Last Thursday night I gave my first dharma talk at the Asheville Insight Meditation Center. This post is different from my typical posts. This is the talk I gave after playing a Tibetan bowl meditation. The meditation lasted about 35 minutes.
Tonight I am going to talk about “Hearing”, hearing sound – my relationship and evolution with sound, how hearing particular sounds can heal or hurt us, and how we can use “hearing” as an important object in our Vipassana meditation practice.
A few months ago I began offering Sound Meditation Concerts in my home. I offered the concert as an opportunity to help people deeply relax, let go, and heal…everyone got comfy by lying down on the floor and I played like I did tonight for 45 minutes or an hour, suggesting they surrender their minds and bodies to the various instrument’s sounds and vibrations. I was always fascinated when someone shared their experience; some went into deep relaxation (almost sleep – some did sleep and even snored!) while others shared how they were deeply relaxed and at the same time, keenly aware of their mind and body’s response to the different sounds. One woman shared how one of the sounds frightened her, and she physically felt the fear in a place in her body that had been hurting her lately. When Ronya came to one of those concerts, she also shared how she felt certain sounds vibrating in specific areas of her body and she suggested I give this dharma talk.
I first began meditating because I suffered from massive migraines. In the late 80’s I had my first migraine attack and in a very short time my new normal was to have a migraine 3-5 times a week – every week! While doctors were feeding me pills and telling me I would never be cured, I was looking outside mainstream medicine to not only find relief, but also the cause of my suffering. That’s when I came across the book, “The Relaxation Response” by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School.
At the time I was lodged up in my head; completely disconnected from my body. I would follow Dr. Benson’s steps…close my eyes…focus on my breath. But found that I couldn’t possibly remain focused on my breath for 20 minutes. With the monkeys in my mind I could barely remain focused on my breath for 20 seconds! I’m probably the only person who has had that problem. So I decided to play music while I meditated. And I noticed that when I listened to beautiful new age instrumentals or chants, my body relaxed. I think that for the first time during meditation, I actually noticed that I had a body meditating along with my mind.
I began to see results of my meditation practice; I was learning how to relax. The migraines weren’t necessarily getting better but that’s really another talk. I was still having hideous migraines and frankly, a lot of stuff was coming up in my meditation that I didn’t know how to process. I’d been interested in Buddhism for a long time and decided no one could be more qualified to help me expand my meditation practice, than a Buddhist monk. So I went on retreat at the Omega Institute in Upstate NY, to sit with Bhante Wimala, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka.
In Bhante’s book, “Lessons of the Lotus” he shares, “…What we don’t usually realize is just like the body, the mind also needs rest if it is to perform its tasks effectively. The mind is like a machine that never stops working. During sleep, it slows down but still does not stop. For the mind to rest and calm down, it has to be deliberately but gently trained; otherwise it keeps working at lightning speed, with penalties to be paid in the form of sickness.” Heelllooo? Now I was onto something! And with Bhante’s help I learned how to go deeper into my practice. He basically guided me from the Relaxation Response to Vipassana.
Since that introduction to Vipassana I’ve attended many retreats and expanded my practice and my studies of the Buddha’s teachings. While I no longer need sound to calm my mind, I continue to sometimes use it as my object of focus. So what exactly does it mean to use an object of focus?
According to Venerable Henepola Gunaratana in his book, “Mindfulness in Plain English,” Vipassana meditation is something of a mental balancing act. You are going to be cultivating two separate qualities of the mind – mindfulness and concentration. Ideally, these two work together as a team. They pull in tandem, so to speak. Therefore it is important to cultivate them side-by-side and in a balanced manner. If one of the factors is strengthened at the expense of another, the balance of the mind is lost and meditation becomes impossible.” Later he explains the difference in mindfulness and concentration by stating, “Concentration is the lens. It produces the burning intensity necessary to see into the deeper reaches of the mind. Mindfulness selects the object that the lens will focus on and looks through the lens to see what is there.” So when we work with an object of focus, whether it be sound, or our breath, we are simply using a tool that allows us to concentrate deeply so that we can bring mindful attention to our experience. Venerable Gunaratana said, “If mindfulness is not there to look into the lens and see what has been uncovered, then it is all for nothing. Only mindfulness understands. Only mindfulness brings wisdom.”
