I spend a lot of time in silent meditation during my sessions with people. Many sessions begin with a few minutes of shared silence. Other times, we might spend up to half the session in meditation. Sharing silence in this way creates a beautiful intimacy in the session, but as I am writing this morning what I am really thinking about is the birdsong that is almost always part of these sessions. Every call is an invitation to experience a unique sonic environment. Yesterday, I heard a house finch singing in Fairfield, Iowa. Last spring, I looked forward to monthly calls with a young Sri Lankan man who lived on the edge of a forest in northern India. Oh, the chorus of birds that serenaded us! My memory bank of sounds is deep and complex, with many layers of meaning and experience creating complex overtones and resonances.
As I’m typing this, I hear a barking dog in the distance, perhaps a block away. There is the occasional rumble of a passing train. Now an airplane on approach to O’Hare. And there is a beautiful a cappella birdsong performance with chirping sparrow accompaniment. Listening more deeply, I hear a faint roar from Sheridan Road, one block to the east and still pretty quiet at 6am. Then suddenly, all the sounds fade and there is just the sound of one robin singing.
Spiritual life is about coming alive. And it is our senses that must wake up, for it is through them that we receive information about the world. All of life is mediated through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. If we are to awaken to God’s presence in the world, then our senses must become God-sensitive and God-aware. When teaching, Jesus sometimes poked fun at his listeners saying that his message would be clear to “those with ears to hear,” as if some might not have ears. But perhaps he was challenging them to go more deeply with their listening? The Christian tradition invites us to listen deeply with the ears of the heart. In silent meditation we might sit with an open, receptive attitude as if listening for the sound of God’s presence. In the Zen tradition, we are challenged to listen deeply to each sound but especially to the sound of silence. When one enters deeply into silence, one may become one with it and experience wordless communion with all that is.
Listening in this deep way, we enter into and become one with the Ground of Being, the primordial naked consciousness that underlies all phenomena. We enter a world of richness, beauty and simplicity. We find a fullness to life even when there is nothing in particular present. “Ah, that is how life is! It is just like this!”
Another jet is passing overhead. Soon the symphony of sounds will become louder and more complex. But the sound of silence will still always be there, like a bass note which forms the foundation for a melody. It is there in a supporting role, supporting melody and harmony and allowing them to be the stars. Tell me, can you hear the underlying silence of this moment?