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.

On the Mezzanine

25th September 2017

In a discussion about the places people go for quiet reflection, my doctoral supervisor, Paul Whitty, mentioned the mezzanine study area overlooking the Forum Café at Oxford Brookes University. As is the current trend, the study area is open plan combining the facilities required for study with the laid-back feel of a café. Unsurprisingly, when asking people where they head to be alone with their thoughts, both cafés and libraries are frequently cited. Commonly open to the public, they are places where anonymity and personal space are generally respected and where being unaccompanied and doing nothing in particular, is socially acceptable. Their soundscape is typically unobtrusive, familiar and comforting, supporting concentration or allowing an individual to simply get lost in thought. The study area above ‘The Forum’ is one of these spaces. It comprises a large, open, mezzanine floor that permits the familiar relaxed babble of largely unintelligible chat, the reverberant knocks and scrapes of furniture and occasional bleep of electronic notifications to rise-up from the café area below. Despite the presence of an expansive glass window next to me and plastered ceiling above, the large sofas and carpeted floor dampened much of the reverberant sound. Only those voices in the immediate vicinity were intelligible, with semi-circular partitions helping to mute many nearby conversations. A couple sat together on a sofa in front of me and behind were two students speaking to each other in Arabic. As I have no understanding of Arabic, their chat rarely drew my attention. It was only the occasional English word that I registered; ‘Adobe’, ‘Photoshop’, ‘software’ and with no access to a context, these words remained briefly jotted mental notes. In all, there was little in the way of auditory distraction, unless you chose to tune in to the soundscape or strained to hear a nearby conversation.

 

After finding a place to sit, I erected and tested a rather conspicuous Jecklin Disc stereo recording array, set the timer on my phone and settled into the comfy bucket-style-sofa I had chosen. No one seemed at all distracted by the sounding of the meditation bell, no doubt because it was so ubiquitous, blending in with the many other sounds of technology permeating the space. I naturally slouched back into the seat, trying not to draw any more attention to myself, not because I felt self-conscious, but to avoid stifling other’s conversations through fear of feeling monitored. After only a few minutes of reclining on the sofa I noticed the strain on my neck from holding my head upright. Rather than adjusting my posture, I decided to simply observe how the position effected my ‘bodymind’ (a term that has associations with alternative medicine, but feels increasingly fitting the longer I practice). It was interesting to notice how my slumped posture seemed to promote a disposition of distracted relaxation, rather than relaxed focus. I have observed in previous meditations that maintaining the traditional position, with the head balancing on the erect column of the spine has helped to direct the mind and maintain awareness. This heightened focus could, of course, simply be due to association. Nonetheless, the upright posture seems to embody a balance, solidity and dignity that cultivates a calm, persistent attentiveness. By relaxing inconspicuously into my chair, I had inadvertently made my meditation that little more challenging. Laughably, the futility of trying to blend in became clear later when the couple in front of me who, on my arrival, had stopped talking and had become engrossed in their laptops, noticed I had dismantled the recording gear and so resumed their conversation.

Oxford Brookes -The Forum - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

In previous Lion Seats meditations I have noticed how the paraphernalia associated with field recording can easily interrupt the natural flow of a meditation and spawn layers of complexity that frustrate the simple act of maintaining singular attention. On this occasion, I quickly became aware of my leg brushing against the XLR cables, a noise exacerbated by sensitive microphones with little protective suspension. Small shifts of my calf or even slight upper body movements would induce a low rumbling on the recording. So, when itches arose in my foot, I was compelled to patiently observe the rise and fall of the sensation, rather than shifting my foot in the shoe. It was interesting to notice the way in which fixing my attention on the itch, far from increasing my mental agitation, offered a sense of relief and detachment. As with observing my posture, the itching sensation became the object of meditation, a focus that was supported by my desire not to ‘ruin’ the recording with extraneous ‘handling noise’.

 

On this occasion, the meditation was quite brief, lasting only ten minutes. Yet within this time there was much that resonated with previous experiences in other settings and brought particular issues into sharper focus. Certainly, working with the situation as it presented itself, rather than fighting against it, once again proved to be central in supporting a compassionate awareness. This required both an ability and willingness to change the focus of the meditation and to vary the approach taken. With a fixed idea of what the meditation should be, I would have remained closed to the possibilities that presented themselves. The ability to be adaptable and to draw from a range of alternative practices, afforded a frustrating circumstance to become an opportunity. These alternative practices may not involve maintaining single-pointed concentration, but continue to promote mindful awareness and cultivate insight through other means. Loosening attachment to expectations and outcomes appears to be key here.

