Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Buddhist Reflection on Listening

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...

There are different levels of listening that normally we do not explore or even know of that well. This is because we’re so caught up in the world, with its many, many distractions that our desires feed on, sustaining themselves and begetting more desires. We’re too busy to stop and listen to the world around us, including the people we meet. In fact, we’re usually too preoccupied to listen to ourselves, never paying attention to these bodies and minds that we take to be our selves. If we do manage to wriggle free of the entanglements of the passions for a moment, however, we can learn to see things as they truly are and not as we take them to be. We can learn to listen.

Listening to the world: The visual sense is predominant for most of us, most of the time. We rely on it to identify and negotiate the world around us, and in doing so build up our worlds of delusion upon it. We see, we want, or we see, we dislike. Vision is so caught up in our desires and misconceptions of this life that it can take another sense all together to challenge those misconceptions. If we close our eyes right now and simply listen to the world, we can open the door of wisdom. What can you hear in this moment? I can hear insects in the tropical evening, as well as music flowing from the stereo speakers in the room that I’m writing. These sounds aren’t full of desire or delusion in them selves, are they? They’re simply what they are: sounds. It’s what we think and feel about them that make them appear pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.

Listening to others: So often in life we don’t really listen to each other. We wait for the other person to cease talking so that we can air our views and opinions (no matter how misguided they may be). We don’t make the effort to actually listen to the other person’s tone of voice, choice of words, and what they’re talking about. We hear them, but don’t truly listen to them. We’re unaware of just how upset they are if we aren’t taking note of how they saying what they’re saying; they may be angry with us, frustrated with life, or making subtle invitations, but if we’re not attentive to them, we’ll miss all these signs. And then we’ll wonder how we missed what they were really saying. We’ll be astounded by our own ignorance, born of the fact that we didn’t listen to them.

Listening to ourselves: Not only do we fail to listen to others, including the ones we hold most dear, but we don’t even listen to ourselves. Our bodies produce all subtle (and unsubtle!) sounds, including the creaking of bones, the chewing of food, the swallowing reflex, and the sound of our breathing. Listening to the breath, for instance, we can determine if we are more agitated than we realize, or discover that we’re not as fit as we previously thought, panting like a randy poodle! The mind can be listened to also, in the sense that we can hear the silence that thoughts, feelings, and memories appear in. Ever had a song that sticks in the brain and repeats endlessly despite our wish that it didn’t? Well, next time that arises, try listening to the silence that surrounds it, and see what happens to the annoying tune.

Listening to the sound of silence: Ajahn Sumedho, a senior western Buddhist monk, has for many years talked of ‘the sound of silence’, an inner sound that can be heard if one quiets the mind to the point that it opens up to the subtlest of noises. This sound is also called the ‘primal’ buzzing or hissing, and appears to be a kind of ringing inside the ears rather than outside of them. It’s a physical sound that isn’t ‘out there’, but rather ‘in here’. Listening to this sound has a calming affect on the mind and helps it to develop concentration also. It gives consciousness something less distracting to focus on, enabling one to let go of other noises as well as the ‘inner voice’ that normally rambles on about every little event that occurs in our lives. It leads us to the real silence that’s found not in tranquil surroundings, but within ourselves.

Listening to the silence: This silence is with us always. But usually we’re unaware of it because we never listen out for it. We don’t know where to look for this transcending silence: we never imagine that it could be found inside ourselves. Once we’ve become alive to it, we can focus on this silence and notice that all sounds arise in it, whether the sounds of nature or of humanity, whether outside of us or within us. This silence is ever present if we have the skill to listen to it. It’s a peace that we take with us everywhere we go, but are normally completely oblivious to it! It puts all our delusions and desires into perspective, as objects in audio-awareness. They lose a lot of their power to disturb us, seeming much less important in this sea of tranquility.

