lion seats

introduction

This series of sound diaries will explored the soundscapes of formal (usually sitting) meditation, examining both locations expressly set aside for meditation such as priories, chapels and quiet rooms, as well as the ‘quiet spaces’ chosen by practitioners such as urban parks, peaceful rural locations or spaces set-aside in a home. In probing that which is ordinarily dismissed as mundane, the enquiry highlighted the impact of found sound on formal meditation practice. Inherent in such a study is the documentation of the sounds of practice, ritual and devotion. Whilst these sounds are, at times, integral to the soundscape, the focus for reflection and scrutiny will be the ‘background’ sound of everyday activities, incidental sounds and the environments in which they occur.

Each diary entry sets out to investigate and document the interplay of sonic events with the lived experience of the practitioner. This autoethnographic journaling enables the research to capture, not only sense experience, but thought processes, perceptions, affective responses, and underlying states of mind. Whilst such a personal diary has a naturally subjective character, it is effective in capturing the nuance and richness of experience, particularly when compared to other narrower or more detached forms of enquiry. Being experiential and practice-led allows the research to respond to insights gleaned through the evolving process of listening, recording, transcribing and responding to what is heard. The approach also encourages the development of a workable praxis, of tangible benefit to practitioners. This is particularly pertinent, given that this series of reflections sits within a broader body of research, with the aim of developing listening practices that employ found sound as an object of meditative focus

Although far from being an exhaustive list, the following questions give a clearer sense of the initial focus of the investigation:

 

  • How does the soundscape drive decisions over the locus of practice? Issues to explore here may be decisions between rural and urban locations, the presence of naturally occurring sonic features, the acoustic properties of a space, or the incidence of distracting sounds.

  • How is sound controlled or manipulated within these environments in order to support contemplative practice? Sonic modifications may be instigated by the practitioner themselves or by those that designed, built or manage the space. This will naturally include some consideration of acoustics as well as the organisation of objects and people within the space.

  • How do the soundscapes of the chosen spaces change over time? A handful of key sites will be documented over longer periods of time, to uncover variations in sonic character throughout the day, week and year.

  • In what way does familiarity with a soundscape change the practitioner’s perception of it? Returning to key sites will give opportunity to document the effect of familiarisation on the practitioners’ experience.

  • How does the soundscape support or frustrate the meditative focus of the practitioner? This will be explored initially through personal reflections, but will later draw upon work from the field of ‘Auditory Scene Analysis’ to identify areas of commonality between the present research and existing theory.

  • How does the act of recording meditative practice alter the experience for the practitioner? This will include observations around location, choice of recording technology, set-up and operation, extension and alteration of the soundscape experienced through headphone amplification, and the cognitive and affective consequences of recording in contrast to simply listening.

 

Through the exploration of these questions ‘in the field’ common themes emerged, providing the raw material from which to cultivate praxis and reveal new lines of enquiry. In particular, the research contributes to the development of distinct approaches to working with found sound in formal meditation.

Click here to listen to the recordings on Radio Aporee

 

Click here to read accounts and reflections of listenings on the Sound Diaries website.​

Reading Buddhist Priory

23rd January 2018

Reading Buddhist Priory Meditation - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

Transcript of Meditation

‘Thoughts’

[sounds transcribed from recording]

 

[Bell on iPhone]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x3)’

‘Calm’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x10)

‘My mind is flickering a bit’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x2)

[Distant sound of pupils playing in the school grounds backing on to the priory garden continues for a few minutes]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x3)

‘When the mind moves, it is more nuanced than it first appears’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x8)

‘Voices at the school’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x12)

‘I’ll use this labelling technique in the listening workshop at the weekend’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x7)

[stomach rumbles]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x1)

‘My stomach’s rumbling’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x10)

‘Smile’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x10)

‘flickering mind, it feels like a candle quivering in a draft’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x1)

[Door opening]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x2)

[Door closing]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x6)

[Door closing and some moving about – low muffled knocking sounds around the house for the remainder of the meditation]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x26)

