Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sound of Silence

Last week I was on a meditation retreat. One of the meditations we practiced used the sound of silence as its focus. Doing this meditation led to memories, not of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, but of earlier experiences with the sound of silence which may give some idea of what it is and how it can be of use.

After a few years of attending Insight Meditation retreats, I first began to notice the sound of silence. As the mind became more quiet, usually after being on retreat for a few days, I would hear a high pitched sound in the background. It had a wavering quality to it similar to the sound of cicadas during the summer, though a higher pitch and not deafening the way cicadas can be. At first I thought it was a whistling in the ventilation system of the meditation hall. But then I heard the sound during meals and while falling asleep as well. After I returned home I noticed that for the first few nights I also heard it as I was falling asleep. So it couldn't have been something at the meditation center. And since the sound would disappear after I had been home for a few days, I figured it must have been something odd going on with my body.

Immediately after one retreat I happened to see my family physician for my annual physical and casually mentioned this sound to him. He was a concerned about it and referred me to an audiologist. After several tests in a soundproof room, the audiologist said that the physician had been concerned that the sound might be an indication of a brain tumor but that it was actually a condition known as tinnitus. Since I wasn't going to die from tinnitus, the audiologist suggested that I should protect my hearing from loud and high-pitched noises in the future. Other than that I'd just have to live with the sound, unless it got a lot worse.

Each time I was on retreat, as the mind became quiet and concentrated I'd occasionally notice this sound. It didn't annoy me and I didn't struggle with it. It was just an experience that would occur sometimes and hearing it just seemed to be an artifact of retreat practice.

Once, though, I read about a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho, who often meditated on what he called the sound of silence, the sound when the mind is quiet, open and receptive. I wondered whether it was what I had been experiencing. So I tried to find the sound so that I could meditate on it. When I tried to find it, the sound was never appeared. When I wasn't looking for it and when my attention wasn't caught up in a story about my life or absorbed in a strong sensation or mood, then the sound of silence was there like a loyal dog, always beside me in the background. But if I tried to focus on it like on the sensations of breathing, it would disappear.

Once I mentioned this to a meditation teacher. He told me that it sounded to him like it was tinnitus. He said that I should just keep noticing the impermanence of the thoughts, feelings and sensations that came into awareness, which is the standard practice of Insight Meditation.

Over the years of practice, the mind became more open and relaxed, quiet yet alert and receptive, not only on retreat but during everyday life at home and at work. And wherever I was, there was the sound of silence. As long as I stayed relaxed but alert and just let the sound be, it was easy to hear. And I noticed that other than the wavering quality of the sound that never changed, the sound of silence didn't seem to be impermanent. It didn't come and go. It just stayed there constantly in the background.

This past weekend as I was flying home from the retreat, the sound of silence was there once again. Although the sound of roaring engines and whining ventilation were quite loud, too loud for me to listen to music, the sound of silence was easy to notice.

As I investigated the sound of silence during the meditation this past week, I noticed that if there was open and non-judgmental, relaxed but alert attention, then the sound of silence was there. I also noticed that if I was hearing it, then it was impossible to be caught up in stories or strong emotions or sensations. When the sound of silence was present, a thought might bubble up into awareness but before attention was caught up in it the thought would disappear. Like a bubble bursting, the thought would show its impermanent and insubstantial nature. If the sound of silence was there, then there wasn't a "me" that was doing anything. No holding on or pushing away of any momentary experience. Just a being-with whatever life presented in the moment.

On the other hand, when attention was absorbed in stories, emotions or sensations, or even thinking about the sound of silence, then it was impossible to hear it.

Whether I believe that the sound is a result of tinnitus or the background sound of the universe, the sound of silence turns out to be a handy indicator of presence.