That buzz

Whether it’s the cosmic hum of the universe or the sound of our own eardrums’ vibrations or something else all together, what Ajahn Sumedho refers to as “the sound of silence” and Buddhists, Hindus and before them Brahmans call the anahata nada sound, is a real phenomenon. It’s not something I always notice, certainly, but more and more often, that drone or buzz is a predominant object in the overall soundscape of life.

It’s funny how our perception of this sound changes our experience of it. As with anything, really, we can become irritated and annoyed by a sound or we can find it pleasurable, or we can remain indifferent. With a bit of gloomy, deluded perspective on things of late, the nada hasn’t been as welcome as it might for me. It could be something to celebrate: “Wow, I’m sufficiently aware to hear this stuff!” And yet, as my teacher U Tejaniya says, “awareness alone is not enough.”

It seems that buzz is far greater than just a hum perceived in the ears. It’s a broader vibrational experience which, although I know scientifically speaking makes sense, since our bodies are made up of energy, still makes me uncomfortable. Not only does the nada, which represents the “unstruck sound” (see below), represent the deathless beautifully; it’s supposedly a great object for concentration practice because once you hear it, it’s more or less always there (as long as awareness is). Ajahn Sumedho says “The sound of silence is like infinite space because it includes all other sounds, everything…other sounds come and go, change and move accordingly, but it is like a continuum, a stream.” In theory, great. Yet, for that very reason – the perception of permanence – like physical pain, it sometimes becomes overbearing and the mind just keeps glomming onto the sound until something else drowns it out. The perception of vibration starts to become oddly “solid”, unchanging.

Many people come to me to complain that when they meditate, they are bothered by a loud ringing or buzzing in their ears. They are distressed, because their doctor has told them they have an incurable disease, tinnitus. When I question them further I find that it is not tinnitus, but that they have begun to hear the sound that is called in Theravada Buddhism, the nada sound.–Jan Chozen Bays

Although it probably appears to you gracious readers as if there’s strong aversion to the sound or experience itself, with some investigation it’s clearly more aversion of aversion (i.e., “I shouldn’t be struggling with this, I should just be opening up to what’s happening…”) and of all the story line it’s wrapped up in.

I’ve always been religious or spiritual but also disliked both words. I’ve never wanted to be perceived as New Agey, even though several of my early influences were people who would definitely be classified as such. So talking about cosmic hums, vibration, the energetic aspects of the body – well, not my favorite. Meanwhile, the little energy work I’ve done with acupuncture or laying on of hands (my friend is a healer), always results in the same assessment: that I have blocked energy (qi) or even armor around the energy field. Another friend who does psychotherapy based in somatic experience and has done some massage therapy on me says that much of this suggests early trauma. I begin to believe these stories. Whether they are true or not doesn’t matter; they are stories nonetheless, because all that came before becomes a story in our mind and memory. And this is what the ego attaches to and resists, and with which it creates what sometimes seem like insurmountable walls.

Perception, storyline, thoughts…these are our normal habits of mind and they are also what present hurdles for us in our practice; hurdles (and opportunities) that if received with wise view, i.e., a good, welcoming attitude, which recognizes this isn’t personal, are dissolved into insight about the nature of reality. Sometimes they hang around for a while, until of course the appropriate causes and conditions line up for understanding to emerge. In the meantime, I’ll blog about it. Of course articulating the causal relationships certainly helps to begin to loosen the conceptual knots we’ve created, so it’s all part of the practice.

“This word [Om] indicates the coexistence of the articulate and the inarticulate sounds – of the heard and unheard melodies – of the sound that is struck and the sound that is unstruck, the Anahata Nada. Sound may be described by its three-fold nature – the Audible sound, the Inaudible sound, and the Imperishable sound. The audible sound is the one which the human ear can hear. The inaudible sound is one which belongs to such octaves as either too high or too low for the human ear to respond to. But there is a third category of sound which is imperishable. Sound obviously consists of vibrations, and all vibrations have a beginning and an end. But if there could be a sound which is unstruck – the Anahata Nada – then surely there could be no end to it as there is no beginning to it. To talk of a vibration-less sound is indeed to indulge in a paradox. In the sacred word Om, there is such a paradox. It is both heard and unheard, struck as well as unstruck. It is both perishable and imperishable.”

―Rohit Mehta, Call of the Upanishads (quote courtesy of RockOm)

See also: Symbol of the Absolute and Anahata Nada

More Resources

Ajahn Sumedho, “Silence and Space” , see also “Sound of Silence” chapter in Intuitive Awareness (PDF)

Jan Chozen Bays, “Deep Listening” (PDF), you can also listen to the talk in MP3 format

Jotipalo Bhikkhu, “Attacking the illusion of self”

Edvard Tam, “Tinnitus? Or the sound of silence, nada yoga and shurangama samadhi?” and “More on sound meditation”

“Nada sound” discussion on Dharma Overground

Silence | Sounds  (since the subject has been on my mind a lot and I was interested in exploring music and our perceptions of it – I have been Tumblring here also)

Remembering the body

The four foundations of mindfulness (or frames of reference) play a central role in Buddhist meditation, particularly in the Burmese vipassanā tradition. They are roughly translated as follows:

  1. Kayanupassana: contemplation of the body
  2. Vedananupassana: contemplation of feeling
  3. Cittanupassana: contemplation of consciousness/mind
  4. Dhammanupassana: contemplation of mental objects/qualities

I don’t know about you, but my tendency is certainly mind over body when it comes to the practice, and I have a lot more cittanupassana and dhammanupassana under my belt as a result – not that they were meant to be separated – together they are a systematic means of practice leading to awakening. For the same reason, I am more oriented toward insight than samādhi practices (see Marguerite Manteau-Rao’s recent discussion of practitioner types here). To elucidate further the distinction between these two aspects of practice, Bhikkhu Bodhi in the introduction to Soma Thera’s essay The Way of Mindfulness says “In Satipatthana, the act of attending to each occasion of experience as it occurs in the moment fixes the mind firmly on the object. The continuous attention to the object, even when the object itself is constantly changing, stabilizes the mind in concentration, while the observation of the object in terms of its qualities and characteristics brings into being the insight knowledges.”