 

The way in which the posture and position of the body influenced my orientation towards practice was also evident. If my body assumes a position that embodies an intention to meditate, my ability to direct and sustain attention seems to be improved. The degree to which this is due to established associations or inherent physiological factors will, no doubt, vary from person-to person and situation-to-situation. Adopting a traditional meditative posture may not always be possible or desirable, but it nevertheless emerges as an important factor in nurturing meditative focus.

 

Lastly, there is a recognition that whilst amplifying found sound has proven to be an effective means of supporting present-centred awareness, the requirements involved in making a recording and maintaining meditative focus are often at odds. The impetus behind samatha meditation, the principal practice in this project, is to calm the mind through sustained single-pointed concentration. The motivation of the field recordist, on the other hand, can vary but typically necessitates the modulation of attention between personal, technical and environmental factors with the intention of producing a recording that can be presented to others. Whilst these different motivations can both, at times, be accommodated they are, in my experience, more likely to compete. If Lion Seats was an investigation into mindful field recording, there would be little difficulty in accommodating the two practices of mindfulness and field recording. Such ‘informal’ mindfulness practice would simply require a present-centred awareness of the recording process whilst incorporating a ‘meta-awareness’ of the recordist’s perceptions and reactions to events. However, samatha meditation requires a singular focus, which for this project has been the rise and fall of the breath. Any activity competing for attention clearly makes this practice more challenging. The most satisfactory resolution has been to treat the two practices as distinct, setting up recording equipment and letting it run whilst meditating without monitoring or even considering the recording being captured. In some situations this approach has been effective, yet in the majority of cases creating a clear separation between the two practices has been more problematic. Thoughts such as ‘is the equipment safe?’, ‘did that loud sound peak the meters?’, ‘is the rain going to get into the mic?’ frequently persist. Although the process of undertaking these audio recordings of meditations has been insightful, it has also suggested that field recording and formal meditation are not always good bedfellows.

Morning Meditation

26th September 2017

‘Thoughts’

“Speech”

[sounds transcribed from recording]

 

Location:

Home office/studio/quiet room with interior door closed (the catch needs fixing so is presently difficult to open, which I initially thought was no bad thing!)

Woodcote

Oxfordshire

 

[muffled thumping sound from upstairs]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x2)’

[Muted invitation of the bell, then a full sustained sound]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Bell]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Bell]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Rustling of clothing as I adjust my posture on the cushions]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x2)’

‘It feels strange meditating with mics in my ears.’

‘Pressure on the side of my head.’

‘In, out (x3)’

‘What’s that banging?’

‘In, out (x2)’

“Dad?”

[Rapid loud knocking on the door]

‘Do I answer it or do I not?’

“Dad?”

[Struggling to get the door open followed by more knocking]

“Phoebe is it life and death?”

“No, can you make me some toast?”

“No, not for another fifteen minutes.”

“What?”

“Ellen can make you some toast if you like?”

‘Phoebe and Ellen arguing in the hallway’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x1)’

‘Nose whistling’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x11)’

[something hard clinking against the inside of the washing machine as it turns]

‘Ellen making Phoebe toast.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x4)’

[rustling of cereal packet]

‘Bowl’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x4)’

‘Should I have set the meditation timer on my phone?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x11)’

‘Sinus headache’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x4)’

[closing door and booming sound of someone walking up the stairs above me]

‘Who went upstairs?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x6)’

[buzz and mellow rising arpeggio of the phone’s notification sound]

‘Phone notification, but it’s on airplane mode?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x6)’

‘How do I record the breathing?’

[clinking of cutlery against china]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x11)’

‘I feel distracted’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x3)’

‘Is that Phoebe’s bowl and spoon or the cats eating out of their bowls? ‘

‘I thought she was having toast?’

[rhythmical clunking of the washing machine again]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x5)’

‘Replaying the incident with Phoebe in my mind.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x3)’

‘Birdsong. Chirping.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x16)’

[booming from upstairs continues, scrape of chair against the wood floor and the empty bowl and spoon being placed by the kitchen sink]

‘Perhaps it’s the washing machine?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x5)’

[more fast-paced booming from movement upstairs and closing of bathroom door]

‘Door shutting’

[shutting of bedroom door]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x9)’

‘Even the thought that I could be disturbed is unsettling my mind.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x22)’

[clinking of the washing machine, brighter, less muffled this time]

‘Is ‘Lion Seats’ a good name?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x13)’

[what sounds like the front door being opened and closed again]

‘Is that the front door?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x6)’

‘Thoughts form as a kind of cloud before you can actually describe them.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x29)’

‘What’s that noise?’

