Category Archives: listening

Hey, hey, what’s that sound?

“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” – Abraham Lincoln

El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX

What noises irritate you? I was asked this question by a recent survey about ‘noise pollution’ so it brought up a lot of thoughts about our relationship with sound. In Mexico a local once told me that when you don’t have much stuff, noise is stuff. It’s free and you can make as much of it as you want. It fills you up.

Huh! I had certainly never thought about it that way, but it was a kind of invitation to open to a different way of relating to sound.

It was challenging because, especially as a meditator, I think of silence as nourishing. In my culture, personal music is enjoyable, while other people’s choices may be perceived as an intrusion. Wealth is not a bounty of noise but an ability to build a buffer from noises made by others. The richer we are, the thicker our walls, the more panes on our windows and the more acres between us and the world around us — all that traffic and other aggravating noises. So when an American university thinks up a survey, they title it ‘noise pollution’ without even considering that not everyone has a negative bias against sounds.

How we are in relationship to the sounds all around us is an important indication of how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Are we making an enemy of it? And if so, how does that affect us?

In meditation, silence is something we cultivate within. It’s not useful to expect that the world around us should comply with our decision to be quiet. Outside life goes on. Noise goes on. When leading a guided meditation, I suggest allowing a sound to be experienced as pure sound, as if it’s a note or an instrument in a symphony: The Symphony of Now — this unique moment of never-to-be-repeated-in-just-this-way sounds. Can we simply be with the experience of sound instead of getting caught up in thinking about what is making the sound — someone slamming a car door, hammering, talking, barking, playing loud music, etc.? If so, we can be more at ease and less likely to tense up with displeasure. We don’t have to get caught up in thoughts about the source of the sound, who’s to blame, why are they making that sound, there ought to be a law, and how long will this go on.

Even if it’s a pleasant sound — bird song or gentle rain, for example — can we allow it to simply be sound? Can we be present without getting lost in trying to identify the type of bird, scolding ourselves for not being able to, or getting caught up in thinking about how the local cats are decimating the bird population?

In Mexico I brought my meditative attention to listening to all the sounds as I sat in the town square. At different times of day and evening so many sounds happen all at once: several Mariachi bands playing on different corners, teenagers with their own music for break dancing, hawkers calling out their wares, children yelling and laughing, lots of conversations, and the church bells ringing at the quarter hour. So much sound everywhere! But as I sat and allowed myself to really listen for fifteen minutes más o menos every day over the course of a few weeks I began to be able to hear the various sounds as if tuning into multiple channels at once, each one distinct and clear, and together a wondrous symphony. This exercise completely changed my relationship with sound. And in changing my relationship, I noticed a difference in my whole body — a release of tension and a rising of ease and contentment.

Since the people in the square don’t make an enemy of sound, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn’t cause stress in their bodies, and therefore, that noise in and of itself is not necessarily bad.

While I believe that to be true, there are situations when I am not able to be so blissful, especially if I am trying to sleep. I didn’t catch a wink in a midtown Manhattan hotel with 24 hour construction right across the street. I tossed and turned and got sucked into thoughts about who’s to blame for this and how could they be so rude? How could the hotel put us in this room? How could the city allow for this noise in the middle of the night? But then I would get moments of recognition that I was the one who was caught up in angry thoughts. I was the one who was making myself miserable. But hey, I’m not the enemy either. And my mindfulness training was insufficient to the task of overcoming a lifetime of discomfort with ‘noise pollution’ in certain situations.

The pattern of thoughts we experience when something’s bothering us happens not just about sound, but about anything that we make the enemy. Anything, anyone or any idea that causes tension, sets us on edge, and fills our thoughts with hatred, is a perceived enemy. Big or small, we all have them. Maybe they are pet peeves or maybe they are major threats to our well being. Or maybe they are convenient scapegoats for something else altogether. But whatever they are, they affect us. We internalize them. We suffer from how we are in relationship to them.

Billboard Blues
In the 1980’s I worked in advertising. Some of the time the work felt like play because I got to use my writing and visual design skills, and my colleagues at the agency were fun to work with. But over time, as I became more and more skilled at developing campaigns, I began to see how insidious advertising is. What skill was I developing? The ability to use psychology and an understanding of human’s innate negativity bias to activate fear and craving, and to promote our clients’ products and services as miracle cures to assuage that fear.

