Learning to hear again

Our world is full of music. Filled with it. But you will have to learn to hear this music. Or rather, you will have to unlearn the annoying and persistent habit of listening so that you can hear again. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Listening is what you’ve been taught. Listening is seeking meaning behind the sounds. Hearing is the older and more primitive use of your ears. And by now you will have just about forgotten how to hear.

You can practice the ancient art of hearing by paying attention to the sounds of people talking in a crowded room. You will hear the buzz of their voices but will not understand many of the words. This is hearing. And the sound of a herd of humans vocalizing is a lovely thing.

If you can learn to hear again, you will find music in the interplay of the sounds around you. What surprising syncopation. What strange harmonies. Gravitational bodies abound, pushing and shoving. Tides roll in and out. But it is hard to stay in rhythm with the vibrating forces of sound. It is so tempting to try and listen. So easy to forget and find yourself looking for meaning. It is such a familiar thing for us to leave the garden and seek the Tree of Knowledge.

If you are keen to embrace hearing, I highly recommend the Quaker meetinghouse in San Antonio where the Friends gather on Sunday mornings. Behold the delightful collection of instruments in their orchestra:

A heavy door that guards the way into the room. Thankfully it is not a door that opens silently, so it announces every pilgrim who arrives.

A wooden floor. It is a relatively new floor, so not terribly creaky. But it amplifies the solid thumps of footsteps in a lovely way. Very good floor sounds at the meetinghouse. Kind of rounded and solid and wooden with a nice bit of clump to them.

The wooden pews have been around awhile, so they are broken in and pew nicely.

Old and young people, those who have not yet entered or have now left the middle years of shame. The young fidget and whisper and dance their fingers across anything at hand. The old wear heavy shoes and shuffle across the floor without a care. They cough and clear their throats with no apology.

Outside are birds aplenty, for the Friends value nature and have left the area around the meetinghouse somewhat wild. And sometimes there are squirrels.

In the distance you can hear cars if you seek that sound out. For this is the city, and there is no escaping the cars. They buzz in the distance, fading in and out of your awareness like Cicadae in the Summer.

There is an air conditioner, which I don’t care for but which provides a jolting mechanical reminder of some harsh realities of our world. So it serves a purpose I suppose. And in any case, when it switches off, you can hear the noises of materials expanding as they heat up, which sounds very much like rain on a metal roof.

Put all of those together in a random configuration ruled by mostly unconscious forces, and it’s quite a symphony indeed.

And then sometimes a Quaker will rise to speak.

Shocking, I tell you. Shocking to be pulled so violently from my innocent hearing and be asked to listen. I mark the solemn nature of this turn of events by leaning forward, putting my elbows on my knees, clasping my hands, and staring at the ground near my feet.

Hello consciousness. Hello words. Hello order and symmetry and meaning and ideas. Sometimes the Friends’ words mean something to me. Sometimes they do not. But they are righteous words, well offered and well received. Thank the Maker that Friends rarely speak more than a minute or two. I am ashamed in these moments to consider the long, rambling sermons I used to give. What arrogance! What nerve! Who was that man I used to be?

Then comes a return of silence and sounds. The rustling creaking of the speaker’s body sinking back into a pew. And I am free to return again to my beloved state of hearing, where I flirt shamelessly with my primitive unconscious, she who has never left me, knows no shame or morality, and has only ever been my true self.

arisesleepers

  • Bart Imaeus

    Yes but how shall we ever get our theological ducks in a row if we don’t think, talk, and theorize? How shall we divine the Divine without the delights of doctrine and dogma? Since we’ve already eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, shouldn’t we share our stolen smarts and speak the The Truth to one another? At the risk of sounding immodest–well, I’ll just throw it out there: If you want to know who, what, how, or why, just ask. I’ll be glad to enlighten you.

    • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

      This is about a contemplative exercise that takes place maybe one or two hours in a week. It’s not a plea to abandon language and philosophy and theology altogether so we can abide in some pre-language state, which would be absurd.

      • Bart Imaeus

        Yes, what you say comes through clearly. I must confess that my earlier remarks were disingenuous. To explain, in a moment of rash impulsivity, I put on my over-the-top hubris hat. I wanted to find out what it felt like to say such things—and also to see whether anyone would care to challenge my ridiculous assertions. So I’m glad you don’t let me off scot-free. … As I stand here looking in the mirror, I sure don’t like the looks of my hubris hat. So I’m going to throw it out the window and hope that it doesn’t come back in through the side door.

        For what it’s worth, I appreciate the distinction you make between listening and hearing. I find that careful listening is plenty difficult. But becoming still enough to actual hear seems mostly beyond my grasp. Once in a blessed blue moon, though, I do hear…almost by accident. It comes like an unexpected, gentle rain.