[high pitched clinking as zips knock against the glass door of the washing machine and lower clunks as the ‘washing ball’ does the same]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x16)’

[Engine starts up and drives off]

‘Steve leaving in his van’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x10)’

[Rattling of door handle as someone tries to enter the room]

‘Is that Phoebe again, or Elizabeth?’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x2)’

‘My right leg is feeling numb - pins and needles.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x8)’

[Door handle starts again followed by three loud knocks]

“Who is it? Who is it?”

“Pardon”

“Who is it?”

“It’s Beth”, I just woke up.”

“Why do you need to come in?”

“Yeah”

“Why do you need to come in?”

“I need to…I need to tell you two things: A. Can I use the leftover white bread and B. wasn’t I suppose to make my lunchbox?”

“OK, hang on five minutes.”

“Well, can I use the white bread?”

“Yep”

[Beth muttering under her breath]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x14 breathing noticeably speeding up)’

‘I’m feeling mildly angry and a little tense. I’ve been interrupted twice, they should know better, they....’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x26)’

‘Replaying events in my mind. Still feeling annoyed. Return to my breathing.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x14)’

[rattling of cutlery in draw and kitchen cupboard door opening.

‘Toaster’s pinged. Hope she’s not putting a knife in there to get the toast out.’

[Knife in jar and hitting against plate]

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x11)’

‘I should really make their packed lunches.’

‘Breathing in, breathing out (x10)’

‘Deep breath/sigh’

[Muted invitation of the bell, then a full sustained sound]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Bell]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Bell with thumping of feet going up the stairs]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x3)’

[Pouring tea, clink of tea cup]

“Dad, it’s almost half past seven”

“OK”

“Aren’t you going to get dressed and umm… and do the lunchboxes?”

“Yep, you get yourself sorted my darling and I’ll… I’ll get it all ready.”

“I’m ready, it’s just the lunch boxes aren’t done.”

“Uh-huh, yep, just coming to do those.”

[Slurp of tea and swallowing]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x4)’

[Slurp of tea and swallowing]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x2)’

[Slurp of tea and swallowing]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x2)’

[Slurp of tea and swallowing]

‘Breathing In, breathing Out (x2)’

[Clink of tea cup put back on its saucer]

Caversham Weir

6th September 2017

Walking to Weir from Caversham - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

Resting for a second on a bridge straddling the two halves of Heron Island, I noticed a flicker of shimmering green on the bank of the river. Adjusting my position to see past the reeds, a kingfisher stood, resting momentarily to inspect the water below, before darting off to the jetty on the opposite bank. This felt like an auspicious start. Continuing my leisurely stroll upstream towards Caversham Weir, the restful sound of birdsong and my footsteps on the leaf-strewn track were only intermittently disturbed by the rumble of air traffic overhead. Nearing the weir, I noticed the effectiveness of the acoustic baffle formed by the trees. I was surprised to find that the weir was largely imperceptible, until I was within twenty meters of it. Only when the trees flanking the footpath thinned-out, did the thunderous rumble of the weir become noticeable. At this threshold, I veered off to the right, spotting a small clearing by the river bank overlooking the weir.

 

I set about assembling my recording equipment, extending the front legs of the tripod to compensate for the sloping bank down to the river, attaching the blimp which housed the microphones and adjusting the gains on the portable recorder. Finding a dry spot of grass on which to sit, I turned my attention again to the relentless torrent of white noise that dominated the soundscape. Amplified through headphones, the weir’s size and force was magnified, low frequencies rumbling more threateningly than when heard by the naked ear. From above the roar, amplification brought-out the doppler-drone of aircraft circling for Heathrow, sirens of emergency vehicles, horns of diesel locomotives on the Great Western mainline and construction noise from yet more glass-clad office buildings for which Reading is famous. Taking off the headphones to start the meditation timer, I noticed how the weir masked all but the loudest peaks of these interruptions, leaving me feeling cocooned on the shore of this small river island.

 

As the automated bell of the timer was invited three times, I lowered my gaze and rested it on the reflections of clouds distorted by the small waves reaching me from the weir. My eyes focused on the ripples and the grey clouds behind them, almost believing they formed the bed of the river here. Slowly drifting eastwards, the clouds appeared to be swept along with the rivers’ flow. Closing my eyes to turn my attention inwards to my breathing, a mild dizziness came over me. The shifting images of clouds and waves had stopped, emboldening my remaining senses to adjust to feeling more firmly anchored to the river bank.