Sayadaw U Tejaniya is known for emphasizing wisdom over concentration and, not to say that concentration practice must be rooted in the body, but just to connect all the dots, his teacher Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw — who studied with Mahasi, etc. — was said to believe that if one practices cittanupassana and dhammanupassana, then the other two contemplations are necessarily included. (At the same time, he used to instruct students to focus on the solar plexus in their practice.)

Well, I’m not entirely sure that just doing the more mental aspects of satipatthana will be inclusive. Here’s why. (Edit: I should emphasize that I don’t for one moment doubt my teacher’s wisdom here – if practicing with right understanding and right attitude, he’s surely correct – but we don’t always do that.) Yes, if you are doing an awareness practice, no matter if it’s of a choiceless bent or if it’s a concentration practice which is methodical and systematic (and slow), one is aware of movement, of physical discomfort, of taste, of whatever is being experienced sensorily. Similarly, one can be aware of the felt body – how emotions are manifesting physiologically. However, it is one thing to be aware of, and it is another to really plumb the depths of difficult emotion. I’ve alluded to this before, as being a weakness of mine. I think being able to call up an emotion intentionally, or investigating one thoroughly when it arises requires a certain amount of stability of mind to begin with. So what happens is that when the emotions arise, if I’m even in formal meditation practice (which often I’m not), then there’s a resistance, a wall that comes up, an inability to really explore. My staying power is pretty shallow when it comes to an unknown and intense emotion. Attention turns away, and the opportunity for growth goes ignored.

We all know the familiar knot in the throat, constriction in chest, butterflies of stomach. We know the emotion they signal. But there are others that one can’t even name. Example: day before yesterday the body was characterized by a very intense vibratory feeling – all over. It may have been exhaustion, it may have been something else, but whatever it was, there was a cause and if there was a direct one, I hadn’t been sufficiently aware during the day to see it in the making. It was largely entrenched by the time consciousness really set in. I sat with it, but as often is the case with pervasive emotions, there was no particular thought content associated with it. What does one do at that point? What is the source? Is it deep, psychic, unconscious? Can it be known in a rational way? It didn’t even have meaning from an intuitive vantage point – where do you go from here?

There may be a time when I need to deepen my practice through other “techniques” or through body work like yoga, or there may be times when I’ll need to call on psychotherapy and other Western modes of self-knowledge, but for now, I think I will explore some teachings that focus more on somatic experience.

One such teacher is Reggie Ray, another is David Rome – both students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. David Rome’s teaching draws on Western psychology and the work of Eugene Gendlin and is called “focusing”. This practice can supposedly resolve the “felt sense”. In a 2004 article in Shambhala Sun Rome says:

The felt sense lies “beneath” emotions like anger, jealousy or desire; it is more subtle and less susceptible to naming. Felt senses are free of the story line that accompanies an emotion: “I am angry because such and such happened.” They are more vague and physical; a person in touch with a felt sense might say something like, “There is this region just under my breastbone that is constricted like a jack-in-the-box.” When we first notice a felt sense, it does not have a specific “aboutness” yet. It is nonconceptual. But as we use the Focusing process to be with and listen to the felt sense, it may come into clearer focus (hence the name Focusing) and it may “open” in a way that gives us fresh understanding of our situation. At that point—which cannot be rushed—we can begin to try out concepts on it, begin to inquire what it might be “about.” But the felt sense itself is always primary, not the conceptualization, and the practice of Focusing involves repeatedly letting go of conceptual activity and returning to the body sense.

A friend with whom I was discussing this challenge in my practice recently, recommended I read some John Welwood right away, so I was interested to see the reference to him in Rome’s article. He says of focusing:

It is also a powerful antidote against “spiritual bypassing,” which John Welwood, in his excellent book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, describes as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.”

So much work to do! My hunch is that a lot of western contemplatives struggle with the emotional and physical aspects of the practice, certainly in different ways than they do the monkey mind. In general – if we have worked as professionals, had lots of critical thinking in our formal education, etc., our conditioning is so much more discursive in nature. That means we are probably at a disadvantage when it comes to the felt body, and that we may be less naturally inclined toward concentration. Is it wise to integrate other contemplative practices, possibly rooted in psychology, with our meditation? Or is the Satipatthana Sutta all we need?

I’d love to hear from you if you practice either focusing or Reggie Ray’s body work, or just in general if you’ve worked with the challenge of the felt sense in your meditation practice.

Some reading, etc. on the body and meditation practice:

Forum: Start with Your Body: A panel discussion with Phillip Moffitt, Cyndi Lee, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Reggie Ray, Fall 2009, Buddhadharma

Conversations: May 2010: David Rome (audio)

Focusing: An Interview with David Rome, May 2010, Shambhala Times

Audio Teachings from Reginald Ray

Review: Your Breathing Body, Vol. 1 & 2 (Reginald Ray), April 2009, Elephant Journal

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