Everything we do is directed outward. We spend most of our time doing things and reacting to things in a quite automatic way. A major part of our lives consists of just this acting and reacting, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something,’ we are told.
Just to sit there is ‘passive, lazy, and antisocial’. Though there are different kinds of ‘just sitting there’—aware and not aware, or perhaps we can say ‘awake (Buddho) and asleep’.
Most of the time we are pushed into courses of action without even noticing what has happened or what caused it, though the Buddha said that to look for causes is largely a waste of time. He told the story of the man who was hit by the poisoned arrow and before he would let anyone remove it, demanded to know who fired that arrow and why. By the time his desire for information was satisfied, he was beyond earthly help. Looking for causes and culprits is usually a waste of time; we have to deal with what is happening not what happened in the past.
The Buddha spent some time explaining how the mind goes astray and this process of confusion in order to help us clear our minds and see things as they are rather than as we assume them to be.
So we settle our minds by watching the breath and calming it and the mind (satipatthana), counting the breaths to stay with what we are doing, and not letting our minds wander continually. Then we walk up and down a short stretch noting how the mind keeps slipping away on its numerous ‘shopping trips’ pursuing this and that, wrapped in a fog of hopes, fears and desires.
These are valuable techniques for restraining the mind and gently removing it from its most obviously distracting habits. These techniques, as the Buddha pointed out, can lead to meditative absorption (jhanas), and the practice of the so-called divine states (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity) can do the same. But when we return from these, we still have to face all the usual suspects—anger, greed, fear and jealousy; they don’t go away just because we have dwelt in loving-kindness for a while, any more than someone who spends a week in the Presidential Suite of a top hotel is likely to think more about global poverty. Purging ourselves from the gross sides of our natures is a long, untidy business and takes patience and fortitude, but must be undertaken if we are truly to find some peace.
All these practices, wonderful as they are and helpful as they are in freeing us from that which binds and indeed enslaves us, are still doing something, and doing something can in the long run be another version of ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’.
To get inside this process, we have to stop doing things; in other words, stop doing something and ‘just sit there’. But this is very hard to do, because we are trying to do something to stop doing something.
One way to do this is to see what we are doing, but with most of us, watching is also closely connected with doing something—a kind of guard duty.
But there is also listening. And this is not usually connected in our minds with organising or pushing things around; it does not have the connotation of doing, and is generally neutral. It also has the connotation of turning the attention inwards—the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the One who Listens, is said to have become enlightened in this way.1
Listening is much less connected with organising or pushing things round in our minds, and in fact listening and the listened-to are much more linked than actor and acted-upon. Listening also tends to be more emotionally neutral (peace music-lovers, I know!)
Find a bell or tuning fork, and strike it, and listen to the sound as it trails off into silence. Then begin to listen to what comes before and after the sound. Does the listening continue after the sound has ceased? And if so, what is listening and how? And because we do not know what the answer is or even what kind of answer it might be, the mind begins to be receptive and sensitive to the actual nature of those things that enter our awareness, rather than the erratic version of reality we actually project onto things and happenings, and on which we base our picture of the world.
The modern world seems driven to extinguish silence, as if it were a threat. Not to be connected to a Walkman or a mobile phone is not to be connected to the umbilical of the social world; it is to be alone and in potential communication with something mysterious and perhaps frightening. For our minds are conditioned to be occupied all the time, usually with noise and dross. Restaurants and cafés do not feel they are imposing canned music on us but that it is for our benefit and without it we might not survive. Ask them to turn it down and watch the bemused expressions; they regard it like water in a desert, essential not superfluous.
But being sensitive to the sounds and silence in and around us is actually being ourselves, and beginning to understand ourselves and the world we live in directly, at first hand. It enables us to discover what lies beyond action and reaction.
The world of the listener is quiet and radiant, and wordlessly bids us enter.
1 ‘After rejecting the twenty-four methods (of enlightenment) which were not suitable for untrained minds, Manjushri chose the one followed by Avalokiteshvara, which he praised as the most convenient for people on this earth. It consisted in disengaging the organ of hearing from its object, sound, and then directing that organ into the stream of concentration.’ (Charles Luk, Secrets of Chinese Meditation, from the Surangama Sutra, pp. 16-17, 32.)
First published in the 2006 Buddhism Now