I remember preparing for a presentation to a well-known manufacturer of locks. Given the nature of the product, the proposed campaign had to be rooted in fear — the fear of someone breaking into your home — otherwise why would you bother buying a lock? And even though I understand that these are needed devices and that this manufacturer is very good at making them, I felt a lot of resistance to taking the company on as a client. I did not want to be a purveyor of fear. So when we didn’t get the client, there was definitely some relief mixed in with agency-shared disappointment of not getting such a prestigious client. Then I began to see how promoting even pleasant products, was actively playing on people’s fears. Not the fear of home invasion, but the fear of not being enough, not looking good enough, not being perceived as successful, etc.

By the end of my time at the ad agency, which I had to leave because I had become physically ill with an autoimmune disease, I had written for myself an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising. I tossed it after writing it, as if it was toxic. I just needed to get it out of me as catharsis and the beginning of my healing. But it’s easy to see and reasonable to conclude that my perception of advertising as evil, as enemy, put such stress on my body, so much tension day after day, that it was at least partially responsible for my illness. Through rest, meditation, self-discovery and a good doctor, I recovered within a year. Mine is a cautionary tale about having your work align with your core values, but also about how enemy naming and the resulting internal discord can make us sick.

It’s important to notice what happens when we make an enemy of anything. Our thoughts get locked, frozen and unyielding, whether we are defending something or finding fault with it. We lose sight of our common humanity and our shared desire to live together in peace and harmony.

In our meditation practice we are encouraged to greet all that arises with friendliness, and this applies to everything that arises, not just who or what we like or agree with. It’s skillful to notice when we have shaped an enemy, and skillful to notice the form it takes, how this enemy-making tendency needs a target. We identify a person or group of people who we deem responsible for whatever it is that we are opposed to. Tension rises up and strangles us. Our bodies react as if threatened, and over time reach a breaking point, because the enemy we have created is not fleeting but has taken up residence in our ongoing thoughts.

So then is making enemies the enemy? There’s got to be an enemy!
Or does there?
Can we allow for the possibility that all life is deeply interconnected and there is no ‘other’? Can we see how lashing out against a perceived enemy ends up harming ourselves even worse?

And yet there’s so much in the world that needs our attention! Can we find a way to attend it without aggravating the situation? Can we develop the ability to notice in a deeper and wider way, the way I learned to listen in that square in Mexico? Can we see the overall complexity of life ever changing, and learn to love life instead of constantly being in battle with it? If there are grievous wrongs being done, can we come forward with wise intention and wise effort, grounded in awareness and compassion, using wise speech and wise actions, to greet it?

If not, we are entangled in the thrall of blind misery, entangled in confusing thoughts that cause us terminal tension.

Exercise

  • Close your eyes and imagine someone or something you think of as enemy, even if you might not use that word. It might be some annoyance or aggravation. It might be a person. It might be a concept. It might be people in general who do certain actions that drive you crazy.
  • Now do a little inquiry: When I bring this enemy to mind, how do I feel in my body? Is that feeling sustainable? Do I make wise choices from this feeling? Or do I spiral down into stronger negative emotions? Do I imagine doing harmful things? Do I become someone I would steer clear of on the street?
  • Notice any tension in the body and relax and release it to whatever degree you are able. If you are comfortable doing metta – lovingkindness practice, send metta to yourself and then to your perceived enemy. May I be well, etc. May you be well, etc.

When we make an enemy of someone, aren’t we just adding to the suffering that makes them behave as they do?

When we make an enemy of an idea, do we make it too scary to look at closely? It becomes locked in and casts a huge shadow in our minds.
When we make an enemy of anything, aren’t we assuming we have an all-encompassing view of all times and places, that we know exactly how things will turn out. Can we make room for the possibility that all that arises has a role to play and that we don’t know for sure if what we label enemy may be what needs to happen to stir up an awakening of consciousness.

How often have you been surprised by the way things turned out? We rarely see things coming. We’re often caught off guard, even though we were so busy watching out for the enemy.

But it’s equally important to remember that our healthy desires for peace, justice, fairness and well being for all life are also part of the ongoing unfolding of life, so engage! But see if you can do it from the fullness of your heart rather than the tight knot of your fear. Perhaps together we can gently but powerfully creating a loving consciousness that is so needed right now, and always.

I leave you with an example of a very creative non-enemy-making way to shed light on something without making an enemy of it. This is not to promote this politician, but to simply share her fresh take on how to engage productively.

