Years ago, I went deep underground with some caving enthusiasts. After two hours of scrambling, crawling, and abseiling, we decided to switch off our lights and listen. A deep dry cave is more profoundly black and silent than anywhere on the surface of the earth. In that cave, nothing moved, and nothing made any sound.
Except for us. Although we sat perfectly still, we soon realised how noisy we were. We heard the sound of our breathing, our heartbeat, and many curious hums and vibrations inside us. The silence allowed us to hear the song of the body, and the more we listened, the louder it became.
In India, there are many caves made famous by the great yogis of the past. Some of these yogis practised the ‘nada’ (or ‘nothing’) meditation in which they listened without interruption to the symphony of their bodies. When the outer sounds vanish, all that remains is this inner song, the infinitely complex and beautiful vibration of life itself. Though we rarely hear it, it is like the voice of the soul. It is always quietly speaking to us, telling us what is happening in our bodies and minds, and the yogis used it as their guide into tranquility and wisdom.
Many people feel squeamish at the idea of listening to their bodies. This is not surprising, since a stressed body doesn’t sound or feel very good at all. As a result, we not only fail to hear the sounds in our bodies: we unconsciously block them out. For example, most people can’t hear or feel their heartbeat. Can you, at this minute? Yet the heart is a massive, dynamic muscle, pumping gallons of blood in huge surges every minute. If a mechanical pump was doing this in front of you, the noise involved would be considerable.
We have installed a fire door in our minds to stop us hearing the inner sounds. If we want to, we can unlock that door by simply changing our focus. When people look for and eventually find their heartbeat in meditation, they often comment on how loud and strong it is. How could they could ever have missed it?
The best time to listen to your body is in bed in the small hours. First you hear the breath at your nostrils, and then in your throat. You notice the persistent buzz in the head, which is not necessarily tinnitus but the hum of the nervous system itself. You first feel the pulse in the heart, or in the hands or the face. Eventually you can feel it all over the skin, and deep in the core. You may notice the ongoing growls and gurgles of digestion. I occasionally hear the clicking sounds of the valves of the heart as they open and close.
Beyond all that, you can also detect deep, subtle vibrations that are usually very soothing. The body is full of movement, right down to the molecular level, and everything that moves inevitably makes sound. Electrical and hormonal processes have their distinct sound colour. Some of it we can literally hear, because the vibrations fall within the range that the ears can detect. Otherwise we ‘feel’ all those sounds more as a symphony of vibration, the complex hum of life within us.
If you train yourself to listen, you’ll find your perception of your body can change utterly. While we may think of the body as consisting of muscles, bones, organs etc, we actually feel it an sophisticated interplay of vibrations. This is the body experienced as an energy field rather than as gross matter. Deep within it all is what the Tibetans call the ‘bliss- body’. This is the ever-present bliss of being alive, despite whatever misery or pain is happening on the surface.
Because your inner song gives voice to your biological and mental states, it is always changing. When you are relaxed, the song becomes gentle and soothing. When you are tense, it jangles and strains. The song also changes according to the daily cycle, and your moods. Adrenalin and busyness destabilise your natural balance. Sadness literally feels and sounds different from love or fear. Your energy-field can change within seconds as your thoughts change.
The yogis in their caves listened to their bodies for good reasons. Things that resonate, no matter how big or small, tend to adjust their vibrations so they harmonise with their surroundings. This tendency toward mutual resonance and harmony is especially true of the body.
Even if you are old and sick, your body still knows what perfect health feels like. The great relaxation researcher, Herbert Benson, calls it ‘remembered wellness’. A chronically tight muscle or upset stomach still knows what good health and function feels like, and given half a chance it will move in that direction. As you relax, the natural rhythms reassert themselves and start to harmonise with each other, right down to the tiniest process in the body.
The yogis found that by listening to the inner symphony they could greatly enhance this process of self-healing and integration. If you attune yourself to the resonance of your body, it can gradually dissolve even the most ancient pain and misery within you.
Because the inner symphony is so fluid and responsive, it also tries to resonate with what is outside us. Few of us choose to live in caves, so we are inevitably subjected to unpleasant sound as well. We are saturated by vibrations that are hostile and irritating to our bodies – the incessant noise and mental busyness of our modern world.
Thinking and talking, for example, usually have a jagged, arrhythmic, scattering effect on the mind. Listening to music, on the other hand, or focusing on any sensory activity, is calmer and more soothing. You can test this effect quite simply by using your radio. Notice how you feel when you’re listening to a talk show. Words in any form generally stimulate us. Then switch to a music channel and notice how your state of mind calms down.
Music is a marvelous tool for reharmonising the body and mind. Nearly all of us use it semiconsciously as a mind-altering substance, and this is not specific to human beings. Birds don’t just sing for territory and sex. They clearly have an aesthetic appreciation of music in their own way. Even little bugs like to generate their own rhythms and songs.
Music can powerfully alter our mood. Martial music sends people to war. Angry music contributes to pub brawls and and soccer riots. Some music definitely leads to sex and drugs and suicide, just as the wowsers claim. Religious music enhances religious fervour. Indian music even has particular scales (‘ragas’), to augment particular emotions.
Music blends effortlessly with any kind of emotion, imagery or story. As the great harmoniser, it can integrate and give meaning to any experience. The songs we love as teenagers and young adults often define us in a way that rarely happens later in life.
So can we consciously use music as a source of inspiration and power? And is some music healthier or more spiritual than others? Over the years, extravagant claims have been made for Gregorian chant, baroque music, the didgeridoo, whale song, the potency of certain mantra, and so on.
However, no kind of music will have a uniform effect on everyone. What we think of as music is actually the interaction of the outer musical vibrations with the ongoing song of our own bodies. In other words, we hear music through our own biochemistry in that moment, and we can’t distinguish the two.
To have any useful effect, any music needs to synchronise fairly well with your inner song. It used to be claimed, falsely as it turns out, that playing Mozart in schools improved academic performance, and made students into well-rounded, happy individuals. This annoyed me because although I love old music, I’ve always had difficulty with Mozart. We seem to be ever so slightly out of synch.
Even more important than the music itself is how you listen to it. Listening to pop music with passion is much better than dutifully listening to classics. Furthermore, we tend to hear music rather than actively listen to it. We use it as muzak or as something to distract us or put us to sleep. We may listen only to favourites or limit ourselves to some style we know well. If we listen absentminded, a piece of music becomes little more than a melody line or a beat that fades in and out of consciousness. Habit and inattention can easily sap the life from a piece of music we once loved.
If you listen actively, on the other hand, you can increase the impact of the music tenfold. Time slows down and you take in much more detail. The music raises feeling and images and the unconscious reverberations of the past. You feel the music change from second to second, and you intuitively know why it does so. At peak moments your body and soul resonate with the music. When the music finishes, you feel a different person.
I believe that many famous musicians remain healthy and active way into old age because they’ve spend a life saturated in rich, harmonious vibrations. By training themselves to resonate with music, the music in turn trains them. It shapes the neurons and synapses of their brains, the way their bodies move and breathe, and the way they feel and know the world.
Music is like air. It seems light and undemanding and, in this age of the iPod, as common as muck, but who of us could live without it? Music tunes us up. We need it to know who we are and to make sense of things at a gut level. Whatever is happening to you right now, there is bound to be a song or just a melody that mirrors it perfectly. May you find your inner song and the outer music that expresses it.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005