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)

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12 Comments

  1. ebe

     /  November 3, 2010

    Thanks, Katherine, for another profound post.
    Just a small comment- the link to the “deep listening” pdf file needs to be:

    http://www.zendust.org/pdfs/deeplistening.pdf

    Reply
  2. ebe

     /  November 3, 2010

    Interesting, because now I can get the PDF according to the provided link. Is this impermanence?

    Reply
  3. Terry Sherwood

     /  November 23, 2010

    Thanks for this interesting, well researched and most informative article.

    The “sound of silence” is also discussed in the introduction by Ajahn Amaro to Ajahn Sumedho’s book “The Sound of Silence” on pages 6-8. He mentions that books have been written on it and cites “The way of inner vigilance” by Salim Michael http://www.edwardsalim-michael.org/livres.htm.
    My own experience is limited. I can hear all of the time, i.e. not just in meditation, a faint buzz/scintillation in the area of the left ear only and an even fainter low pulsing hum across the bottom of my head. One night I awoke to a loudish ringing between both ears – this seems more like the “sound of silence”

    I believe Ajahn Sumedho says that “the sound of silence” is not something to seek or force but open to or allow with receptive awareness so I need to be patient. There is always the breath and body as meditation objects.

    Reply
    • Dear Terry, thanks for your comment and for the extra reference. My experience is, while on retreat in Burma, where there was so much ambient noise all the time (chanting over loud speakers, village life, gongs, bells, etc.), I really didn’t have the opportunity to tune into the sound of silence. But then, I spent five weeks in a quieter location and, really early in the AM, before everyone else had awakened, the sound became almost deafening! That first sitting of the day especially.

      Now, I live in a very rural environment. When I first returned from retreat, the sound of silence was by far the most prevalent heard sense. As the mind got busier, it would come and go. Almost always now, when I lie down to go to bed and begin to relax, or when I sit down for formal meditaiton, or as I’m waking up – the sound is very prominent.

      Just last night, I heard a high pitch buzz and knew it was not this sound. It was a funny conversation I had with my mother, who’s convinced she has tinnitus and could not hear what I was hearing because she said the buzz she heard was only “in her head” and was drowning out anything else. I knew it wasn’t the same buzz that was in my head, however, because it had a distinctly mechanical sense to it. Out of curiosity, I fiddled with the light switches, and in fact, it was the single light bulb chandelier hanging over the table.

      So, when we tune into it, there are of course all sorts of objects contacting the ear door. One of them – the sound of silence – is always there, but seems to require certain conditions to become known (stillness of mind in particular). Yes, there are many many things to be aware of. If we practice intuitive or choiceless awareness, then we are aware of whatever we are aware of. A particular sound, or taste, or sensation, or all of the above, or the in and out breath, or the subtle wanting of another experience in the mind, or a felt sense in the chest, or an expectation, or whatever it may be…It is just this experience, and “it’s like this.”

      Reply
      • Katherine, for your information, I have just transcribed part of the dhamma talk where Ajahn Sumedho is reflecting beautifully and helpfully on the sound of silence:

        “think of it in terms of a blessing, something like grace, or a lovely kind of feeling of being blessed, opened – if you start contemplating it as the sound of angels or a cosmic sound, cosmic hum, primordial sound, blessing us every moment as we open to it.We feel a sense of being blessed. So reflecting in this way, in a positive way towards it helps us take interest in it and have a good feeling from it. You can begin to contemplate non-thinking because when you are just listening to the cosmic sound there is no thought. It’s like this. Emptiness. No-self. If you are with the cosmic sound there is pure attention but there is no sense of a person, personality, me, mine, anatta…..Relax into the sound – don’t try to force attention on to it ……Then count sometimes to help sustain attention …1…2……….10 [slowly]…it takes a while to calm, relax and rest in this silence of the mind ….”

        Not wishing to overload you with material when you return from Retreat,
        Terry

        Reply
        • Thanks so much Terry. Back in the woods and the nada is ever-present again. Attitude is very different (that is, much more right attitude) so it will be interesting to practice with. From my experience not so sure I agree with Aj Sumedho that one is experiencing no-thought if hearing the sound of silence. Agree that if there is just the pure experience of it, as nature, that in itself is the understanding of “not personal, not me or mine”, but that’s right view which comes and goes ;) The sound of silence too, but not necessarily simultaneously! We should explore this thought / no-thought thing some more. I have a few posts that will go up on Tumblr today.

          Reply
  4. looking for a long time at the image of the OM/Aum text in your essay, I was amazed at the concentration that the writing of that required. definately sacred for so much mindfulness had to be expressed.
    Thank you

    Reply
  5. Bob

     /  October 11, 2012

    After a very profound experience ten years ago on a vippasana retreat the sound came up and never left. it does fade into the background when I am busy but when I am quiet it will arrise and when I meditate it becomes really loud. Never had an aversion to it. I recently began using it as my main focus of attention but also awareness of sensation and the breath. It seems as if I am in tune with the universal energy and that it removes blocks and ill health. The mind gets excited by this and result orientated as is its habit. I can feel quite deppressed for a while after an intence meditation as if the ego is upset by it or the negativity it stirs up and releases can linger and cloud the mind.

    Reply
  1. What is the ringing noise one hears when you start to quiet your mind and auditorily observe the surroundings? - Quora
  2. the unnameable is the eternally real | this unlit light

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