2010s: Exercises in Listening Seven meditations to facilitate contemporary listening

"New Horizon" by ƝƖƇƠ ƬƖMΣ ™

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series


“I don’t think bells ask questions.”
-Mary Ruefle

Introduction

I don’t believe that the last decade can be easily summed up. I do believe, however, that how we listen has changed to some degree. We can quantify this and analyze this, but only insofar as we can define listening — and it’s not clear that we will ever have a shared definition. To listen to something is, inherently, to ascribe value to it, and we are living in increasingly devalued times. That said, however you define listening, there is evidence enough that we listen less than more (even while hearing more than ever before). Fortunately, the effects of this decade can be entered into contemplatively. The recommended meditations below are some suggestions for doing so.

In many ways, these meditations are sequential, and each one assumes the “growth” that the previous meditation provided. In other ways, these meditations are non-sequential and assume nothing about where you’re at or who you should be while reading them. (You’ve blessedly made it this far without my help!) They are not all-or-nothing. They are not designed as a spiritual program. Rather, they’re intended to facilitate listening to contemporary music and, through a larger reach, contemporary humans and non-humans, things, and, loosely speaking, nothing at all.

Lastly, to the extent that these meditations privilege something like “silence” is a foundational, rather than a day-to-day, concern. It’s true, daily life can’t be lived without some foundation, but foundations are not inextricable from daily life either. At best, I think, we can hope for more moments of coherence than less. For the first time, this decade, I learned to hear myself positioned between two chickadees and their babies. I listened to the variations in their chips as they flew above and away from me. I listened to them tell me about myself in relation to them. It was not a happy story or an unhappy story. But, in the end, regardless, it felt like a small victory over my own tendencies.

Meditation 1: Laying Down

Wherever you are in this moment, whatever your posture, simply stop. To stop is to cut the thoughts wandering through your mind, to relax your focus and ease the tensions in your body. It may seem abrasive, and in this respect it is not in itself sustainable. But at the beginning, wherever you are and whatever you are, you must stop in order to proceed. To proceed, breathe in deeply through your nostrils, counting in a silent, slow rhythm. Hold your breath for a few seconds, relax your facial muscles into a soft smile, exhale slowly through your mouth. Your eyes may be open or closed, although you may find that it is easier, at first, to keep your eyes closed. Your eyes, it’s true, listen. Images projected inward create a kind of noise, inarticulate and scattered. With your eyes closed, it is easier to begin to hear. You have only your thoughts to quiet. As you breathe, lay your thoughts down. As they float up, gently lay them down again. Let them fall deeper with each exhalation. As they fall, you will become attuned to other senses. Begin listening. Without judgment, listen to the sounds around you. You may be in a room, or on the bus, or outside. You may be sitting up or lying down. Eventually, it will become easier to be anywhere. For now, just breathe and listen. You are amidst the source of all sounds, a tremendous gift.

Meditation 2: Decentering

Go outside. Find somewhere comfortable to sit. While sitting, close your eyes and allow the muscles in your face to soften into a smile. Inhale slowly through your nostrils, briefly hold your breath, and exhale slowly through your mouth. As you sit, begin to listen to the sounds around you. You may hear languages, words you know and words you don’t know. You may hear the sounds of birds or other animals. You may hear the sounds of machines, low hums, reverberating pressure, the sounds of speed. In fact, you may hear nothing discernible at first, or simply the slight wisps of wind through the trees, or water carrying through the distance. Listen to these sounds without judgment. When associations rise in your thoughts, smile at them and let them gently scatter. As you sit, as you breathe, relax your ears with each exhalation. Allow even quieter sounds to take shape in your senses. They are there, and there, and there, too. With each exhalation, rest in sound’s thereness. Even sounds that come from your body — the beating of your heart, the sound of your breathing, your stomach rumbling and creaking — are not you, but have a presence, there, in your body. Listen for the sounds that you cannot hear, cellular and synaptic. As noisy thoughts pass through your meditation, imagine their actual silence. As your skin silently sheds itself, imagine its quiet falling to earth. Listen to all that remains; it is not you.

