noise

Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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Space, sound, thought

Big Ben and traffic on Westminster BridgeFor several years, around the time I first learned to meditate, I lived in an apartment above Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow—one of the city’s main shopping streets. Sometimes it was acutely noisy, with newspaper hawkers advertising their wares, workmen digging up the roads, drunks singing as they staggered home from the pub, or couples having loud—and very public—fights. But even at the best of times there was a chronic, ongoing hum from the thousands of surrounding vehicles, and the quieter babble of pedestrians’ voices. This was something I had to get used to when I was meditating.

At first I would battle to shut out the noise, and try to force myself to focus inward on my breathing or on cultivating kindness (metta). Although sometimes I’d successfully tune out these distractions, this approach was generally very frustrating. Meditation became a competition between distracting sounds and the welcome relief of inner quiet. Eventually, though, I learned a better way to approach sounds, which was to see them not as distractions, but as part of the meditation practice.

At the beginning of my meditation practice I’d consciously pay attention to the world around me. I’d be aware of the space surrounding me, and I’d pay mindful attention to the sounds filling that space. Since my apartment was near the top of a hill that ran a good mile or so down to the river Clyde, there was plenty of scope for being aware of the physical space in my environment. And I found that the sounds I was hearing helped me to be even more aware of that space. The accelerating bus roaring its engine a few streets away, the squeal of a truck’s brakes, or the sound of a jet tearing through the sky as it passed overhead, would emphasize the scope of the world surrounding me.

Paying mindful attention to the sounds around me allowed me to accept them without resistance. No longer was there any sense of a battle. I didn’t need to choose between hearing noise and being mindful—I could do both at once.

One side effect of this was that being mindful of the space around me helped to radically calm the mind. Often it seemed that my inner chatter would almost entirely shut down. It seemed that my mind itself had become spacious, filling the world around me. It was as if my consciousness were reaching out to fill the streets and even the sky. This was very different from my normal state of mind, where my awareness would often be contracted around one particular sensation or thought, with no sense of spaciousness.

Although my inner self-talk became less frequent at times, it didn’t entirely stop. But when thoughts did arise, my relationship to them was different. With the sense that my mind was now expanded and spacious, thoughts now became more like objects I noticed as they passed by, and they were less like the fully immersive movie-like experiences I was used to.

It became possible, at times, to notice thoughts arising, passing, and vanishing. They became, in fact, like the sound of a passing vehicle, appearing, arising, and then fading away. I’d still have times when I’d become absorbed in a particularly compelling thought and be truly distracted, but being able to follow thoughts as if they were the sound of a passing car gave me a new way to relate to them.

I’d recommend that you try this in meditation, and even outside of meditation (why not right now?). Become aware of the sounds around you. Let your mind fill the space in front of you, to the sides, behind you, and above you. If you’re up high, then perhaps you can feel and hear the space below you as well. Let your effort be gentle. Perhaps you’ll find that you even have a sense of your mind resting in this spacious awareness. And within this space of your consciousness are internal sensations too: from the body and from the mind. Notice all of this.

Now, invite yourself to notice whatever the next thought is that arises. If you can stay in touch with the spacious breadth of your awareness, then you may well find that you can sense your thought not as a story you are immersed in, but as an object—like the sound of a passing airplane or car. Standing back from your thoughts in this way, you may find that you feel free of their emotional drama, and that you feel calmer and more joyful as a result.

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How successful people quiet the noise

wildmind meditation newsBrett Berhoff, The Good Men Project: Noise is very interesting. The spectrum ranges from noise pollution to beautiful. Sometimes it can hold us back or help us get through the day.

It is more productive to take a look at the noise that may hold us back. This isn’t always the noise you may think about; barking dog, leaf blower, etc. It is the noise of life that can derail our drive to achieve our goals.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple has famously stated that he had taught himself to be better at blocking out the noise. He has a tremendous amount of …

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When the Buddha quit

Buddha in the style of Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster

There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

See also:

The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Listening as meditation

listening meditation

I recently wrote a post about how we can use listening as a way to quiet the mind, and how the arising of thoughts can become a “mindfulness bell,” calling us back to mindful attentiveness of the sounds around us. (The post was specifically about persistent thoughts that take the form of music, but the same approach works for all thoughts.)

A commenter on that post directed me to a video featuring the Canadian composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer. In the video, Schafer very cleverly leads us into a form of listening meditation, in which he guides us from being mindful of recorded sounds to the “real” sounds in our personal environment. There’s a clever fake-out toward the end of the video that I didn’t see coming!

Enjoy!