So while nice music might help our mind and body relax, which in turn helps us lower our blood pressure, strengthen our immune system, and a host of other benefits, without concentration and mindfulness, without our Vipassana practice, we won’t get the real benefit of meditation that I think most of us are seeking – which is relief from suffering.
Ronya once gave a talk on Hearing and Working with Sounds and she said, “The six senses, called sense bases are also called ‘sense doors’. Eye is a sense door, ear is a sense door, nose is a sense door, tongue is a sense door, body is a sense door, and mind is a sense door. The sense door is called cakkha-dvara. Why these six sense bases are called doors is because the consciousness comes to your mind through these portholes. Sometimes these mental states originate in the mind from the ear, sometimes through the nose, the tongue, the body, and sometimes through the mind. And she reminded us that the Buddha said, “Your six sense doors must be closed so that you don’t have any mental defilements.” In other words, we are told to continually use mindful awareness to guard these six sense doors, so that we do not get STUCK in negative reactions to life’s conditions.
In Buddhist practice, “hearing” is taught as an important object of awareness. You simply sit and pay attention to what you hear and what you do not hear. Sometimes, what you do not hear is even more powerful to your practice than what you hear.
In fact, this “hearing as an object” technique is the method the historical Buddhist figure Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin, used to attain complete enlightenment. Legend has it that “s/he practiced meditation by the sea. Every morning, when he woke up and everything was quiet about him, he would hear the sound of the tide coming in from afar, breaking the silence. After a while the sound of the tide receded and he would hear the silence restored. Then, the sound of the tide came again, and again the silence was gone. Kuan-Yin studied the coming and going of the sound of the tide and discovered that the two objects—the sound of tide and the silence—were mutually exclusive, that is, he could not hear them both at once. When the sound of the tide arose, silence ceased. When the sound of the tide ceased, silence arose. Nonetheless, he perceived that they both had something in common: both arose and then ceased; both were impermanent. But not so his innate nature to hear itself; hearing was always present. The nature to hear enabled him to hear the sound of the incoming tide, but it did not go away when the tide went back out, for then he heard the silence. Indeed, if it were otherwise and his nature to hear were to have departed with the tide, then he would not only have not heard the silence, but he would not have heard the next tidal advance either. Thus, although the sound of the tide came and went, the nature to hear itself was not subject to those changes.
It is important to realize that while sound just comes and goes, arises and subsides, we ordinarily “pursue” sound’s transient pattern of arising and cessation; that is to say, we seize upon it as being entirely real, and therefore develop deluded attachment.”
Sound is really just a neutral event – our perceptions make a sound pleasant or unpleasant, bearable or unbearable. Any mental defilements (attachment, craving, aversion, anger) can come to our mind through the ear doors; filtered by our perceptions. Whether its birds singing, mowers droning, fellow meditators breathing loudly, or beautiful music, mental defilements cause dukkha; suffering. Because they take us out of the present moment and away from accepting what is. So our job as practitioners is to clearly see how we relate to different sounds and look to see – are we making up stories? Can we be with unpleasant sounds and not get angry? Can we be with pleasant sounds and not become attached? How do we close the door to hearing if its causing mental defilements? Especially if we are using hearing as our object of focus?
