Look, Listen. . . and Learn

Four quotes: from a pedantic, 2000-year old zealot, a Minnesota poet, a French resistance fighter, blinded at age 8, and a teacher-composer.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
(1st Corinthians, 13).

I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around. . .skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise up from its shoulders. The caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs.
(Creatures glanced at briefly, from Robert Bly’s What Have I Ever Lost By Dying)

Because of my blindness I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it — but almost all forget to use it. The faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes, it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, or receptiveness, and activity. Indeed attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education. It is a state of being. In its truest sense, it is the listening post of the universe.
(From Jacques Lusseyran’s And There Was Light)

Listening is receptive. You allow something outside your body to come inside, into the deep brain. . .to be open and impressionable, to hear everything. . .the eyes are hungry. They eat brain energy. When you close your eyes, your brain opens to your ears; sound rushes in. Open your eyes and now the brain is crowded [again], and the bright screen of sound grows dim.
(From The Listening Book, W. A. Mathieu)

As we grow older and (ostensibly) more mature, conventional wisdom has it that we become ‘more worldly’, less naive. While this is most likely true in that we might grow more cynical or jaded, more tainted by the ‘treasures’ the world has to offer — I would maintain that we may actually become less of the world. As Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests, it is the child who engages the world fully and directly; the adult who, by stages, has his sight ‘dimmed’ — has his experience of the world increasingly filtered by his own ‘lens’, becomes narrowed, selective, and capable only of seeing ‘through a glass darkly’. We tend to withdraw into ourselves, increasingly ‘derivative’ and more out of touch with the full sensory experience of our surround.

Lusseyran, our French freedom fighter, makes a similar point. In his case, deprived of sight from middle childhood by a school-ground accident, his description of the figural importance of attention and what he characterizes as ‘wakefulness’ echoes, both in language and sentiment, the very teachings of mindfulness practice. Specifically, we all have the potential, the capability to ‘pay attention’ — we simply fail to cultivate this faculty unless compelled by circumstance to do so. In his generous comment — we ‘forget’ to attend. His vigilance, ‘hour after hour’, not only allowed him to survive, but to thrive; not only to hone his other senses, but to alter the way he experienced the world — to change his ‘state of being’.

Mathieu too, makes a compelling case against the exclusivity of vision as a preferred sense of awareness. He may be a bit too hard on the eyes, attributing to them an almost bullying sensibility, as they flood our brain with ‘easy stimuli’, quickly overpowering the ear and, in the process depriving us of the rich and nuanced subtlety available through our hearing the world. Frequently we choose to meditate with our eyes closed — evidently, if Mathieu has his way, for good reason.

The words of our mid-western poet restore some legitimacy to our sight as a vehicle for sensory presence and immediate awareness. Bly’s slim volume is at once a lament of that same ‘sensory withdrawal’ (alluded to in Paul’s letter) and a celebration of the result when we resist the desire to ‘pull each sturgeon and hollow tree’ into ourselves. He makes a strong case for what happens when the writer is able to see an object or a creature — without laying claim to it; without, in his beautiful prose, ‘immersing it like a negative in one’s [own] development tank of disappointment and desire’.

In a few weeks, our intrepid little group of meditators will once again ‘make room’ for the immediate experience of sensation, emotion, and thought — in a silent space. A suggested preparation for this — or indeed for mindfulness practice in general — might be to cultivate what Lusseyran refers to as a more constant state of awareness and receptivity. In mindfulness terms, this translates into perhaps slowing oneself down, reminding oneself to return to the present moment — when we notice that we’re digging into a past experience and becoming stuck; or ‘reliving’ emotions with perhaps attendant anger or anxiety; or anticipating a moment before it’s arrived.

For the ‘listening’ version of this blog click: http://db.tt/FqUPFo02

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