The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.
I believe that every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully — connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other, not to mention spiritually connected, because every spiritual path I know of has listening and contemplation at its heart.
For the past few days I’ve had the luxury of time, and I’ve spent an hour of that time every day consciously listening. My sense of hearing has been noticeably active the entire time I’ve been awake, but for an hour every day I’ve been deliberately focusing on sounds and proliferating the meaning that I make from those sounds, to the exclusion of all other mental and physical activity.
Call it ‘meditating on sounds’ if you wish, but it is quite a different practice to the more usual method of meditating on the breath. Martine Batchelor highlights the key point in her book ‘Meditation for life’:
Concentrating only on the breath or the body, you can sometimes become too locked inside yourself. Listening to sounds is a wonderful meditation that opens you to the world around.
So, with that in mind, in this blog post I will describe what this formal meditation practice involves, why it might be something that you should engage with, and how the experience went for me this morning when I practiced it.
Sitting and listening
The conditions for the practice are straightforward enough: find a safe location where you won’t be disturbed, and plan to remain there, eyes closed, for a specific period of time. For the first quarter of that time you consciously listen to sounds within your body, internal sounds. For the second quarter you consciously listen to sounds coming from immediately around you. For the next quarter you consciously listen to sounds coming from further afield, and for the final quarter you just listen to whatever presents itself to your awareness. Forget about the fourth stage if you prefer.
Usual mediation instructions apply… Get prepared: stick with one posture that you’re comfortable with (standing, sitting, lying – not walking, as you’ve got your eyes shut!), eliminate preventable distractions (turn the phone off, make sure someone else can attend to the kids, do not drive or operate heavy machinery) and if you’re anxious about strictly marking time then use an audible timer of some kind (such as the Insight timer app).
During the meditation: keep your eyes closed and your body still, remember that your intention is to listen to sounds, and if you notice that your mind has wandered away from the object of your meditation then recall your intention and get back to the object without giving yourself a hard time.
Afterwards: spend a few moments in quiet contemplation, to allow yourself to digest the experience of conscious listening, have a good think if you want, and don’t forget to open your eyes again before you move on to whatever’s next.
Why consciously listen?
The best reasons that I can give for engaging in this practice are explained beautifully by the ‘sound consultant’ Julian Treasure in his TED talk called ‘5 ways to listen better’. In brief, then, he reminds us that the act of listening (of making meaning from sounds that we hear) is a mental process that employs techniques like pattern recognition, differencing and a host of other filters. These aren’t really categorised as cognitive biases, but they do invisibly shape our perception of our surroundings and, as such, we can arguably make better decisions if we’re better aware of the processes that are shaping our worldview.
Julian Treasure’s argument is that in an increasingly noisy world we are losing the ability to listen consciously, and that this is not a trivial problem as listening is our access to understanding our situation in the world and our relationships with others. Treasure goes on to describe five simple exercises that you can do to improve your conscious listening, and the meditation on sounds that I’m advocating here includes most of the useful aspects of all five. I highly recommend watching the full talk, it’s under eight minutes long.
Towards the end of the talk he admits to not knowing how to get this practice more widely adopted, but that we need to find a way. Perhaps it is something that could be taught in schools? I’m a teacher, and I’ve often shared Julian Treasure’s talks with my Sixth Form tutor group because he’s such an engaging speaker with an important message to get across – but perhaps I could be doing more to help the students engage with the practice of conscious listening, at the very least to appreciate what quiet might mean in our increasingly noisy world.
So, I’m suggesting that if this integrative practice appeals to you then try it out. If you’ve done it before, try it again. If it doesn’t appeal to you, try it anyway… it doesn’t have to be complicated or take up a lot of your time, it’s the sort of thing you can do in queue at the supermarket. Notice that the awareness that you develop in this practice can be brought into conscious listening during conversations, in your interactions with others. Then, if you feel like you’re benefiting from this practice, please share it with someone else. Make a difference in your own web of connections, as that’s all you can realistically do!
Appendix – Journal notes from this morning’s meditation
Read on only if you’re interested in my own personal experience of the meditation on sounds from this morning. I sat on a cushion on the decking in the garden outside my back door, and set the Insight Timer app on my iPad to make a pinging sound once every fifteen minutes for a total of one hour. When I finished I moved back indoors and sat at the laptop to type up my recollections from the meditation, which are pasted in below…
Part 1 of 4 – Attention on internal sounds
The familiar ‘ringing’ in my ears. High pitched, continuous. Unchanging pitch. Higher pitch than any of the external sounds coming in. Unchanging volume. Does it come more from one side or the other? Neither, it seems to be in the middle. Same place as the internal monologue. Interminable. And always in my head, between my ears – never in any other part of my body.
