Sit down, find a comfortable position—lay down, if that’s more relaxing. Close your eyes.
Can you find the quiet place in your mind where there are no thoughts, no words, no images?
Can you remain in the quiet mind place by listening to all the sounds you can possibly hear, including the most distant sounds beyond the space you now occupy?
A dry leaf skitters across a brick wall. Birds chirp in the trees overhead. Something nearby—a squirrel?—makes a chuck-chuck-chuck call that’s answered by another chuck-chuck further away. A helicopter whop-whops in the distance. Tires stick to humid asphalt. Keys jingle, a car door suctions open, hinges squeak. People walk, talk —they’re close enough that you can hear the murmur of their voices, but far enough away that you can’t make out the words.
An insect whizzes by. A staccato breeze comes and goes; you feel it on your face but mostly you hear it in the trees. There’s the saliva sound your throat makes when you swallow. And the sound of your shirt brushing over your chest when you inhale, and the sound of the air moving in. Something small hits the ground with a tiny thump. The wool blanket beneath you scratches your thigh slightly as you shift around. The grass ripples. Your heart beats.
You realize what you hear, when you take the time to listen.
It’s easy to forget “that you could just sit down and listen to sounds and be fully in awe of them,” says Paige Naylor, a local musician and “deep listening” practitioner who has recently started monthly deep listening sessions—much like the one that prompted this writer to make all the observations above—at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative.
Deep Listening Series
The Bridge PAI
Naylor, who plays synthesizers and sings in electronic-atmospheric-psychedelic band Sweet Tooth, has long been intrigued by the intersection of music and psychology and the healing power of music.
Last November, Pauline Oliveros, the pioneering experimental electronic musician and composer who developed the deep listening philosophy in the 1970s, passed away at the age of 84, and Naylor, intrigued, began reading about the composer’s life and work and felt compelled to study it further.
Deep listening is “engaging in a practice of holistic listening, being aware of all the sounds in your environment…becoming aware of sounds, every sound that’s available to you, especially ones that you don’t normally pay attention to, and using that as healing, or to create community,” says Naylor, who is earning a certificate in deep listening through the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which merged with Oliveros’ own Deep Listening Institute in 2014.
Naylor’s sessions include sonic meditation, some gentle movement and, occasionally, dream exploration. Naylor uses some of Oliveros’ written guides, such as the “Sonic Images” meditation from Software for People, and sometimes she writes her own texts based on what she anticipates a group might need—for example, Naylor geared the August 17 session toward love, asking participants to ruminate on questions like “What does love sound like? Is it soft? Is it loud? Is it something that you notice?”
When deep listening, “you’re opening yourself up to things that you wouldn’t normally, and channeling sound and using that for healing in any way that’s helpful for you,” she says. She notes that the practice can be particularly useful for musicians, as it guides them to be more thoughtful about the variety of sounds that can be incorporated into recordings or performance to achieve a certain feeling or atmosphere. It isn’t just for musicians, though—anyone can benefit from the practice. And you might begin to wonder about sounds you physically cannot hear, like what plants sound like when they grow, when they photosynthesize. You won’t look at your kitchen window succulents in the same way.
Do Try This At Home
After a period of deep introspection incited by the Vietnam War, experimental musician and composer Pauline Oliveros wrote a series of 25 text-based instructions intended to provoke creativity and thoughtfulness; she called them “Sonic Meditations.” One of her simpler sonic meditations, “Native,” says: “Take a walk at night, and walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”
“Anyone can do that,” Oliveros told Sound American magazine, “but attention is directed, and it’s directed to the soles of your feet. So, if in fact you actually do that, you’ll begin to listen in a way that’s probably different from how you usually do when you walk.”