The Role of the Participant in Sound Meditation

The Map and the Territory

Deep within each of us abides an ancient wisdom.  This is as much the accumulated wisdom of over four billion years of life’s evolution on this planet as it is an emanation of the divine and eternal essence of every human being[1].  Think, for a moment, of the living body’s unfathomably complex biological mechanisms, thousands of them proceeding constantly and in perfect harmony without the slightest need for conscious effort or even awareness on our part; or of the exquisitely intricate tapestry of meaning, synchronicity and interconnectedness that comprises the overarching narrative of a human life; or of the strange and astonishing fullness of detail into which the human mind nightly descends, as effortlessly as breathing, in its dreaming state: these are just a few manifestations of the connection each of us possesses to something profound and truly miraculous, yet utterly natural and human.  As children, living and breathing as we do in a world brimming with mystery, significance and magical vitality, we perceive a divine intelligence pervading the world as plainly as we see the noses on our face.  When we grow older, this awareness dims, as we increasingly mistake our dry and static mental representations of the world with the actual world itself, and thus does the life slowly bleed out of our surroundings, and ultimately, tragically, from ourselves. In other words, we confuse the map with the territory, and in doing so lose our living connection to the world, retreating ever deeper into Plato’s cave, increasingly encumbered by chains of our own making.

Of what do these chains consist?  Simply put, they consist of language, which itself arises from a process of abstraction and analysis: a cutting-up of the world into smaller, constituent parts, which can then be separated from one another and dealt with more or less independently[2].  Our minds are limited, after all, and so can only manipulate things up to a certain degree of size and complexity.  Without our ability to carve the world up into manageable parts, we would be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of information, the infinitude of detail, that unfolds into existence around us at every passing moment.  We need to be able to distinguish this from that, self from other, in order to successfully navigate our ever-changing environment and tend to the needs of our survival, acquire sustenance, avoid danger, seek shelter and safety and love. The mental map we carry is thus quite obviously a good and necessary thing, and indeed a prerequisite for any kind of conscious, rational thought.  But over time, with our noses constantly to the map, we gradually cease to see the world as it is, seeing instead only our mental representations of it.  We may look at a tree, for instance, but unless we are seeing it with the innocence and immediacy of a child, all we are really seeing is a sort of generic, mental representation of a tree, a conglomeration of preconceived notions and remembered facts, of labels and categories and associations, in short, an abstraction divorced from the thing as it actually is.  A single instance of such an occurrence is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  But as this mode of interfacing with our environment becomes increasingly habitual and automatic, the map becomes a veil.  Our attention becomes increasingly distracted away from the world as it is and preoccupied by an endless and disjointed series of abstractions and abstractions of abstractions, what some traditions refer to as the chattering of the ‘monkey mind.’

And this is where the trouble begins, for by this process we lose our awareness of the living, breathing process of unceasing flux, of perpetual perishing and manifestation, that underpins our moment-to-moment emergence from the unknowable ground of being from which literally everything—from hadrons to human beings to the Hubble telescope and all that it reveals—derives its explicate existence, and through which all is ultimately connected together as one[3].  In other words, through the map and amidst the chatter, our chains of thought sequester us from the actual territory, from the world itself, and we cut ourselves off, in a very real and dangerous way, from the living source of not only life but of our very existence.  We cease to be consciously whole, to be fully alive, even to be fully real; we wither into husks whose hollowness we seek to fill by the compulsive acquisition of all manner of temporary and ineffectual substitutes, hence our culture’s burgeoning addictions to food, drugs, sex, disposable electronics, social media, and so on.

The sound meditation is a way—certainly not the only way, but a powerful and effective one—to restore the awareness of our connection to this living process and through it to the world and all our fellow beings, not by persuasion or entreaty but through the provision of direct experience, which cannot be denied or controverted once it is had.  The purpose of the sound meditation is thus not to teach us anything new, but to help us to remember, to reclaim, something very, very old.  The manner in which it does this is really very simple: by providing an anchor for our conscious awareness, one that is non-verbal and non-rational and yet highly patterned and complex, the sound provides a means of circumventing the chatter of the monkey mind; it seizes our attention away from the map and demands that we engage with the Universe, with the territory, as it is, here and now, without the distancing, alienating effects of judgment and rational analysis.  Of course, the sound itself has no agency; it can provide an anchor and a means but it cannot coerce us to accept them or to use them.  This is why the active participation of the sound meditator is of paramount importance: for what is the sound of a gong ringing if there is no one there to hear it?
Seeking a State of Enchantment: The Art of Judicious Listening

In order to achieve its effects, the sound meditation requires, as I have said, active participation on the part of the meditator.  More specifically, it requires a special kind of conscious interaction with the shifting elements of the sound, which I refer to as judicious listening.  In the West, we are generally unaccustomed to listening actively to the sound produced by musical instruments; except when we are dancing—which is an experience we have more in our bodies than in our minds—our experience of music tends to be passive and, as with nearly all of our mental activities, more or less abstracted or intellectualized.  This is not so in other cultures, where music is employed not merely as a means of entertainment or diversion, but as a spiritual tool, capable of inducing and maintaining exalted states of consciousness in both the player and the listener.  One important example of this is the phenomenon, in classical Arab music, known as tarab.

