February 9, 2014
Forced or manufactured sound is everywhere. Music, traffic, video, phones, web noise, advertising, small talk, argument, television. When sound becomes compulsion or consumption — the expression of some deep-seated but displaced emotional need — it turns into noise.
But a life grounded in silence actually makes better use of sound, in the senses of both contribution and benefit. To become grounded in silence is the practical starting point of meditation, because it is the most practical orientation to sound.
So the answer to those who ask, “How do I meditate? How do I learn? How can I possibly integrate something so special and esoteric into my life?” — my answer is, “the same way you learn anything else: understand a few basic principles, practice, and then make it your own. Because you already know how.”
In the context of the current discussion, this is why I like the approach that Alan Watts brought to the instruction of basic meditation. He told his students to merely listen. To do this, to practice listening as a skill that you can refine and enlarge through practice, you must have a place in both space and time — preferably every day — where you can be with whatever’s going on, but without setting up an artificial theater.
This means, of course, turning off cell phones, televisions, radios, music players, and all the devices and distractions of your life. You will find that there is a great deal to hear, a world of vibrations within and around you, without the need to create any to fill some imaginary void.
We begin with this sense, hearing, because we can mute other senses and distractions so as to give our ears a certain pride of place in the experience. We have eyelids that can close and quiet our visual sense. We have mouths that we can close to silence our tongues. We can even quiet our tactile senses with the help of environmental controls. But we have no “earlids” to prevent or mitigate hearing; and let’s face it, those squishy buds that you can stuff into your ears for that purpose are neither very effective nor comfortable.*
So, to begin a practice of meditation, we can spend some time listening to whatever is out there. Now note that I haven’t said a word about a way of sitting, which is ordinarily where meditation teachers start. For while it is probably best that you do sit, in a comfortable but not lazy or flopping type of position, it is not a requirement. If you’d like to lie down, do so. If you’d prefer to stand, fine. The focus, early on at least, should be on what is happening rather than on what you’re doing. Just listen.
Close your eyes, then, keep your body relatively still but not stiff, and focus on what you’re hearing. Let’s say you’re indoors: perhaps you’re hearing the faint sounds of fans or vents blowing air or heat; a dim hum from some appliance or other nearby; maybe movement or talk of other people in the house; the wind outside the window; or any other near or distant sound around you. As you begin to discern all this sound, let go of the impulse to name or describe things you hear; just listen.
As you do this, you’ll begin to notice another sound: yourself, your body. Most significantly, your breathing. You will notice other sounds from yourself as well: during long, 45 minute sessions at a Zen temple, I used to have the amazing sense of the sound of my own throat swallowing to be as loud as a toilet flushing. But the prominent thing will be the breath: in and out, non-stop. Stay with that sound as you also remain aware of all the other sounds: which of them is inside you and which is outside? Which are part of you and which are foreign or separate?
These are the kinds of questions that make such a practice fascinating, even fun. For they lead to other questions, which can lead in turn to some insights into yourself and your world. But I’d rather avoid talking any further about benefits; you will realize these for yourself quite easily and uniquely. The main thing is to give it your attention, that is what the practice is all about.
Now one interesting thing about attention is that it tends to wander or stray. Consider that as a feature, not a bug, of attention. As you notice your focus wandering from the business of listening, gently bring it back, without judging or scolding yourself. Just ask it to come back to the task at hand, and it will. This reveals one of the most valuable practical teachings of meditation: that body and mind are not separate, and therefore that one of these does not have to lord it over the other. So don’t command your body; it doesn’t respond to aggression. Give it order and it won’t need orders.
For openers, dedicate a minimum of five minutes per day to this simple practice. For that, you shouldn’t need a timer or beads or any other mechanism. You wouldn’t undertake swimming lessons by jumping off a boat a mile offshore in the ocean; so don’t try to meditate like a yogi or something now. Don’t dump yourself into the water of practice; just walk in gently.
*Attentive readers will notice that I haven’t mentioned smell. This will become a very important sense as your meditation practice develops further, for it is commonly the most repressed and misused of all senses, at least in Western cultures. Some meditation instructors will recommend the use of aromatics to stimulate smell: incense, scented candles, plants, floral water, etc. If such an addition to your practice feels right, then go ahead. I’m merely saying it’s not a requirement at this time. We tend to get too wrapped up in trappings, which are often sold to us at considerable expense: special cushions, bells, robes, mantras, burners, statues, lights, books, and atmospheric nonsense of every kind. But one of the essential aspects of meditation practice is the removal of clutter; so we don’t want to invite a new kind of clutter into our practice space.