Once I began my Vipassana practice, I stopped listening to music when I meditated. I shifted from using sound that I controlled (music or chants) or nature sounds (birds) to whatever sounds that appear – even those that aren’t so nice. When I sit here in the morning and the landscapers come to take care of our beautiful property, I know what’s coming – the incessant droning of power tools; mowers and weed whackers. Instead of fighting those sounds – having aversion to them – I’ve learned to use them as my object of focus, paying attention to how I feel…usually I at first feel kind of crappy… I notice my body constrict and I label the sound of the mower as unpleasant. Can you relate to that? But as I sit with the sound and allow it to just be sound rather than attempt to ignore or replace it with something pleasant, it usually becomes neutral… it’s just sound. And I continue with my meditation, undisturbed. If I don’t get to that neutral feeling – some mornings I just can’t seem to let go of my aversion or I notice that the sound is creating anger – that’s when I drop into my body and investigate how I feel – where do I feel the anger in my body and is it really the sound that I’m angry at or is it something I was angry about before I even sat on the cushion?
During tonight’s meditation you may have heard a sound that was very beautiful. Many people love to hear the chimes when I play them. The notes of the chimes tend to bring about pleasant feelings like joy and sweetness. That good feeling is likely to bring attachment – joy in that moment is dependent upon hearing the chimes. Our mind says, “Please don’t stop…I love that…I want more of that!” If you are like me the first time I heard them your mind might spin out to, “Hey where can I buy those? I need those!”
Or maybe there was a sound you didn’t like… was it pleasant or unpleasant when I ran the rubber mallet over the gong? Some people love it and others tend to hate it. For some reason that sound tends to bring about a visceral response of love/hate and not something in between. It’s why I love playing it during meditation. If it was unpleasant, you probably feel an aversion to it and don’t want to hear it again. It might even bring anger or discomfort. Maybe during the meditation you wished I’d stop that stupid gong and gone back to those sweet little happy chimes.
Now I’m going to shift the topic a little bit and talk about another aspect of sound and that is the healing properties of sounds – specifically with what’s commonly referred to as Tibetan Singing bowls. According to Tibetan teachings, the world and man were created through primeval vibrations. The making of traditional bowls goes back to the time of the Buddha and has been handed down from generation to generation in India, Nepal, and Tibet through verbal teachings; just like the dharma. Today, craftsman in Nepal use those same ancient techniques to create modern bowls. Most of the bowls here were handmade in Nepal using 12 metals and a piece of metal from an antique bowl.
In Nepal people believe that a person who vibrates harmoniously is healthy. If discordant sounds creep in, one loses one’s balance and harmony and becomes ill. So a sick (disharmonious) person who listens to harmonious sounds will readily absorb those, become centered, and will start to heal. Think about that…
When I first moved to Baltimore I lived in a loft. The building was right next to the train station and was Baltimore’s first parcel post building. Due to its historical designation, all of the building’s external features were original, including the windows, which didn’t keep out a lot of sound. I love trains and train stations. I love the sounds and I love watching the hustle and bustle of people entering and exiting trains and train stations. So the noise never really bothered me. Especially since most of the trains were commuter trains (meaning they weren’t running on the weekends or evenings when I was at home). And it was a big loft – about 1600 sq ft – so I didn’t hear the trains when I was in different areas of the apartment.
At some point though I began to notice a lot more noise. I mean a LOT of noise; I would definitely call it “discordant!” It seemed that no matter where I went in the apartment, I could not only hear but also feel this horrible sound going day and night, every weeknight and all weekend long. I found myself getting bitchy; irritated. And after a few weekends I also found myself not feeling well in general…my sense of well-being was greatly disturbed. I felt like my central nervous system was getting attacked. Like my body was in a constant state of thunderous vibration.
After talking to other residents and finally management, I learned that the commuter trains had changed something on their engine. Now they were diesels and because of the extreme cold, the engines couldn’t be shut down; they had to run continuously or it would take too long to warm them up when needed. I realized that I really was experiencing an assault on my mind and body – through loud noise and the vibrations that emanated those sounds! Needless to say I ended up moving. But the point is that even though the sound was loud, it was the vibration of the noise I could feel that felt so painful to my body. The sound I could come to terms with but the vibrations were horrendous.
