There are many ways to ground ourselves in presence.
We might walk slowly and mindfully, meditate on the breath, focus on sensations within the body or place our attention on an object in the environment.
Some might be instructed to recite mantras and visualize the world as sacred. While the list of mindfulness and awareness tools and methods is long and perhaps getting longer, the underlying issues they are intended to address can be simplified into one simple phrase: basic anxiety. Likewise, “All dharmas agree at one point,” as is said, and that point is “egolessness.”
Mindfulness sooner or later draws us in to a place of rest where mind operates with less anxiety and, therefore, less distraction. Once such a base is established, it is enough to simply observe how the wind blows and people move, how animals interact and so on. We find we can listen with an open heart and not think too much or feel we have to analyze every little thing. We are content to simply let things be as they are. Without a finish line to cross, we can settle and feel truly grounded—steadfast in the present moment.
To be steadfast in the present moment means to step off the carousel of time and cast away our neurotic slavery to insecurities. As this sense of freedom dawns, we find a home in nowness. Even within a world of endless commotion, it is possible to return to an abiding stillness. Of course, it is helpful if our environment is relatively quiet, but if birds sing and dogs bark or if clouds stream across the sky, so be it.
In the practice of listening mind, the wind, dogs, crows, trucks and all manner of sounds become supports for wakefulness. Sanity that is dependent on finding physical stillness in the external world is already very feeble. Perhaps we don’t need to travel great distances or arrange long vacations in search of a place of peace. The point of listening mind is to tap in to the stillness that exists, even within the chaos of daily life. So slip into listening mode and wake up!
Isn’t it wonderful that behind all the hustle and bustle there is something we can tune into that remains eternally unaffected by thinking or external activity? Tibetans talk of the “space that cannot be punctured by an arrow.” That space is stillness. Time passes through it, but leaves no trace. Things come and go, sounds arise and disperse, but it always persists as ‘now’. This ‘sonorous voice of silence’ is nothing more than the sincere immediacy of the present moment.
Sounds can be measured in terms of wave frequency, decibel levels and duration, but the depth of underlying stillness is unmeasurable by any metric. Thoughts arise, dwell and subside like waves on the ocean, but beneath the surface they have little impact. All movements and vibrations are temporary guests, but stillness is the great universal host. likewise, gaps in your mind do not displace thoughts, they host them.
Listening to stillness allows us a refreshing diversion from discursiveness. However, listening practice is not to be viewed as an escape. It is, in fact, the opposite of escaping. It is facing reality head on—embracing it fully, without conditions. Ego always looks forward to achieving something. However, what happens if there is nothing to achieve? What happens if we give up the driving ambition to achieve emotional comfort or maintain any particular state? Drop in to listening mind and explore simplicity.
As we gradually settle into the background of stillness, we react less and less to thoughts. At some point, we might notice a subtle shift whereby the background becomes foreground and vice-versa. Thinking mind is still somewhat active but as we enter presence our fixations drop away—sanity awaits us.
As a practice, relaxing into listening mind is somewhat intentional, but we don’t need to make it a big deal. We can simply rest in non-grasping curiosity. Listening to silence teaches us that all sound is immediate, and that by adjusting our attention we can make a sound foreground or background. It becomes obvious that periods of intensity as well as periods of no sound stand out like islands in an endless sea of occurrence, but there is no need to lead or follow any of it. We can simply appreciate the view that all we ever hear or know are the breezes of nowness flowing through a vast field of stillness. Then, maybe it dawns on us that we are that field. Without forging that deeper connection to silence we lack access to the expansive mind of compassion.
When an accomplished musician plays a musical instrument or sings a song, he or she is not frantically trying to get to the end of the piece; their goal is just to express each note as purely as possible as the song unfurls. If the point of playing music were simply to get to the end, it would make no sense to play. Music played with the enjoyment of the present moment invites us into listening mind. In music, art, dance, meditation or any other truly grounding endeavor, the path merges with the goal.
Meditative discipline is a delicate matter. The thinking mind would like to own the field of stillness as if it were just another piece of psycho-spiritual real estate. Listening mind doesn’t have that issue. The instant we try to achieve a preconceived state of peace through our practice, we are burdened by what Suzuki Roshi called “gaining idea,” or what Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.” The impulse to construct any form of subtle identity through practice is the flip side of openly accepting things as they are and again we have chosen anxiety over egolessness.
Listening practice is simple and always close-at-hand. One could see it as a momentary return to Square One, repeated over and over. We do not need to chase away sounds or thoughts; we simply need to learn to trust in their impermanence. We may need to turn down the volume on the radio, or shut the window, but the real silence we seek is already there.
Author: Roger Guest
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Hartwig HKD