we know how to listen for it, when we have purified our hearing.
We refine our hearing by practicing discernment in what we listen to and how we listen—taking in words and sounds that are beneficial, which may even be constructive criticism or hearing some unpleasant news if these things leads to self-reflection and Self-Knowledge. Hence from the Rig Veda, “. . . may we ever hear auspicious words with our ears.”
Practice #3: Hearing
How do we cultivate this gift of hearing? It begins with distinguishing between sound and noise, which becomes easier and clearer as we practice.
A simple beginning practice is to practice quieting. Have you noticed how television and radio advertisements are broadcast at a higher volume than regular programming? The advertisers want to blast you with their noise, making it difficult for you to avert your attention. Volume matters. This includes your voice and the voices of others. Whatever the normal volume of your speech with others, lower it. And ask your fellow conversants to lower theirs.
If you’re not comfortable asking someone to lower his voice, then simply lower yours and chances are the person to whom you are speaking will lower his. If you must listen to something as part of your work, especially something in electronic format, then lower the volume below what would normally be the case for you. If you’re speaking to someone elderly or one who is hearing impaired, the lower volume of your voice may actually make it easier for you to be heard. Lower volumes usually mean lower registers of sound which are easier for the hearing impaired to take in.
Lowering the volume and register of your voice settles you more fully into your body. Higher registers and louder volumes tighten the muscles by which we make speech, as well as other muscles in our bodies.
Practice softening and lowering your voice and other sounds to which you listen. For we hear our voices both on the inside and the outside, so we learn to integrate sound by attending to our voices.
Practice this for three days. Then reflect by writing in your journal. What do you notice when you lower the volume of sound coming into you? What do you notice in your body and mind when you lower your voice and when the voices around you are also lower? After three days you may take a break, then resume the practice and see what you notice on the days you practice versus the days you do not.
The next step is to cultivate your ability to hear the gentle strains of divine music by listening to the sounds of nature. Find a place where this is possible, as much away from city or suburban noise as you can. Then give yourself time each day or each week to sit quietly while you attend to the sounds of wind rustling the leaves, the hush of snowfall, the gurgle and splash of water in a river, brook, or fountain. Attend to birdsong, to crickets, toads, or other singing creatures. Even from inside a building you can attend to the varying sounds of rain, sleet, hail, or the rush of storm wind through eaves or alongside walls.
As you practice, make notes in writing of what you notice. What effect does attending to the sounds of nature have on your body and mind? How is your hearing affected by your attention to these subtle sounds? What are you aware of that you may not have been aware of before? In what way does your practice of listening to nature affect how you listen to other things during your day?
The next step involves using your voice. Choose a short poem or a passage from a poem—one that is metrical, that is which works within traditional meter or rhyme. Read or recite your poem or passage aloud each day during a special time set aside for this. It must be aloud so that the sound is evident both inside and outside of your body.
Sit quietly for a few minutes after your reading or recitation and be aware of the resonance of the poetic sound form. What are you aware of in your body and mind as you sit quietly after reading aloud?
Practice this for five days in a row, and then write in your journal about what you notice, both inside of you and outside. You may also try reading or reciting at different volumes to see what effect the different volumes may have on your body and in your mind. What effect does this practice have on your ability to discriminate between what to take in and what to avoid? Of sounds or noises coming from the outside?
After five days, take a break from the practice for a few days, and then resume the practice. Is there any difference in the quality of your mind, the quality of your daily life during the days when you are practicing and the days when you are not?
If you respond to music, you may practice with musical sound. It must be music played on traditional instruments –that is to say, no electronic sound. It must be music that’s not merely accompanying a narrative or whose purpose is to deliver a political or social message –which means no rock and roll. It may be chant –Indian, Gregorian, Hebraic Niggunim, Native American, or music created specifically for meditation such as Shakuhachi flute. Chants from all traditions are all harmonically arranged for the purpose of opening your body and your hearing to deeper levels of consciousness. If you enjoy classical music, Bach or Mozart are good composers to practice with. This is the kind of music conducive to the cultivation of the gift of hearing.
To practice, give your full attention to a sound passage for ten minutes a day. You do not need to sing along if it is chanting with words, but simply listen carefully to the chant or to the aria or musical phrase. Follow the sound with your mind’s ear. Allow it to fill you inside as outside. Saturate yourself with these harmonious sounds. Then, choose a sound passage or a note from the music to hold in your inner ear. Let it resound there for as long as you can hold it as you sit quietly with the resonance after the music has stopped. Recall the sound passage or note to life whenever you notice it has become silent. Do this for ten minutes or so after the music has stopped. You can practice this throughout the day, recalling the sound to resonant life whenever you notice you are no longer hearing it. Let the music fill you from the inside whenever your mind is busy or your thoughts are disordered or you feel overwhelmed by other noise during your day. Let it play inside you.
Practice this five days in a row, and then write in your journal about your practice. What are you aware of in your body and mind as you listen attentively to the music? What are you aware of as you hold the phrase or note in your mind’s ear? In what ways does the saturation of your hearing with the musical passage affect your mind and body as you go throughout your day? In what ways does it transform your ability to hear and what you listen to as you go through your day?
1. Practice quieting
2. Listen to the sounds of nature
3. Listen to your own voice
4. Take a break for a few days
5. Resume listening to your own voice
6. Listen to and recall the sounds of traditional music
After each practice session, be sure to make brief notes or journal about your experience, what you notice during and after each practice session so that you may recall and reflect upon your experience.
As you cultivate the gift of hearing, may you hear and enjoy the sweetness of the unstruck sound which resounds in quiet, eternal stillness in you and in all things.