In sound healing, vibrations (of course) have the opposite effect. As a practitioner I place therapeutic bowls specifically developed for sound healing on the client’s body. I might place two or three of these bowls on your body at the same time. And with a soft mallet, I gently – ever so gently – strike the bowl, which makes a beautiful sound but more importantly, creates a sound wave (vibration) that travels through the body. Think of a pebble dropped in still water…
It’s said that the human body is about 70% water. When I strike the bowl it sends those vibrations through every cell of the body like the ripple effect of the pebble. When there is a blockage in some area of the body the bowl stops vibrating – like when I touch a vibrating bowl it stops vibrating. But if I continue gently striking the bowl, the vibrations will eventually break through the blockage and allow vibrations to pass, accessing the entire body. At this point the body is in a state of deep relaxation so it can begin healing itself. A stressed out body can’t heal but a completely relaxed body can do what it needs to, to heal. This is what the Nepalese mean when they say that, “a sick (disharmonious) person who listens to harmonious sounds will readily absorb those, become centered, and will start to heal.”
The interesting thing is that most of my clients love the sound of the bowls and it’s easy to become attached to those pleasant sounds entering the ear door. But the truth is that even when a person doesn’t hear the strike, the sound vibration is entering the body and therefore creating relaxation, which allows healing. I sometimes have to remind a client to not concentrate on the sound, just relax and allow the experience.
In many ways sound healing is already mainstream. You might already be familiar with sound as a healing mechanism – especially if you live here in Asheville; there are all kinds of modalities offered that use sound in one form or another. I currently provide weekly sound mediation concerts at hospice in their great room. Visitors and even staff and volunteers are encouraged to come in and spend time listening and relaxing. Care Partners acknowledges the healing/relaxing benefits of the Tibetan bowls for those who are experiencing stress and grief and also for patients. I also visit patients in their rooms and play a couple bowls to help them relax and let go.
The scientific world is starting to understand more and more, the importance of using sound as a healing mechanism. For a long time now, CDs have been available that offers brainwave entrainment; using rhythmic sounds to change brainwave frequency and alter brain states. Holosync is one of the most popular of those CDs. And I’ve heard that this type of sound therapy is being used with much success in treating many psychological and emotional disorders. In fact, Ronya knows of a musician and UNCA professor here in town – Wayne Kirby – who developed a music/sound program that significantly helps people with autism.
Does anyone remember the Mozart Effect? In the early 90’s a scientist was using Mozart’s music in an attempt to cure certain disorders. It became the latest “it thing” of its time. It became so mainstream that, “in 1998, when Zell Miller was governor of Georgia, he announced that his proposed state budget would include $105,000 a year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. Miller stated “No one questions that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess.” He even played some of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a tape recorder for legislators and asked “Now, don’t you feel smarter already?”” To be honest I don’t know if his budget was approved and CDs were handed out at hospitals.
There have been some studies confirming the positive effects of Mozart’s music but from what I understand, studies with positive results have tended to be associated with any form of music that has energetic and positive emotional qualities. And to be honest, I don’t know much more about the Mozart Effect except to say that yes, I did buy all the Mozart Effect CDs – after all, it was the “it thing” of its time!
Like any tool in our toolbox – whether it’s a drill used to hang a curtain rod or a sound used to facilitate deep relaxation or to sharpen our concentration, knowing how to use the tool properly will give us good results. Hearing is a precious gift of our six senses. And through my own experience I know that sound can help the inexperienced meditator relax and reach a peaceful state. I also know that when sound waves are appropriately applied to the body, the body can relax and heal. However in Vipassana – Insight Meditation – when we use hearing as our object of focus we are not dependent on specific sounds and don’t rely on sound to calm our mind. Instead, we accept all sounds and allow ourselves the experience of observing our reactions. We gain more awareness of any mental defilements going on and we learn to accept what is while on the cushion, so we might live more fully in awareness and without negative reaction in our daily lives.
In other words, hearing is a powerful tool; we start by hearing the sounds in the outside world, and eventually we begin to hear a deep calling from within – and our hearing transforms to realize our true self-nature.