Perhaps you can relate to the state in which I found myself a few days ago—heart tight, body tense, mind churning, going over and over events from the far and recent past and in a useless but unyielding manner. I find myself in such a state fairly often, probably due to the fact that I grew up in a family of thinkers and worriers, and was taught indirectly that if I just ruminated long enough, I might reach some conclusion to the unknown and only then find rest. Well, I’m here to say at age twenty-eight that this method of dealing with the unknown, with past pain and confusion, or a question about the future, simply does not work—for me, at least.
Usually, when I feel this way, I tend to go outdoors in a degree of desperation and run vigorously up a mountain path. When I eventually reach a point of exhaustion, I stop running and find a sunny spot off the path and sit down to find stillness. My usual practice is to sit or lie still, calming my mind, feeling my breath, focusing on absorbing warmth from the sun and vitality from the earth beneath and around me. On this particular occasion, though, none of my usual methods would work; I just kept on ruminating about God-knows-what and simply could not settle. My mind’s obsessive activity, though leading nowhere, kept my body and heart tensed, simultaneously expectant and dreading of…well, a big, bad Something. I sat for a good half hour in this attempt at stillness and actually started to get angry at my dumb brain which wouldn’t relent.
And then, to my great fortune, an enormous gust of wind came up from the valley and sounded its presence round my ears, through the rocks, and most powerfully through the trees and branches and leaves all around me. I began to listen as the gust moved past me, swirling and swelling through trees and spaces nearby, and then farther, and then farther yet… Another, smaller gust approached, and this time I noticed its sound long before I felt it touch my skin. The sound was so…entrancing, like a mother cooing to her infant, or like the healing breath of some great, kind Spirit. I sat upright, giving all my awareness to my ears, opening them more wholly with each breath, and began to hear tinier sounds—distant birds calling, footsteps upon the sand which might have been miles away, the thump of my own pulse, and all surrounded by the ebbing whisper of wind.
After several minutes, stepping out for a moment from my entrancement with sound, I noticed something, or, rather, the significant absence of something—my excessive ruminations and thoughts were gone! They had simply disappeared, over seconds or minutes, I do not know, as I began to listen to the wind. I had tried focusing on my breath, the warmth of the sun, the physical state of my body, and the feeling of the wind, but none of these had helped my mind to unclench. Only by my deeply listening did it finally release its grip. As I pondered why, I realized that my ponderings even at that very moment were occurring as actual almost-spoken words within my head; I could hear them, but only as coming from within me, and not from an external source. And I thought, if I audibly hear all my thoughts, then perhaps only by focusing on another audible sound can I transfer my attention away from these thoughts and allow them to dissipate. I tried it again, opening my ears fully the sounds around me, and my thoughts were literally replaced almost immediately by the sounds of wind and birds. When I returned to my mind to notice my thoughts, they had once again dispersed, and my mind felt clear and light.
It is said that the people of a certain bygone tribe—I don’t know which—could hear a person approaching from six days away. As I sat and opened my ears more wholly with each breath, I did experience a sense of expansive space and reach which I’d never known before. It was as if I could hear a tinier, more distant footfall with each breath, as if my ears could almost open to all sound if I were to listen long and deeply enough. Though I believe it would take a lifetime of practice to hear a person approaching from even one day away, I also feel certain it is worth beginning the practice of listening right now. Who knows what I might begin to hear, to know, if I only learn first to keep my ears open?
– I hear the breathing soul of the Earth. She is my soul, and I am hers. –
Written by Meryll Davis, a first year graduate student at Southwestern College.