 

Whilst being a stone’s throw from the town centre, the weir effectively masked the familiar soundscape of urban sprawl beyond. The weir’s endless, scarcely fluctuating roar provided a certainty which was reassuring and restful. Without the distraction of urban clatter, of signals and cues, movement and purpose, networks, transfers, commerce and industry, I settled quickly into my assignment, to simply follow the in breath and out breath. With other work on hold until the following day and plenty of time on my parking ticket, I could afford myself this luxury and allow the weir’s strangely calming interference signal to sever links with plans, deadlines and projects. After a few minutes, thoughts, like the clouds I had been watching pass across the river bed, seemed altogether more distant and ephemeral, well at least for brief interludes. Yet, whilst I felt shielded from distraction by the weir’s gentle onslaught, there lingered a slight unease at being unable to hear passing visitors. Interesting and eye-catching microphone set-ups can deter people from disturbing a recordists seclusion, particularly when they are adorned with headphones. However, my position with a view across the weir also meant there was the chance that someone would notice me from the footpath crossing it and would wish to have their curiosity satisfied. Certainly, the roar of the weir, would give me little time to collect myself and prepare an account of my presence in the event of someone approaching. Such distracting thoughts were hard to shake, but eventually my mind relented and gave in to trusting passers-by to afford me some solitude, or at least to trust myself to respond to an enquiry without frustration or resentment.

 

With three more sounds of the bell, I moved slowly to pack-up. I left feeling pleased to have found a small corner of the town, just across the river, that I could return to should I crave some detachment from the busyness and bustle.

Caversham Weir Meditation - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

Floating Point

25th July 2017

The hour-long floatation tank session began with ten minutes of restful ambient music, comprising of slowly shifting choral lines, rounded bass notes and gently modulating synth pads. I could imagine some criticising it as cliché, but its familiarity and strong associations with other relaxation treatments helped me to settle in to the unfamiliar surroundings. As I lay back and slowly sank my head beneath the water, the music took on a lower, mellower tone, hushed, less distinct and with a distant ethereal quality. Carefully adjusting my body to find a comfortable position, I noticed the movement barely made a sound. The lapping of my arms on the surface of the water was the only audible addition to the bed of ambient sound and music.

Floating Point Hydro Ambience - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00
Floating Point Room Ambience - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

With the first ten minutes of the float ending, the music faded to leave a continuous low hum, soothing in its constancy. Emerging from this hum I noticed my breathing, low and muffled. Familiar, but stark in the silence, the intimate presence of breathing when the ears are submerged made me pay attention to its quality and measure. As the pace of the breath slowed, I noticed, rather disconcertingly at first, the presence of bodily sounds, much clearer than I’d ordinarily hear them. Whilst, for the most part, the rise and fall of the breath masked these, I could catch hints of the pulse in my ears, indeed throughout my body. I even sensed the pulse creating ripples in the water, particularly where arteries ran close to the surface of the skin. Holding my breath unmasked a variety of gurgles and bubbling from somewhere inside my body. Strangely, a lot of the sounds seemed to appear at or between the ears rather than from the point they originated from. This was true of the high pitched, rapid succession of bubbles occurring in small bursts, more than likely emanating from my stomach. Yet strangely, without the vibration being felt, I had little sense of where these bubbles had come from. They simply appeared as a fizzing between the ears, at the back of the head or lower neck. In contrast, the lower pitched sounds could be sensed more readily as slight tremors in the abdomen. Blinking, I even noticed that my eyelids created a flickering sound as they opened. Being cradled in the warm salty water and having familiarised myself with the novel soundscape, my body largely disappeared from awareness. I placed my attention on the rise and fall of the breath and my mind rapidly sank into a deep, meditative stillness.

            For long periods of time over the next thirty minutes, my awareness of sound fell away completely. I was left resting floating in the darkness of the tank, with no sensory stimulation for reference, spare the occasional brush of my skin on the side of the tank. Yet even this sensation was so subtle that I could not tell whether I was merely imagining it. The slow fade-in of the ambient music once again, calmly announced the imminent end of the float session. Beginning with small movements, I gradually came back to awareness of the body and its sensations, exploring movements as if I were observing my body from a distance, re-learning the skill of moving one limb at a time. The noise of the tank’s filter commencing its cleaning cycle marked the end of the float and a return to the noise of the world.

