The past few mornings, Angie and I have been having one of our philosophical conversations. About who we are, where we are going, what we really want, and about how to find the answers to these vexatious questions. Having made time to think about it for a few days I said; “There’s a one word answer to all of what we’ve been discussing.”
“What’s that?” She asked.
“Discrimination.” I replied. Which seems a bit glib until you actually put it in context.
One of the things I practice now and again is a little something picked up from Lyall Watson’s ‘Gifts of unknown things‘. Lyall described what some might describe as paranormal abilities displayed by the islanders he lived with at the time. He wrote about fishermen who could stick their head underwater to hear where the fish were, by ‘listening between the sounds’. As Lyall observed, the sea is a very noisy place, and understanding what each sound means is a complex business. Essentially what he described is an old hunters trick, which is to simply stand absolutely still and listen. Letting the consciousness spread. Paying attention to what can be heard, putting it in context. Applying a where, what and when to each individual noise.
For a city dweller, who hears mainly Traffic noise, the art is the same; to dissect and recognise sounds from a tumult. The bass rumble of a truck, the snap-snap-snap of a loose cargo strap in a vehicles slipstream. Shouts, horns, voices, snatches of conversation. The grumble-whoosh of the subway, grunt-squeal whistle and whine-thump of buses as they stop and their doors open. Snatches of sounds from open windows and shop doorways. The noise gravel stuck in tyre treads makes on ashphalt. How far away is it, what direction is it in? Which way is it going? Does it pose a threat? The same principle of listening applies. Hint; it is wise not to try this on pedestrian crossings at first until you can listen on the move and still pay attention to your immediate surroundings.
This is only some of the music the world makes all around us, all of the time. Like single melodies in an orchestral score, it takes an educated ear to separate them out. Where the uneducated can only hear the overall sound, the trained ear can pick up a dissonance in a heartbeat. At first, to be able to do this seems insuperable, the wall of sound is too high, too wide and deep. Yet to eat this metaphorical elephant simply requires a slow but sure ‘one bite at a time’ approach.
The good news is that people come with this ability built in as a feature, courtesy of several million years of evolution. The bad news is that like all vices, it takes practice and patience to perfect. Some people will never learn because they are afraid of silence, impatient with the enormity of the task, failing to appreciate is that there is no such thing as absolute silence. Others will pick up the skill without a thought and look surprised when others ask “How do you do that?”
All that is required is the motivation to sit quietly and open oneself up to the world, to drink it all in, take pleasure in learning a new ability. Learn that there is no such thing as silence. Even in the quietest moments your pulsing bloodflow thunders in your ears, breath rasps in your nose and throat. A leaf falls ten, twenty, thirty feet away. Air flowing makes noise, anything moving makes a sound, a tiny careening of air molecules spreading out to trigger a response. Caught by the pinnae, transmitted to inner ears via the tympanum and malleus, incus and stapes, tiny little bones forming a linkage to the inner ear and sensory nerves. So incredibly delicate and sensitive is this apparatus that anyone can train themself to hear all manner of things in the sounds between the noise.
Where to begin? With your favourite piece of music, your most loved sounds. Which bit do you like most? focus in on that one musical phrase. Which notes does it contain played on what instruments? How is it played? Now what are the surrounding musical phrases harmonies, beats and melodies? Once this is learned, moving to more complicated listening becomes easier. All it takes is practice.
The same principles can be applied to the other senses. Smell and taste can be similarly trained. Even sight. Being observant takes practice and time, but these are skills well worth developing, no matter what your time of life. Plato wrote in his dialogues that Socrates said; “the unexamined life is not worth living”. To examine life, we must practice sensory discrimination, like Lyall described in his book. This is the process I call ‘a quantum of Zen’, and oddly enough, anyone can do it. Anyone at all. No Zen master required.
We can all learn to discriminate, and in the process find out what we really want from life. I suppose you could call it part of the art of becoming truly human.