Meditation 3: Gratitude

This meditation requires that you listen to music aloud, without headphones, so that noises in the background remain unimpeded. Put on any sequence of songs. Find somewhere to sit or lie down that is comfortable. Adjust the light, if possible, to diminish the definition of the objects around you. Press play and close your eyes. Whatever your posture, begin inhaling deeply through your nostrils and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Allow the exhalation to gently form a soft smile. If there is any other tension in your face, allow it, too, to relax into a soft smile. Allow this smile to settle as you relax. As you breathe, the music will begin to present itself to you. As you begin to notice the music, listen without judgment. If thoughts or associations arise, allow your exhalations to settle them. With each inhalation, breathe in a new aspect of the music’s presence:

begin with the sounds, themselves; with each exhalation, thank the sounds
then, the musicians; with each exhalation, thank the musicians
then, the technologies that allow for production and consumption of the music; with each exhalation, thank the technologies and its laborers (especially those who suffer)
then, the energy that allows you to listen to recorded music aloud; with each exhalation, thank the earth and its laborers (especially those who suffer)

In truth, this chain of gratitude is itself like a breath. You may ascend it even further than this (consider even greater “chains of production”), and you may descend it even further than this (consider the particles of sound themselves, or the unique acoustics in which you’re hearing, the shape of home). As you breathe and thank, allow, without judgment, domestic sounds to show themselves and pass away. With each exhalation, thank these interruptions, too. As the sequence ends and the meditation closes, continue to keep your eyes shut, continue to breathe and to thank. Allow yourself, at last, to hear how the materiality of the song and the world intertwine.

Meditation 4: Release, digital (in three parts)

a. This meditation requires that you sit, open eyed, in front of your computer. Sit in a comfortable posture, and begin to pay attention to your breaths. Casually, breathe in deeply through your nostrils. Casually, exhale deeply through your mouth. Allow each exhalation to gently hold a soft smile. Open up the application or drive on which you store music. Slowly scroll through the music that you have saved, with consideration only for volume of files. As you scroll, continue to casually breathe deeply, and with each exhalation give thanks for what you have been entrusted with on this earth. Give thanks for the time in which we are alive, in which we can amass such personal libraries. As you scroll, give thanks for the immateriality of files; and give thanks to the earth, which provides the energy for such storage, which provides the minerals and metals for your device, and which provides the final resting place for what is here. When you’ve at last scrolled to the bottom, sit for several minutes in stillness, open eyed. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind without judgment, but let them gently scatter with each exhalation.

b. This meditation should take place after the above meditation, but not immediately. It also requires that you sit, open eyed, in front of your computer. Sit in a comfortable posture, and begin, again, to pay attention to your breaths. Casually, breathe in deeply through your nostrils. Casually, exhale deeply through your mouth. Allow each exhalation to gently hold a soft smile. Open up the application or drive on which you store music. With each inhalation, consider the gift of breathing in. Consider that, now, there is enough oxygen to breathe. Consider the ways in which we are gifted, moment by moment, with what we need. We exist in a network of unthought and exuberant perpetual giving every time that we breathe. With each exhalation, consider the gift of breathing out. Consider that, now, our bodies regulate themselves. Consider the ways in which we are gifted, moment by moment, by what we give. We exist in a network of unthought and exuberant perpetual giving every time that we breathe. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind without judgment, but let them gently scatter with each exhalation.

