I’ve lived in noisy places not far from heavily trafficked boulevards; places where doors slam late in the night where a cry or laughter echo down the street and helicopters roll the air into breaking waves that shake the walls. Noise invades all our lives. The dog that won’t stop barking sharply next door. The music we don’t like. The mournful din of emergency vehicles. For people who are already stressed to the limits of their endurance even a simple sound if insistent enough can be torturous.
I was once very reactive to sounds. The pitch of a voice could change my mood. The echo of a dove call on a sunny street with shallow shadows could fill me with dread, as if born from some forgotten terror or misunderstood premonition. My ability to focus was precarious and unexpected noises irritated me. My parents shared this oversensitivity to sound. A crow cackling could send my father into a black mood as he recalled long dead crows of another continent feasting on human eyes during the war. My mother’s ear for insincerity passed to me, and it applies equally to voices and instruments.
My teacher moved in an atmosphere of serenity so deep it pervaded the rooms he inhabited. Standing in his office or bedroom I was reminded of the peace I felt gazing at the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. The same feeling I had at the Vedanta Temple under the great oak tree in the foothills of Los Angeles. Like that in Ojai on a hot day heavy with the perfume of roses outside the Theosophical library. Something like the Hindu idea of darshan, the feeling you get when you go witness what is holy. When Sufis talk about the baraka of spiritual masters they describe this immeasurable, nearly indescribable experience.
My teacher encouraged me to ask questions when we met for lunch at his desk. At first I only asked questions I thought worthy of his time. But when he saw I was troubled he opened the door to more personal conversation. With his encouragement I had gone back to college where I discovered disturbing truths about myself. I was angry. I was melancholy. A s I struggled studying required courses I had no interest in I found the barking of the dog across the street excruciating. Too much noise from the kitchen could provoke a tirade. His friendly laughter reassured me of my humanity. Then he told me about an obscure form of meditation.
He said monks of a certain school would reach a point in their training when they would sit in meditation beside large bells. When the bells rang many novice monks would flee covering their deafened ears. But they learned to sit in such stillness the bell neither startled nor irritated them. By doing this they were training themselves to remain poised and consciousness during the overwhelming vibration that is dissolution at death. I was left to ponder their example.
Before long it became clear that any sound can be a Tibetan bell. As a writer and a musician I remain sensitive to sounds. I can find pleasure in what most find irritating. My ability to concentrate under circumstances that others find distracting has inspired people to ask me how I do it. I tell them the story of the Tibetan bell meditation. Only a few understand. The ones who don’t lose focus as they mistake it for some specialized practice requiring detailed instruction. But these experiences are part of the human condition.