[Short burst of water being drawn through pipes in the house, probably a tap being turned on]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x2)

‘Calm descending’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x2)

[car engine passing by, louder, rising above the ambient traffic noise]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x20)

‘Ease of focus’

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x34)

[two short bursts of water through pipes as tap is turned on]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x32)

[Door closing in adjacent room, lock being engaged]

‘Breathing in, breathing out’ (x6)

[Toilet flush]

[Bell]

credit: Rev. Gareth Milliken

Reflections

The priory, an unremarkable looking semi-detached house in South Reading, is the current home for itinerant monk Rev. Milliken and a centre for local Soto Zen Buddhists practicing with the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. The meditation hall, which overlooks the back garden on the first floor, offered a comfortable and peaceful space to sit. The room gently hummed with traffic noise and was stippled with twittering birds from the gardens and the small aviary next door, all attenuated and muffled by the uPVC double glazing. Even the addition of shouts and screams of pupils playing in the adjacent sports field only added to the lightness of the air. Inside, the occasional movements around the house; doors opening, closing and being locked, toilets flushing, taps drawing water through pipes, all seemed to be performed with mindful attention, transforming careless thuds and crashes into composed, hushed action. Tempered further by reverberation and filtered to a lower register by the structure of the building, the mildly manicured suburban tranquillity endured, familiar, domestic, unobtrusive and unsurprising. In being small and carpeted, the meditation hall was acoustically quite dead, making it easy to isolate the source of a sound in the room and track its movement, if there were any. This is quite different from my experience of meditating in other sacred spaces, typically the naves of churches and abbeys, where a sound is augmented by dense reflections from brick and stone, in which movements sound and resound easily, shifting, getting lost and transfigured. This subdued and gently unfolding soundscape felt ordered and almost predictable, features that were paralleled in the layout and decoration of the room. Furnished with a devotedly attended shrine area, two neat rows of mats, zafus (cushions) and stools, and painted with light smoky-grey walls, the space felt neat and orderly, resembling a lovingly maintained living space.

In looking to rationalise the exceptional serenity of the meditation hall, it would be lazy to posit the tranquil soundscape as the dominant influence. Certainly, the streams of sound that blended to construct the soundscape were all quietened and filtered, permeating the room from spaces beyond its boundaries. The room’s ’dead’ acoustic also facilitated the monitoring of these streams, contributing to the sense of security, particularly important when sitting facing the wall, as one often does in Zazen. Nevertheless, there seemed to be more to my sense of stillness than just what was heard.

 

I had entered the space having been welcomed by Rev. Milliken, whose plain-speaking but gentle presence put me immediately at ease with him and, more importantly, myself. He quickly put his trust in me, a relative stranger, permitting me to explore the building and spend time alone in the retreat cabin and meditation hall. This assured presence laid the foundations for the time spent in meditation, enabling me to feel secure and at ease in an unfamiliar space. Then there was, of course, the fact that the meditation hall was set aside for solely that purpose. Even if others had been with me, I would not have felt self-conscious about sitting cross-legged on the floor or taking my time to settle in. In being set-aside for meditation, the room itself naturally offered a place to come home to myself. 

 

Yet, there felt as though there was an added dimension to this sense of peace, a tranquillity formed of strata, akin to the stability and strength of sedimentary rock, formed over years of meditation practice and mindful living. Rev. Milliken talked of the priory’s twenty-five year existence and the way the “energy” from this way of living had somehow become absorbed into the fabric of the house. Whilst always sceptical of moving beyond a rational explanation, I will readily admit that even sitting in places with comparable soundscapes, order, security and spiritual history, they have not supported my meditation as well. Not only this, but that on returning each time during the recording of this diary entry, the same stillness rapidly descended.

 

I came away from the priory refreshed and centred, feeling such spaces should be listed, protected for the common good. In a society that values utility and productivity so very highly, the priory seemed an unassuming, living memorial to values that we have by-and-large neglected but may, one day, rediscover.

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