Befriending the Breath

In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.

Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.

A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.

Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.

In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.

Siren Song

What if the siren
echoing down the street
doppleganging by
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?

So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’

Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.

But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.

And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.

breathMany people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.

I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine. 

But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.

And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.

My Heretofore Unnamed Friend

All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
greatest supporter.

Oh, what oversight!

So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.

 

Lifesaver

The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.

 

No Name Breath

Breath, aware
attending
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.

Breath, aware
opening
infusion of light
bursting boundaries
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.

Breath, aware
this, this and only this
the unlimited
the unnameable
the ever present.

 

Rescue at the Well

In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
churning chest,
catch in the throat
woozy wobble

I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow

I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.

All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016

So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And  befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!

Wise Speech Depends on Engaged Listening

The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.

– Henry David Thoreau
Last week we explored the various qualities of silence and learned how to develop a deep loving connected sense of silence that allows us to hear the patterns of our own thought processes. This gives us two useful skills as we begin to interact with other people: First, we are developing an awareness of the repetitive nature of our thoughts. When we see them for what they are, we also see that we do not need to say them out loud. They are just the flotsam and jetsam of our brain’s synaptic processes. If we’re not aware of the repetitive nature of our thoughts, we are probably not aware of the repetitive nature of the things we say, those comments we make over and over again about things we see and situations about which we have set opinions. It does seem an unfortunate truth that as we age, without developing increased consciousness, we are more likely to repeat ourselves, much to the dismay of those around us. Here’s an example I used with my students. From our living room looking out across the valley, I can see a house that stands out like a sore thumb in my opinion. So my thoughts go something like, ‘Why did they paint that huge house that color? Maybe I should write them a note before their next paint job to remind them that a less garish color might…” You get the picture. It’s skillful for me to notice that I have this repetitive thought, and skillful to let it stay a thought, to leave it unexpressed. So that’s what we bring from silence into Wise Speech. We are not censoring. We are simply being compassionate. If it bores us to think it, it’s going to bore someone else to hear it! Secondly, when we develop a quality of loving silence we can more easily develop the skill of engaged listening. Listening to others without an agenda is the most skillful means of developing connection in any conversation. Notice when you are in conversation where your mind is when you are listening. Are you really listening? Or are you preparing your response?

Engaged listening means letting go of the need to prove we know something or that our position is the more secure one. We might notice a sense of feeling threatened by someone else’s opinions or statements. What is it that is being threatened? Our sense of separate self that we believe we need to shore up and defend? Time to revisit Wise View.

We might notice that sometimes we listen with a hunger to be entertained, to have our curiosity satisfied. Perhaps we are so used to watching television, plays or movies or reading books that we are passively amused or stimulated by what we hear, even when it’s a friend or family member who is talking. Or if we are not passive, our curiosity might demand to be fed, and we might ask questions that are intrusive, unlike ones that make people feel heard and foster understanding.

There’s a quality of mutual respect in the process of listening, a quality of namaste, loosely translated ‘The god in me honors the god in you,’ It acknowledges that we are all the same stuff at the core of being, and all the distinctions and differences are creations of our minds. This does not mean that our experiences are the same, or that we can make any assumptions about the other person, but it does create a more spacious way to be present in the conversation.

Some of us are antagonistic listeners, actively looking for the loophole, the fatal flaw in the other person’s words, as if all conversations are political debates. Notice if in conversation you tend to break into a person’s sentences, use the word ‘But…’ when doing so, as if there will be some tally of points in the end about who is right. If so, take a cue from the tradition in improvisation theater where each actor dives in with, ‘Yes, and…’ so that the result is a wondrous collaboration instead of a trashing of each other’s ideas.

If you find that you are scanning what you hear for errors and faulty reasoning, you are not listening. Give yourself permission to rest that over-active fault-finder. Listen with your whole being. We might feel that we are listening in a loving way when we are actually on a problem-solving mission. This person is not your problem to solve. Fixing them is not your job.

So you can see that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s about resting in silence, noticing the nature of our thoughts, and developing the skill of really listening to others when they speak to us.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY TIP: If you have a person with whom you have a particular challenge and somehow the words always feel wrong, tap into metta practice, send loving-kindness to him or her before speaking. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.” Always give yourself some metta first. That will enable you to share it more easily.