c. This meditation should take place after the above meditation, but not immediately. It also requires that you sit, open eyed, in front of your computer. Sit in a comfortable posture, and begin, again, to pay attention to your breaths. For several minutes, with each inhalation, chant “gift” in your mind. For several minutes, with each exhalation, chant “thank you” in your mind and allow a soft smile to form gently. Like our lives, the gifts that we give and that we receive are transient. Our bodies will one day no longer inhale or exhale, except perhaps in their most unconscious and mechanical decomposing states. Our pleasure in accepting the inherent giftedness of living ought to be far greater than the pleasure we experience in consuming and collecting, but this is not often the case. The earth depends on our resources as much as we depend on the earth’s, but this relationship has been imbalanced for far too long. Even our digital archives take resources without giving anything back. Open up the application or drive on which you store music. Proceed, incrementally, with deliberate slowness. With each inhalation and exhalation, examine the file or folder before you. With each inhalation, chant “gift.” With each exhalation, chant “thank you.” With deep thankfulness, consider the file or folder. Let recollections and associations pass by without judgment, but with each breath gently usher your thoughts back to the present moment. Ask yourself: is there life to be be lived in this file or folder? If so, move on to the next. If not, ask yourself: am I holding on to what has already passed, like a breath long gone? If so, delete the object. You may stop at any time. You may skip objects at any time, for any reason, after any answer. The goal is not purification by subtraction, but is simply the easing of a burden. What is enough? Chant “gift” with each inhalation and “thank you” with each exhalation.

Meditation 5: Release, physical

This meditation requires a degree of faith that can only be discovered after the fact. In this respect, it is like Duchamp’s comet, with its tail in front. Even so. This meditation is not dependent on any posture or manner of breathing. It only requires that you look upon your physical music collection, select from your music collection a significant percentage of objects or varying meaning and value, and selling these objects — for a profit or at a loss. Give all money that you’ve received to those in need.

Meditation 6: Missing Out

You may practice this meditation wherever you are, at any time, without any consequence. For later understanding, it might be useful to keep a pen and notebook on hand. You may be sitting, standing in line, waiting for a train, or perhaps, frighteningly, even driving or walking. You will get the impulse to pull out your phone or open your laptop to see what has been happening. This impulse has not always been — or if it has been, it has existed in a different, often healthier mode. You will feel a need to be up to date with an event, a conversation, or often with something far more ambiguous and undefinable. You will have a sense that you’re missing something. When this feeling comes, acknowledge it without judgment. (If you have a pen and notebook, write down the impulse before acting upon it.) Recognize its presence, even if its source remains ambiguous. Show kindness to it. Before acting upon it, breathe deeply. Exhaling, allow a gentle smile to form. Smile upon all your unknowing: all that you will not know in total, all that you believe that you know but truly do not know, and all that you will never know. Smile at your folly, at your perceived omniscience. Smile, too, at all you are missing, although you know not what it is exactly. Without knowing, continue breathing. In this moment, allow what is present to return to your senses. Above all, listen to what is there. In this ambience, continue breathing. There may already be much around you that were already missing out on. There will be precious sounds far more limited than those editions that already sold out while you were breathing. There will be precious life around you that remains present, but neglected and unthought. Whether or not you finally act on the impulse to check your phone or computer is, at this moment, inconsequential. At this moment, you will — only increasingly — be able to understand its presence. In fact, nothing was ever missing.

Meditation 7: Writing a Review (nine questions)

In whatever manner you’ve absorbed the music (with preference for the meditations above), now sit down to write. There are no requirements for this meditation, but it is recommended that you sit comfortably and, through deliberate breathing, make yourself present to the page. It is also recommended that the page is expanded to fill your field of vision, that the blank lies before you. In writing about a piece of music, it’s recommended that you ask any nine questions. Below are some recommendations:

1. If language and music struggle to correspond, must I then write about myself?
2. If language, music, and myself struggle to correspond, must I then write about others?
3. If language, music, myself, and others struggle to correspond, must I then write about ideas?
4. If my ideas come to arise in a failure of correspondences, then do they become music?
5. What was I listening to again?
6. In this moment, how is it that questions come to precede the words they’re made of?
7. In this moment, is this blank space already sufficient?
8.
9. Is this the last word that I will write?

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series


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