What is the sound of many cell phones ringing?

The sweetest thing in the world — besides a baby of any species — is a sangha in silence on a meditation retreat. The quiet is delicious, like fine wine mellowing as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha (community of meditators) becomes more synchronized and sensate. Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and a loving sense of mutual support.

Silence is golden and a sangha in silence is magical. So it was surprising to hear from a student about her husband’s experience at a meditation led by Mark Epstein where attendees were asked to keep their phone ringers on.

Whaa? Phones ON? Anyone who’s ever attended a meditation class or retreat (or a yoga class or pretty much any kind of civilized gathering) knows to at least turn their phones off and preferably abandon them altogether. It has become increasingly difficult to do as these phones have become extensions of ourselves, either in hand or close at hand, the part of ourselves that is connected to the wider world. To silence that connection may cause FOMO (fear of missing out). But meditators have learned to do this, especially in community, respectful of the silence we are co-creating. So to hear that a meditation teacher requested everyone keep their phones on was surprising. 

Well, not really. After all what we are practicing is how to cultivate calm in the middle of a busy world. So learning how to be with the sounds of cell phones going off randomly throughout a meditation is a worthy practice. We are cultivating internal silence, not expecting the world around us to cease making noise. If we can meditate in a room full of cell phones ringing, beeping and buzzing, we can meditate in an airport lounge or anywhere else. And this is a great gift!

We can notice how we create enemies of sound, as well as anyone responsible for a sound we don’t like. We can see how we pick and choose between pleasant sounds (maybe birds chirping, water flowing, rain, etc.) and unpleasant sounds (maybe leaf blowers, jack hammers, traffic and the errant cell phone accidentally left on by a fellow meditator). 

At the moment we notice that we are reacting to a sound, identifying it as pleasant or unpleasant, we have the opportunity to recognize that this reactivity is a jumping off point into thoughts that will take us on a journey far away from ‘here and now’. It all happens so fast we may not even realize how we ended up twenty years ago or a thousand miles away to a place or time that the sound triggered in our brains. Fortunately, once we notice it, it only takes an instant of awareness to gently bring our attention back to the moment. This moment, just as it is. Sounds and all.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 2006 about an experience on a retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.
The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!
I have never heard anything so beautiful
as the sound of a sangha in silence
earnestly clearing their plates.

Sound can remind us to be present, and to cultivate a pattern of receptivity, kindness, compassion and equanimity, returning again and again to the calm rising and falling of the breath, letting whatever sounds arise to be simply sounds, part of the Symphony of Now, never to be repeated in just this way. How precious is this unique moment in every way. And phhp! It’s gone and now this one, oh so precious, and phhp! Can we gently greet and release all that arises in our spacious field of experience?

On another retreat I attended, teacher Howie Cohn brought all the bells from the Spirit Rock store into the meditation hall and rang them in a random pattern throughout the meditation. It was both pleasurable and helpful in bringing me back again and again from wherever my mind would wander, back to the sensory moment here and now. 

A cell phone symphony might be like that. Still, I hope it was a one-off experiment and not a trend. Because truly there is almost nothing as sweet as the sound of a sangha in silence.

Image above digitally created using an image by Gordon Johnson and an image by David Schwarzenberg, both from Pixabay


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