St Leonard's Church

23rd June 2017

St Leonard's Church - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

A handwritten notice outside the timeworn oak door of St Leonard’s Church says “PLEASE IGNORE HANDLE AND PUSH DOOR HARD”. I leant into the door, pushing against its resistance, until I abruptly overcame the inertia and stumbled in, almost prostrating myself before the font. The sound reverberated around the empty stone church, my embarrassment subsiding as I realized I was alone. I made my way, rather more reverently, to a pew about two thirds of the way down the nave, set up the recording gear and settled in to the space. After loading the ‘Zazen Lite’ app on my phone, I set the timer going for twenty minutes and waited a few seconds to begin the meditation. As the bright ‘ting’ of the bell faded, my attention was left lingering on the soft murmuring of distant traffic noise from the A4074 down the hill and the wind stirring the leaves in the various broad leafed and coniferous trees in the graveyard outside. This shifting drone was punctuated with bird calls including the familiar screech of kites circling on the thermals and planes circling on approach to Heathrow. The only noticeable break in this bed of shifting ambience was the occasional shout from the farmyard cottage next door or cars and vans passing hurriedly along the South Stoke Road. After a few minutes spent familiarising myself with the soundscape, I turned my attention to my breath. A simple gatha acted as a focus for following its rise and fall:

 

“breathing in, I know I am breathing in,

breathing out, I know I am breathing out,

in,

out…”

 

The scarcity of sounds interrupting the calm of the village meant that distractions came mostly from my own thoughts, thoughts about the sound recording, the project and my solitary presence in the empty church space. Some thoughts lingered, meandering from one to the other whilst others surfaced and swiftly vanished. It was, however, quite a struggle to hold my attention on the breath for any length of time, my mind was habitually pulling in a variety of directions.

About fifteen minutes into the meditation, the sense of struggle stopped, quite instantaneously. The environmental sound appeared slightly sharper, brighter and clearer. My ability to stay with the gatha improved and my mind seemed to accept that this is what I wished to do. The excerpts of conversations with myself, the creaks of the pew and the wind and traffic outside still drew my ear, but I no longer had a compulsion to follow them or construct stories from them.

When the end of the meditation came, I packed the equipment away, this time with a heightened awareness of my movements. Quite naturally there arose a feeling of care and appreciation for the objects I was handling, accompanied with a presence and contentment markedly different from my experience of setting up. On my way out, I noticed the following biblical quote arching across the doorway:

 

“THIS IS NONE OTHER THAN THE HOUSE OF GOD,

AND THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN. GEN.XXVIII.17”

St Marys, Whitchurch

22nd June 2017

Outside St Mary's - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

Beside an old oak tree in St Mary’s churchyard

As I passed from the graveyard, through the entrance and into the vestibule of the stone church, the drop in sound levels was marked. The difference in the soundscape was paralleled by the change in brightness, from summer sun to the shade offered by the church. Inside, the only light came from the subdued glow of the stained-glass windows and a handful of dim electric lightbulbs.

I set up my recording gear and sat down for a short meditation on a gratifyingly creaky, but well-padded pew. No sooner had I set the meditation timer underway, than the clacking of shoes on the stone floor interrupted the silence. I glanced back to the doorway to see a man in smart trousers, shirt and a weathered panama hat. The visitor had a relaxed gait as he wandered aimlessly around the back of the nave. I settled back into position, closing my eyes and resting my hands on my legs. The bell sounded to begin the meditation and after a few minutes, the gentleman departed.

Now, there was little to pull my attention away from the meditation. The soundscape of the empty church consisted predominantly of a low rumbling drone, probably from traffic going over the toll bridge at the bottom of the lane. This was layered with dogs barking, bird calls, aircraft passing overhead and the occasional rhythmic rumble of trains rattling through Pangbourne on the other side of the river.

Inside St Mary's - Richard Bentley
00:00 / 00:00

Meditation inside the church

A clunk of the large iron handle on the church door signalled the arrival of another visitor. They moved across the back of the nave. The swishing of fabric and soft tread of rubber shoes came closer and stopped to rest a few pews behind me. A deep sigh seemed to signal a relief in finding somewhere quiet to rest. After some settling-in, unzipping and rummaging through a bag, the haptic bleeping of a phone’s keyboard began. The constant irregular tapping was accompanied by whispered sighs and groans and the occasional respectfully muted chuckle. I managed to return to my breath, the object of my meditation, for short periods of time. However, it was difficult not to get distracted, imagining the text conversation that was taking place. Perhaps due to these distractions, it did not feel long until the closing bell from the mobile phone sounded to signal the end of the meditation, surprising the visitor and affording both of us a moment of quiet reflection.

  • Instagram
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • SoundCloud - White Circle
  • LinkedIn - White Circle
  • Facebook - White Circle