The Sound of Not So Silent

The sound of silence is a meditation technique made popular by Ajahn Sumedho, but for many of us learning to deal with the not so silent in the world is a significant part of our practice. I learnt to meditate while I was living in a flat across the road from a pub. My flat was on the top storey, and seemed to have no kind of insulation, or soundproofing in it at all. The pub would have an all night party about once a month, or a karaoke night, and would every so often set up their PA system in their car park to have live bands and a barbecue, just outside my window. Though the music was of many genres, it was always very, very loud.

My flat was in a bustling town where the roads were always busy, and one of the main roads was outside my house. In fact for many months there were roadworks outside my window too, and the temporary traffic lights meant there were cars with their engines running and radios playing outside for most of the day.

The backing track to most of my meditations was stationary traffic. Despite this I was still able to learn how to meditate; in fact it was probably quite useful because I never had the opportunity to associate meditation with being something that required a quiet place to do it in.

But despite being able to learn to meditate with all that racket going on, it still didn’t change an issue that I have had as long as I can remember. There’s something about certain sounds that immediately set me on edge, like nails being bitten, food being eaten noisily, TVs, and loud music.

The impact of these kinds of noise on me isn’t mere irritation, it makes me feel extremely edgy and agitated. I was interested to find out a few years ago that I wasn’t the only person who had this experience:

“Does hearing someone chew with their mouth open upset you or make you angry? What about gum chewing, crinkling, or constant tapping? Do those noises bother you more than other people? If so, you may feel that you need to escape those sounds. There’s a word for this problem. It’s called misophonia.”

Anyone who has this experience knows just how uncomfortable it can make your life, and how torturous life can be sometimes. Living across the road from the pub was like living in a circle of my own personal hell; the only thing that got me through it was a pair of noise cancelling headphones and the fact that it was only about once a month that I had to endure their merry making.

The more I practiced, the more I knew that sound was just sound, and that I should be able to learn how to tolerate it, but for some reason I just didn’t ever seem to make a dent in it. It was my Achilles heel, everything else I had learned to sit with, but this I couldn’t budge. I had learnt to tolerate so many other discomforts through my practice, yet I was always confused as to why nothing anyone suggested made any difference. I felt like I must be doing something wrong, but I could never figure out what it was.

When Ajahn Chah was a monk living in a village in Thailand, he too experienced a lot of irritation at the levels of noise during festivals. It was common at that time for villages to get hold of a PA system to play music all day during times of celebration:

“One time, Ajahn Chah was quietly meditating up on the mountain while there was a festival going on down in the village. All the local folk songs and pop music were amplified throughout the area. Ajahn Chah was sitting there seething and thinking, “Don’t they realize all the bad karma involved in disturbing my meditation? They know I’m up here. After all, I’m their teacher. Haven’t they learned anything? And what about the five precepts? I bet they’re boozing and out of control…

Well, they’re just having a good time down there. I’m making myself miserable up here. No matter how upset I get, my anger is just making more noise internally.” And then he had this insight: “Oh, the sound is just the sound. It’s me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won’t annoy me. It’s just doing what it has to do. That’s what sound does. It makes sound. This is its job. So if I don’t go out and bother the sound, it’s not going to bother me.”

P67 Small Boat, Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu

I knew this teaching well, but even when I didn’t go out to bother the noise it still felt like it was coming to bother me. I would tell myself that sound wasn’t a thing, was just compressed air, but that made no difference either.

Practices on accepting and allowing things to be just as they are didn’t help either. This excerpt from one of Ajahn Sumedho’s Dhamma talks is typical of the kinds of ways that people can change how they feel about a situation and then become able to tolerate it:

“Last winter, Venerable Vipassi was meditating in the shrine room and someone was making quite distracting noises. Talking to Venerable Vipassi about it, I was quite impressed, because he said first he felt annoyed and then he decided the noises would be part of the practice. So, he opened his mind to the meditation hall with everything in it – the noises, the silence, the whole thing. That’s wisdom, isn’t it? If the noise is something you can stop – like a door banging in the wind – go close the door. If there’s something you have control over, you can do that.
But much of life you have no control over. You have no right to ask everything to be silent for ‘my’ meditation. When there is reflectiveness, instead of having a little mind that has to have total silence and special conditions, you have a big mind that can contain the whole of it: the noises, the disruptions, the silence, the bliss, the restlessness, the pain. The mind is all-embracing rather than specialising on a certain refinement in consciousness. Then you develop flexibility, because you can concentrate your mind.” Ajahn Sumedho Only One Breath

I was able to do this with other sounds – I had no problem with cars, birds, machinery, or doors creaking – but nothing ever seemed to change when it came to my bogey sounds. I was trying to allow the sound, and even trying to allow myself to be okay with the body feeling uncomfortable, but the allowing still made no difference for me, I felt as tense and uncomfortable as ever.

It took me a long time to figure out why it was that I wasn’t able to just allow the sound as part of the experience around me, but I eventually came to understand that it was triggering a threat response in my sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response. Once it was triggered, there was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t think my way out of it. I had been able to allow plenty of things that I had found annoying, but still that split second reaction to sound that triggered my threat response meant that I was too uncomfortable to think clearly once it was activated.

This made me feel lost, for a long time I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to do about it. Somehow I needed the initial response to not happen, but I had no idea how to do that. I continued to suffer a huge amount of discomfort when I was exposed to the sounds that bothered me, and continued to be perplexed about why I couldn’t find a way to change it through practice. I could console myself with the knowledge that what I was experiencing wasn’t permanent and would end at some point, but it was still extremely uncomfortable.

