The Sound, The Silence, and the Experience of Dropping In

Imageby Katy Hawkins

When I was asked about the “Sound Body” workshop my brother Daniel and I are leading, I realized I wasn’t being asked to clarify how shakuhachi flute could be transposed onto a cello, or how haibun captures the world in meditative snapshots.  I was being asked where we were coming from, at the most basic level. So I sat down to try and articulate it.

Daniel and I were raised by a beatnik skeptic whose compass was nevertheless governed by questions of the spirit. She did the whole living-on-a-commune-cult-participation thing, and then watched “the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” She joined a Zen center, which is probably the root of the Zen philosophy she tacitly fed us. She turned to Quakerism for three things:

  1. its minimalist theology: the divine is to be found everywhere and equally throughout the natural and sentient world.
  2. its insistence on interrogating and testing received wisdom through a private experience of, rather than faith in, the divine. Sounds a lot like those fierce ancient yogis, no?
  3. its simple practice: you sit in silence, until there’s a spark of something that insists on being shared, in whatever free-form way is demanded.

Even though the first of her seven books was about St. Augustine and spiritual transformation, Christianity was never on our radar growing up. (When Daniel’s bluegrass band participants started to pitch Christian evangelism, Mom freaked out.) Instead, she taught us absurd, drooling, worshipful devotion to the natural world. She taught us skeptical, independent thinking, trust in emotional clarity, the dark, private spaces of inner experience, and brutal honesty.

So I only know how to be brutally honest when I talk about anything spiritual, even though what comes out of my mouth isn’t always pretty. I can’t speak for Daniel, but when it comes to my experience of sound, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a lot of resistance to “home” in our fascination with the Om.  I try to gestate these ideas of Sanskrit as an ancient language painstakingly constructed to express the vibrations of the chakras. I try to close my eyes and give myself to believing that simply chanting the Sutras, independently even from understanding them, can by virtue of the repetition of sound, lead one to deeper levels of relationship with their meaning. I try to open to the notion that the mystical Om could be the seed sound of the universe, the beginning, continuation and dissolution of all things. My chest is vibrating. Why don’t I feel… I dunno… more? Maybe I’ve got some kind of fourth chakra deficiency. Or maybe it’s just ignorance; Pema Chodron describes ignorance as the experience of something leaving you cold, blowing by you, not affecting you one way or another.

But yoga is having what you want, wanting what you have. Yoga is the state of being complete, of missing nothing. What, then, is missing in our own language or world that we need to pursue in someone else’s? Once a teacher, a grounded, sweet, well-loved teacher, offered a chant in English – a song about a river, I think, that her mother used to sing to her. There was palpable dis-ease in the room – all the hackles surged up and people suddenly felt seen, exposed. It was too literal, maybe, too close to the rest of our daily Manhattan reality. Chanting in Sanskrit gave us a very real way to escape the everyday and drop into an experience that was decidedly “other,” and therefore safe or valid or deep in a way that our language couldn’t be. John Welwood describes “Spiritual Bypassing,” or “dissociation in holy drag,” as the use of magical thinking or belief to avoid dealing with painful situations and developmental tasks – our everyday muck. We’ve all experienced that  wrenching feeling we all have after a yoga class, of being pulled out of one zone and jettisoned into another, much more matter-of-fact reality. We watch teachers transition from one mode of interaction back to their quotidian selves, the way the tone of their voices changes. Eyes meet awkwardly, after an hour and a half spelunking down into deeper regions.

One reason why students are instructed to find a good meditation teacher is that a daily sitting practice can easily be used as a practice of bypassing, one that rehearses strategies for dropping in as a way of dropping out. It always seemed wild to me that meditation could be pitched as this esoteric Eastern practice when I’d grown up with it – techniques for “centering down” and 15 minutes of sitting by the age of 5 like all Quaker kids – like my own. One thing that transforms a very matter-of-fact practice into a potentially self-alienating one is the belief that it is foreign ground. Shamatha meditation, like Quaker meditative practice (and in sharp contrast to tantric practices that try to take you elsewhere) tries to approximate the everyday: we sit with no special mudra for the hands, no bells and whistles, and slowly over time, our eyes climb up to find the same frank, straight-ahead gaze we might have while walking down 2nd Avenue. I get this.

The stuff we find on the mat isn’t anything special we call up, it’s the familiar ground that we drop into. If Daniel and I borrow from Eastern forms in our work, it is with a healthy respect for and not an exoticization of their origins (some of which are contested, like Mark Singleton’s research suggesting that the asana we practice in American vinyasa classes is just as much rooted in 19th century Scandinavian gymnastics as in “classical” Indian tradition). The seed sound can be found in silence – indeed, the presence of sound inside silence is what audibly chanting the Om is supposed to mimic. Chanting, like any loud sound, makes that natural resonance more palpable – when the sound stops. John Cage describes his first, life-changing experience of the sound when he entered an anechoic chamber for the first time as a freshman at Harvard. He identified two sounds, which the engineer identified as the buzz of his nervous system and the lower-register rush of his blood. In nada yoga, or the yoga of sound, layers upon layers are added to these two elements, but I’m pretty sure anybody with a sustained meditation practice hears the Om, constantly.

When I step outside silence and try to find the Om, dressed casual, I hear my mother playing the cello. The sound of its low, buttery-velvet tone is unmistakably Om-ish.   I supposed I heard it through the walls of her belly, in utero, along with the “music baths” of Bach and Mozart she naively gave her first two fetuses, before she became jaded by our lack of musical prowess. She had doggedly pressed my older brother through Suzuki violin, and started me on piano as early as she could. She trotted me out at parties to play for people, bragging that I could play Mozart by ear at five. At ten I rebelled and quit. But by the time my little brother was born, she had learned from her mistakes, and he became the musician she’d always wanted. 27 years later, post-conservatory, there’s still a purity to Daniel on cello, unburdened of anything more ego-related than sheer sound. It’s the Om.

So when Daniel and I work together, it’s not a kirtan. There’s no harmonium, no sitar, no Sanskrit words to learn. We only try to hold a space where people can have their own experience of sound and silence. We strive to find frameworks for exploring this experience that relate to the lives of Philadelphians who go from work through stop signs to supermarkets and home to refrigerators and tap water. The gorgeousness of life as it is.

Join Katy and her brother, Daniel, for Sound Body: Language and Sound Workshop on Saturday, March 2nd at Wake Up Yoga Fairmount. To register, go to http://wakeupyoga.com/content/sound-body-language-and-sound-workshop-live-cello-accompaniment

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