Tarab roughly translates as “a state of enchantment or ecstasy,” and it refers to both the state of consciousness that can be achieved by judiciously listening to certain kinds of Arabic music, as well as the technique or etiquette of judicious listening that is used by the listener to achieve this state.  While the manner in which this occurs is quite mysterious, it will not occur at all without judicious listening, that is to say, without an active engagement of the listener’s consciousness with the sounds produced by the instruments, which are of course guided in turn by the consciousness of the musicians.  What occurs is a kind of mental, emotional and spiritual resonance between the musician and his/her audience, mediated on both sides by an active, conscious engagement with the sound that unifies, and ultimately enables each to transcend, their shared experience of the music while it is being played.  For a time it can be said that there is a dissolution of the barriers that normally sequester the listener’s consciousness from that of the musician, and of the barriers that also sequester the consciousness of each participant from the sound that he or she perceives; in other words, the mental map that strives constantly to identify, label and cut apart the sensory experience of the music into abstracted components, the map that identifies ‘me’ as distinct from ‘you’, is temporarily burnt to ashes by the intense emotions stirred up by the music, revealing, for one sweet, brief, timeless moment, a direct and unadulterated experience of Existence as it actually is, forever perishing and replenishing itself in the eternal Now.  Indeed, through tarab, the individual egos of the musician and the listener temporarily disappear, spilling their sequestered contents into a unified experience of transcendent awareness of the music, like two sentient whirlpools fusing together and becoming startlingly aware, in a flash of blissful understanding, of the body of clear water that has been sustaining them all this time.  What the sound meditation endeavors to accomplish—what can be accomplished by any participant through the use of judicious listening—is something similar to tarab.

By judicious listening is meant a kind of specialized attention to the sounds that drive the meditation, which I create using instruments selected precisely because they produce sounds that lend themselves well to this kind of specialized attention, for reasons we will explore in the next section.  Before we get into those particulars, there are important things that can be said about the act of judicious listening in general terms.  First, it is a means, as described above, of disconnecting our experience of conscious awareness from the burbling stream of predominantly verbal and abstracted thought content in which it is usually steeped—the chatter of the so-called monkey mind.  As such, it is important that one enters into the sound meditation with the intention of achieving and maintaining this state of disconnection.  Note that what the participant disconnects from here is the mental phenomenon that ordinarily disconnects us from a direct and unmediated experience of ourselves and of the world; in doing so the aim is to reestablish one’s connection to both, by cultivating an awareness of the deep waters where distinctions between self and other, this and that, begin to dissolve.

Secondly, the participant must exercise his/her faculties of both will and attention throughout the meditation, because the monkey mind is relentlessly, almost preternaturally undisciplined.  It will swing down from its tree without warning and scamper away with the shining bauble of our focused awareness, making it halfway through a jungle of reveries, memories and associations before we even realize that the bauble has been seized from our hands.  Seizing it back once we recognize what’s happened is easy; the trick is holding onto it for more than a few fleeting moments before the next swinging grab, which is typically not long in coming.  Quickly this becomes a losing battle unless, through force of will, the participant remains equally relentless in his/her efforts to repeatedly reclaim mastery of his/her attention, as immediately as possible and as frequently as necessary.  This is where the sound becomes an invaluable tool for anchoring and focusing the attention, giving as it does an engrossing and perceptible form to the unceasing flux of the here and now.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, judicious listening requires of the sound meditator equanimity, an attitude of detached, non-judgmental observation, toward both him/herself and the shifting contents of his/her awareness over the course of the sound meditation experience.  While we endeavor to remain constantly aware of what is occurring within the pattern of the sound, as well as our spontaneous internal responses to what we are observing, it is important that we stay out of our own way while this is happening.  We do this by refraining from judging the experience as it unfolds, in other words, by remaining equanimous.  Judging an experience requires that we establish a certain degree of cognitive distance from which to make the judgment, with the result that any act of judgment immediately brings the aspiring meditator out of the present moment.  This, in turn, effectively aborts any spontaneous response to the experience that might have been underway, and simultaneously provides an excellent opportunity for his/her focused awareness to jump the tracks and take off into the jungle, tucked under yet another arm of the monkey mind.  Maintaining equanimity, particularly in the face of emotionally charged content (which has a tendency to arise during the sound meditation), can be difficult, but does get easier with practice.  It requires a willingness to cultivate an attitude of openness, of acceptance of things as they are, of wherever you happen to be in the journey of life, and of compassion toward yourself and the people around you.  Fortunately, an earnest engagement with the practice of sound meditation can facilitate just this kind of cultivation.

[1] Despite the dogmatic insistence of fanatics from both religious and scientific schools of thought, evolution and divinity are not mutually exclusive concepts.
[2]This is evident in the etymology of the word 'define', which shares its root with the words 'finish' and 'finitude', viz. the Latin finire, to bound or to limit.  Thus, when we define a word or a concept, we are limiting it, carving it out and alienating it from its surroundings.
[3]This unknowable ground of being has been recognized and spoken of for thousands of years by mystics and sages from almost every culture, who have given it various names, such as the Tao, Brahman, the pleroma, etc., and more recently by the high priests of modern civilization, namely our theoretical physicists, who refer to it as the zero-point field or, as per David Bohm, the Implicate Order.

photos by Joel Barhamand