I wasn’t thinking about my problems with noise when I was doing an experiment in listening to music a couple of weeks ago. I was trying to see if I could listen to music as just noise – trying to see if I could hear through the illusion of notes and sounds as being a whole ‘thing’, a piece of music, rather than a collection of parts.

Even though I chose a very gentle piece of music, the first thing I noticed was that it triggered a subtle alert response. This was my own music, one of my favourite things to listen to, and yet it still had this effect on me. I listened on, and in time my body returned to its normal state. I thought nothing more of this, other than thinking that perhaps it isn’t as relaxing to listen to music as I thought it was.

A couple of days later my neighbours had their builders in working on their house. The first few times they had been working it wasn’t so bad, but on this particular day they had everything set up in my neighbours’ driveway, which is right outside my window. I hadn’t been too bothered by them in the morning, but when I came back to the room after lunch something had shifted – either in me or in the volume of their radio.

The sound was now impossible to ignore, and it was creating double the discomfort because I was drowsy and needed a short nap. I stuck my sound cancelling headphones on and found a quiet corner to rest in. As I was drifting to sleep I thought about my experience, and pondered over why I was being effected by the noise.

I had tried to listen to the sounds as just sound, in the same way that I had in my experiment a few days earlier but it didn’t make a difference. But I remembered that in my experiment I had noticed that even my own music triggered a threat response, so it occurred to me that my body’s response to all music was to flag it up as a threat. But when it was my own music I was able to over ride the alarm, yet I wasn’t clear how I had been able to do this.

I thought about it for a while and I saw that when the sound was caused by someone else I believed the alarm response that came up, I treated it as a real threat. When it was my own music I could see there was no threat, so I didn’t pay attention to those feelings and they went away. So when it was someone else’s music I did believe the feelings, and I did pay attention to them, so the feeling would stay.
Even though I felt pretty confident that this was the answer, I didn’t feel like testing my theory on that day. I kept my headphones on and did some writing for the rest of the afternoon. I knew the builders would be back soon enough; I had had enough disturbance for one day.

Sure enough the builders returned this week, with everything set out in the driveway again. I was a little disappointed with them for a while though, even with my window open their radio wasn’t loud enough to cause me a great deal of disturbance. Initially my body did throw up a few trigger responses, but I told myself that I didn’t need to believe there was a threat and I let the feelings dissipate. Soon the quiet radio wasn’t bothering me at all.

I wasn’t disappointed for too long, when I came back to my room after lunch they had the radio turned up nice and loud. I settled in for some extended exposure. I had already noticed that my physical response to the music wasn’t being triggered any more, but it still wasn’t a comfortable experience to be in that environment. It seemed that most of the work I was doing now was on my mind.

I was able to hold my attention in the place I wanted it to be most of the time, and I got on with my writing. But it felt like I was having to hold my mind away from having grumpy thoughts about the noise. ‘God its so loud’, it would chime in every few minutes, but I studiously made sure that I didn’t follow that line of thinking. I just acknowledged the thought, told myself it was fine, and got on with what I was doing.

This was quite a repetitive process, because my mind would say something grumpy with some regularity, and I would tell myself it was fine and get back to not being bothered by the noise.
The set list seemed to be 90s – 00s dance music, occasionally one of my favourite tunes that I hadn’t heard for years came on and I had the interesting experience of watching my mind switch between saying annoyed things about how loud the music was, and saying ‘great tune!’. Analysing my experience I could see that even though the mind kept poking and prodding at displeasure, there were just as many times when I either wasn’t bothered by the music or I was actually enjoying some of the tunes.

I’d love to be writing about how I had gotten to a point of perfect equanimity in the midst of the blaring club classics, and now felt like I was completely over the problem, but that didn’t happen. Bearing in mind that dislike of sounds has been one of my most distressing and persistent issues, to have sat right in the middle of loud dance music for several hours with only some quibbles from my mind to deal with was quite an achievement.

Admittedly it was quite ambitious to work on writing while sitting in (what felt like) an Ibiza nightclub, but for me it was a useful challenge. Writing is exactly the kind of activity that my mind would use as a reasonable sounding excuse to a) avoid doing because it was noisy, and b) complain about the noise because how can anyone write with all that racket going on? As a story, I needed to not let the mind get away with it if it wasn’t actually true.

My writing wasn’t great that day, but actually most other people would also struggle to write well under those circumstances. There are no famous authors I know of who sit in nightclubs with their laptops because it is the best environment to write in. I wasn’t trying to become the first person in the world to write a book at a rave after all, I was working on my own reactions to sounds and I certainly made some progress.

It hasn’t been a miraculous cure, but it is the first time that I have found a way to deal with that initial reaction to sounds as a threat, and has allowed me to then work on the mental aspect of sound of the types talked about by Ajahn Chah and Sumedho.

Just like last week when I believed I was dealing with a hoverfly instead of a wasp, changing the way I perceived something completely changed my experience. It took many years of digging but I found that the misperception for me wasn’t in the sound itself, but the way I responded to the feelings it created. By accepting the threat response as real I had no way to deal with it other than to fight or run. By not accepting the threat response I was able instead to allow it stop.

Our entire experience is overlaid with perceptions and conceptual ideas, and often we don’t realise that the problem isn’t the thing itself but the ideas that we have built up around it, or the feelings that it triggers. That is where practice is particularly useful for creating transformation, by uncovering the real root of an issue and helping to find a lasting solution. So any time you spend examining your perceptions is always useful, because at any moment you might uncover the answer to something that has been bothering you for years.

Photo by Pedro Martin on Unsplash

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