Listening Meditation Part Two

For Part One

Some sounds are naturally annoying and abrasive, but most of them only piss us off when we fill them up with stories.

Imagine a loved one saying, “Fuck you, you’re a piece of shit,” in a loud, shrill voice even though you didn’t do anything wrong. That might piss you off, make you sad, or make you hurt. Why? It’s because of 1) the irritating sound, 2) the meaning behind the words, and 3) the person who’s saying them.

Let’s take a few steps back and think of sounds as just sounds. If we focus on how something sounds—its pitch, rhythm, timbre, resonance, tempo, dependence and impermanence—then we have less energy to focus on the story behind those sounds.

There’s a good reason to practice this. The sound itself is what’s immediate to us, it’s what’s given in the experience. Everything else we put together from memory, habit, and instinct, all of which are subjected to the context of our overall mood and the situation.

But the immediate sound has nothing to do with setting or mood. Whether we’re calm or agitated means nothing to the vibrations that are rattling our ears.

When we focus on how, “Fuck you!” sounds, rather than on the story behind the words or our own state of mind, then there’s nothing in them that can hurt us—we’re suddenly invulnerable. We’ve stopped the mental process by focusing on its first step. With a little practice, this can eventually break apart our conditioned responses to insults so that, even if we do permit the story behind the sound, we don’t automatically feel hurt or angry. 4

Since we don’t feel hurt, we’re not gonna lash out to relieve that pain. Since we don’t need to relieve any pain, then lashing out no longer feel rewarding, so we’re gonna lash out less and less over time.

Since sound is just sound, we can use this method on our inner critic as well. A sound is just a sound, a thought is just a thought. Instead of fixating on the stories behind our thoughts, we can just focus on how our thoughts sound. You might notice that, the second you start doing that, your thoughts slow down and decrease.

One huge difference between Nada Yoga and Buddhist meditations, is that Nada insists on the total absence of thought. The pithy saying is, “If you’re thinking, then you’re not listening.” One way to cut down on the inner monologue is to say, “Alright, I’ll listen to you, carry on.” Then it’s like the fucker gets stage fright.

Instead of thoughts tumbling through the mind all at once as a kind of cerebral avalanche, they get in line and amble through one at a time. And a lot of the thoughts that do cross your mind will probably be about the method itself. “Alright, I’m just listening. A sound is just a sound, a thought is just a thought.”

We’ve gotten so wrapped up in the biology behind mental illness that we’ve kinda forgotten the subjective aspect. Mental illnesses are illnesses of thought, impulse, and emotion. One thing that depression and anxiety have in common is that our thoughts get loud, self-critical, and absolutist. With anxiety, they also stampede us.

But the “sound” of our thoughts and their pace aren’t the issue. It’s the stories they tell us about ourselves and the world that causes us pain. When we actively try to just listen to the sound of our thoughts, then we empty out those stories. Listen close enough, and we empty out thought altogether.

During formal meditation, that’s what happens with the sounds around us as well. We get so absorbed in the method of just listening that, over time, there’s nothing to listen to except the sound of ourselves sitting there listening.

It’s important to note that sound is just one aspect of this practice. We could really do the same thing with any of the senses since—at one point—they eventually all come together and turn about. But it’s just easier to pick a sense and then stick with it so that we don’t get distracted.

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