By Lou Bunk
I really like Annea Lockwood’s work “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River.” An excerpt and brief description can be found here:
When I play this for my First Year Inquiry (FYI) class, I ask them to answer 3 questions:
- What do you observe?
- Do you like it?
- How do the above two questions (and answers) relate to and influence each other?
Mindful Listening is the theme in my section of FYI, a course all freshmen are required to take at Franklin Pierce University, where I teach. Each instructor develops a unique theme that provides a curricular focus for a course that also covers topics like: how to write a research paper, study for a test, register for classes, plan your future, etc. FYI is also a quasi-homeroom, so the students have more of a bond with each other than in most classes. This dynamic is fruitful to engage.
The first mindfulness lesson in FYI starts by asking the students to sit intentionally and observe their breath for one, two and three minute intervals. This mindful breathing is challenging for some, while others, who have some past experience, seem to ease right into it. I ask the students “what happened?” and “what did you hear?” The responses are diverse; some describe the external sounds in the room (fidgeting, heater buzz, doors closing), while others describe the internal sounds of the mind’s churning thoughts, distracting to the point where the breath and exercise is lost.
Next, I play a quiet tremolo on a gong for 2 minutes, and talk about how mindful breathing may change the way we perceive it. I gently guide the discussion toward how mindfulness and the quieting of inner thoughts can help us focus on the intricacies of the sound, so we can hear more clearly the gong as it is.
Can we extend mindful listening beyond sound, to words and actions, and the meanings we perceive? Listening can be a powerful metaphor for paying close attention to the world around us, near and far, like the media, the environment, and the people we love. Perhaps dampening our own thoughts can help us better understand what others are trying to communicate, by more clearly hearing the noise in words, biases and circumstances.
Soon after, in a subsequent class, I play a video of Pauline Oliveros giving a Ted Talk called The Difference between Listening and Hearing, which is linked below.
Again, I engage the students with questions and discussion, steering us back to the gong and the breathing, detangling listening and hearing (as Oliverios describes) through our shared experiences with mindfulness. We sometimes dwell on this quote from Oliveros:
“Deep Listening for me is learning to expand perception of sounds to include the whole space-time continuum of sound, encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible. Simultaneously one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds perceiving the beginning middle and end as a focus. Such focus and expansion means that one is connected to the whole of the environment and beyond.”
Sometimes it is helpful to pose questions to students at the beginning of class without much context. For example, in FYI I eventually get around to asking “Does individuality exist?” Open questions like this can go off the rails pretty quick, and sometimes with interesting outcomes. Through this question, together we naturally traverse many aspects of the course: listening, bias, the purpose of education, career, etc. At the right moment, I propose this chart and ask if it is accurate.
We share experiences that exemplify the relationships between the layers; you to family/friends, you to your communities (school, hometown, workplace) and you to the world (government, media, corporations). This past year I shared my recent experience buying a house, describing how I listened to friends and family for practical advice (getting free moving boxes, paint colors, what to do with kids!), listened to my community to help pick a good location (school system, neighborhood vibe and viability), and listened to the larger world for economic and political insights (interests rates, changing tax laws, climate change).
Questions arise: is it accurate to put “you” at the center of this chart? From the individual’s perspective, perhaps, but if viewed from space is this what we see? Are these layers in the chart so parsed, or conversely, does listening form an interconnectedness between self and other, making the strata not so disparate? Indeed, this interconnectedness (listening) goes both ways, right? And so, I might also reverse the perspective (of the chart) and consider what impact buying a house has on my family, my community and my world? And are these questions as important as how the outer layers affect me? Perhaps by listening carefully, and quieting my own roiling thoughts, I can make a decision that is helpful for all the layers in both directions? If there is value in generalizing this outlook, then maybe we don’t need a “you” on this chart, because through listening, the “you” dissolves into the middle bands, which in turn dissolve into the world.
Eventually, when we are all properly confused, I put a big X through the entire chart and ask the students to participate in mindful breathing for 3 minutes. After, I ask what role individuality or “self” plays in observing (listening to) the breath. Is it “you” that distracts (or is distracted?) from a clear perception of air coming in and out through “your” nose, its sensual and timbral intricacies, its tempo and its pitch? If self (as a concept) gets in the way of observing the breath, can it get in the way of listening to the world around us, or listening to music?
If you are so inclined, I invite you to sit quietly, and with intention, to observe your breathing for 3 minutes.
So, do you like Lockwood’s piece? Is what you observe in it influenced by what you like or don’t like? Is it helpful or even possible to put aside your likes when listening to a composition by your peer, the political opinion of your neighbor, an article in the newspaper, or the dreams and concerns of a rising generation? Perhaps careful, attentive, mindful listening, without purpose, bias or motive, is the obliteration of self, and is a state of being that is becoming the world.