Direct experience of sounds

Our everyday idea of hearing, the way we think of it, is that sounds from their causes come to our ears and are heard. That seems obvious, but when we try to notice merely the experience of hearing, we find that we filter the experience through that knowledge – through physics, biology, and identification of the source-object.

So we ‘hear’ a bird, a car, a lawnmower, or tinnitus in our ears; we ‘know’ the sounds as outside ourselves, or the tinnitus as in our ears. This is a conceptualised experience, it’s “think-hearing”. Can we appreciate sound in a more direct way?

I recall a demo of loudspeakers in which a man played a saxophone to the audience, then put the sax down – and the music played on. He had only been miming, to speakers behind a curtain. People thought they heard the sax they saw, but they didn’t, it was just a sound. In meditation we may be able to ‘tune into’ the whole spectrum of sounds we hear, and see them as just sound – like I had to do as a sound recordist monitoring through headphones while on location.

silent picture

When we do this, we find that we do not have a head. Ringing “in our ears” is just a sound, no different in that way from any apparently ’caused’ sound (apparently) ‘outside’. I say we don’t have a head because we don’t hear an inside and outside, there is just sound. We can notice this if we play music on earphones – there’s not really a band inside our head, it just sounds like that. We do not hear a head, we hear sounds which can appear to be anywhere, so to decide they are inside or outside us is to impose concepts upon our experience.

And sound has a spacious quality, it’s not all heard as being in the same place. Notice this space – does it have a size, a boundary? It is actually the same space as the visual space you find if you open your eyes? When we conceptually identify sounds we connect them with what we’re seeing, how artificial is that?

If we can let go into the direct experience of sound, we are glimpsing the non-conceptual, and we can notice the subtle and almost immediate way that concepts then appear, to ‘make sense’ of the sounds. (In fact, hearing a sound we cannot conceptualise, we don’t know what it “is”, can be disturbing, can’t it?) So we have a ‘foot in the door’ of the non-conceptual, from where we can notice the mind’s concept-making.

We can realise the way our concepts of what a sound “is” come bundled with the idea that they are “me” or “not-me”, they come as a subject-object assumption, a me-separate-from-world view.

See also The Experience of Seeing

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