See also:

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Four tips for meditating in public

I love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

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Academic claims silence key to good behaviour in schools

Sam Whyte, Deadline News: The sound of silence is key to better behaviour and exam results in Scottish schools, an academic claimed today.

Dr Helen Lees, an education researcher at Stirling University, said silence techniques including quiet spaces, silent reading and even meditation could work wonders.

Dr Lees said she had been “knocked back” by the sheer amount of noise in schools.

But rather than advocating old-fashioned teacher-enforced silence as an extension of discipline, Dr Lees says modern youngsters should aim for a “silent state of mind”.

She said: “I was a trainee teacher at the school I was at ten years previously …

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“The Quiet Book,” by Deborah Underwood

The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)

In a world where children are constantly exposed to stimulation, there is not enough silence. But a new children’s title, The Quiet Book creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.

I have two young children, who are going on two and four. We don’t have a television in the house, and toys that make electronic noises are banned. From time to time we get gifts of toys that beep or (the horror!) play electronic music, but they’re passed swiftly on to our local thrift store or, where the toy has some value, the batteries are removed. In at least one case we’ve explained to a giver, as politely as possible, that certain kinds of noisy toys don’t fit with the atmosphere of our house.

Title: The Quiet Book
Author: Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 9780547215679
Available from: Amazon.com.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite. Our children love playing with sand and water and paint, exploring the properties of the natural world around them. They enjoy playing dress-up and playing with dolls and toy cars. They can happily spend hours having books read to them, or listening to stories that their parents make up. They’re naturally imaginative. My daughter can entertain us for ages with stories that she makes up for us. Our children don’t need flashes and beeps and electronic versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in order to become absorbed. On the other hand, children who learn that “fun” involves frantically blinking LEDs and manically chirping music will, I suspect, find it harder to settle down, think creatively, and use their imaginations. I’ve seen children sit in the midst of a seas of such toys, complaining that they’re bored.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite.

It’s not that our house is exactly quiet. We have a toy piano. We listen to music (at the moment my three-year-old daughter insists on Vivaldi). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. And sometimes we’ll let the kids watch some Sesame Street on YouTube or watch a Thomas episode on DVD. And kids like to make noise just for the fun of it. They like to yell and bang things. And there are questions, questions, questions. So there’s plenty of noise But there’s a lot of quiet, too.

The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska, is — surprise, surprise — about quiet. It’s a book that teaches kids about the different varieties of quiet.

“Different varieties of quiet”? I know, gentle reader, I know. Isn’t all quiet the same? Kind of, you know, an absence of sound? Not quite.

There’s:

  • First one awake quiet,
  • Pretending you’re invisible quiet,
  • Right before you yell “surprise” quiet,
  • Making a wish quiet, and
  • Car ride at night quiet.

All in all there are 29 varieties of quiet in The Quiet Book, my favorite being “Best friends don’t need to talk quiet.”

Renata Liwska’s charming illustrations feature a cast of cute baby animals, but mostly a moose, a bear, a rabbit, a mouse, and a porcupine. They’re funny, and sweet, and they — quietly — dramatize the various kinds of quiet, giving us little vignettes that children and adults can empathize with. There’s the shame on the face of a moose calf being marched out of school by his no-nonsense mother (illustrating “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”) and the agonized wishfulness of a baby mouse pretending to be invisible while waiting to get a shot.

My children love this book. And so do I.

There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes.

The Quiet Book teaches children empathy by presenting them with (mostly) real-life situations that they’re bound to experience at some time. It teaches children to appreciate silence, and the activities that take place in silence. It teaches children the value of focusing on one thing, and the value of paying attention. It teaches them the value of daydreaming, and of letting the mind creatively wander. It teaches them that valuable experiences come not from the Pavlovian rewards of complex flashing and beeping toys, but from the simple absorption of the mind in a simple activity.

In a world where our we simultaneously listen to music, surf the net, text, and do work, both the ability to concentrate undistractedly on one task and the ability to let the mind wander into creative pathways are under threat. The Quiet Book is a useful corrective to those trends. Of course it’s not enough in itself. There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes. Our modern interconnected media are wonderful, but in order that we use those media rather than simply become hopelessly distracted by them, we need to learn discipline, and to teach discipline to our children. We need to learn to unplug — even if it’s just closing Facebook and switching off our phones while we read an article (online or on paper).

We need to learn to appreciate the quiet that allows for deep engagement. If we try to do that, and teach the value of silence to our children, The Quiet Book can help. At the very least, sitting down with your children and reading them this book will helps create a space of stillness in which their imagination and attention can flourish.

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