So, true silence is found whatever audio objects can be heard. Even in the deafening din of loud music, the silence is still here, as calm and unaffected as ever. If the mind can be turned away from particular noises to that in which they exist, then a radically different way of experiencing oneself and the world will be discovered. Those distracting sounds will lose their power to disrupt the contentment that lies at the very heart of every human being, and is waiting to be found and fed upon. For feeding on this silence leads us to our real home: peace. This can be achieved by truly listening to the world, others, ourselves, the ‘sound of silence’, and ultimately silence itself. And this silence is one that can never be disturbed, whatever the cacophony that inhabits it!

If all the above seems a trifle abstract, perhaps the following will help illustrate how awareness of silence can transform our everyday experiences. When listening to the sounds of nature I can hear a variety of noises in my Thai neighborhood, produced by both creatures and natural forces. There are numerous species of birds, all singing their own particular songs. Insects make surprisingly loud noises, especially the cicadas in the tropical evening. Then there’s the sound of the wind rustling the foliage in the garden next door, which is a kind of unkempt mini-wood. Our neighbors’ dogs often bark either at passers-by or at each other. Sometimes I wonder if they’re howling at the ghosts that so many Thais believe in without question. (And such ghosts might exist – I’ve seen a few scary-looking individuals lurking the streets around here!)

All of these sounds are impermanent, however. Birdsong, for instance, occurs at specific times of day; it doesn’t go on all the time. Some species sing at the crack of dawn, while others sing at dusk – some are squawking now early in the afternoon. The fact that birdsong doesn’t last twenty-four hours a day is a sign that it is impermanent (anicca). Sounds such as the evening shrieking of the cicadas show impermanence in another aspect of their structure. They are not constant drones, but have gaps in between different segments of sound; they start-stop, start-stop, etc. They are impermanent in this way too, along with not lasting all day. In the gaps that separate the creatures’ noises there is space. This space also can be seen (well, heard) prior to an animal’s call, as well as after the period of noise-making has stopped. Space contains the sounds of nature, including the rustling of leaves and the falling of rain. This space is non-judgmental in its nature. The mind, or personality, reacts to different sounds, liking the particular song of one species of bird, whilst on the other hand disliking the neighbor’s dog that barks late at night. Even in our negative responses to sound we can develop some wisdom, however – the howling dog shows just how unsatisfactory (dukkha) life can be! Space, on the other hand, simply contains all sounds, whether from nature or the human world (and what is the human world but an extension of nature, if we think about it?).

Through associating with the space by being the awareness that is conscious of sound, rather than identifying with being a particular person with specific likes and dislikes, one can become more open-minded. In this open-mindedness is an acceptance of the way things are (the Dharma). Moreover, by being the spacious awareness that is host to all phenomena (not only sound), one becomes more open-hearted, more compassionate and loving. Personal preference is less likely to dominate one’s relationship to the world, allowing for a deeper connection with the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, tactile and mental sensations that enter awareness. This connection of spacious awareness to the world is not one of identifying with these various sense objects as being mine or not mine, likeable or dislikeable, because it is essentially an impersonal relationship. Even thoughts and feelings associated with being me (or whoever) are objects in consciousness, they do not comprise a self (anatta). Being awake to this aware space is a liberating experience, freeing awareness from the prison of personality and ego. It also makes one appear as a nicer guy or gal to those that one meets, making their lives a little happier and less stressful.

So, in listening to the Dharma in nature, we can begin to recognize the way things are; they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self (anicca, dukkha, and anatta.). We can learn to associate not with the personality that forever judges the world and its contents, but with the spacious awareness that is host to the myriad phenomena that make up this life. Extending this insight to all sense objects and not just sounds, we can radically alter our relationship to humanity as well as the natural world. One no longer sees oneself as just another person struggling against the natural and human obstacles to happiness, but the space in which such thoughts arise, along with all else. And this is the way to true happiness.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.


Anonymous said...

I read this post with great interest, Gary. It is inspiring and just listen to your words is reassuring. Really, how important it is just to listen... Renée

G said...

It's interesting to reflect just how often we truly listen, Renee. If we open up to the fullness of the present moment, we might notice things we'd never been aware of before, including this peacefulness that lies at the heart of being.

Be well,