Mind wanders, drifts away with thoughts. When I realise that I’m not focusing on the internal ringing sound I notice that I was not aware of it. Trying to use this effect to make it ‘go away’, to deliberately mask the ringing by thinking thoughts, doesn’t have that effect. The ringing is still there in the background, behind the internal voice of my thoughts. Why don’t I perceive my internal ‘vocal’ thoughts to be a sound, whereas the ringing is perceived as a sound?
Part 2 – Attention on nearby sounds
Ping. Nearby on my left, the bell sound from the iPad, telling me that 15 minutes is up. Nearby sounds… the birds in the garden are the most obvious. Most prominent is the robin. It is nearby, higher up, slightly to one side. Never the same phrase twice, but always a sweet melody. Phrase, then a pause of about the same length, then another phrase and so on.
Later I notice, sometimes, that there is another robin singing in the pauses, further away and on my other side. There are fainter sounds from blue tits, reedier and not melodious. I can name the birds from their songs, should I be naming them or listening to them? It seems automatic, to name them from the sounds. Feeling a sense of achievement in this ability. The pigeons, not vocalising but noisily flapping their wings in the newly leaved branches of the tree above. Probably visiting their nest that they’ve built high up in the tree. Occasional flapping and fluttering, the robin sings on.
Laughter from my son in the house behind me, long unselfconscious giggling – he is probably still reading that Tom Gates book. What do I do that makes him laugh like that? Other domestic sounds from the house: the ironing board opening up, the electronic peep of the iron when it is switched on, again when it reaches working temperature. Some inaudible speech, a conversation.
Aware in the silences that I sometimes notice the internal ringing, wonder if I should be paying attention to the gaps between the birdsong phrases? That’s one of the big differences between these nearby sounds and the internal ringing. That and the directionality, and obviously the externality. The bird sounds sound like they are ‘out there’.
Ambulance goes up the street in front of the house, siren sounding. Should I classify the traffic noise as nearby or far? It’s probably the same distance away as some of the birds. Tyre noise is like a swooshing, I can tell if they’re going up the road or down the road. (Afterthought: I didn’t notice the clanking of the loose drain cover as the cars passed over it). Occasional toot of a horn from the crossroads down the road.
Interrupted by the song of a blackbird, from further away directly in front of me. I picture it sitting on the TV aerial of the flats beyond the end of the garden. It sounds different to the robin. I’m naming bird species again. The song is more reverberant, I imagine it being reflected from the wall along the alleyway.
Part 3 – Attention on far away sounds
Ping. Loud bell sound, slightly startling. Straight away – jet aircraft a long way overhead, background but loud. As it fades the two-tone parp-parp of a train from a mile or so away. Funny that these two far away sounds should be so obliging as to happen within 10 seconds of start of the ‘far away’ section of this meditation. The sound of the jet plane very slowly fades, merging into other nearer sounds.
Then struggling to notice any other ‘far away’ sounds over the road noise, a motorbike engine, cars braking as they approach the traffic lights. Again wonder if these are classified as near or far.
Another plane sound, high up but to the left. This one’s a prop plane, not a jet. Identifying and discriminating again. The local airport does do both jets and props. Thumping sounds from my son playing a jumping around in the lounge at the front of the house.
A boiler starts up – could be ours or the neighbours. It’s ours, someone’s probably having a shower – can hear the boiler, but not the showering sounds as the bathroom’s round the front of the house and I’m at the back. Notice that there are fewer bird sounds, perhaps the robin’s flown elsewhere and the pigeon has settled on its nest.
Part 4 – Wide open attention on any sounds
After this ping I notice another jet plane sound from directly overhead. Funny – the last one I heard was after the previous ping, are they every hour? No, it was fifteen minutes ago. The time’s going by so quickly, why did I think it was an hour ago?
My breathing has become very gentle and calm, not really making any noticeable sound as I breathe in and out through my nose. I’ve not been at all focused on my breath – not like when I’m running and its the major focus of my attention. Yet somehow I’ve managed to stay alive.
Hard to recollect much from this final section. Certainly felt a sense of space, of not being in my head whilst still getting engrossed in discursive thoughts. Time going by very quickly, slightly surprised by the final ping and immediately a feeling of ‘disappointment’ that I hadn’t been ‘doing it right’ for the past 15 minutes. What would I journal about? Dismissed it. The conscious intention was to just see what happened when I listened to anything for the final 15 minutes. And a kind of ambiguous aware but not aware state was what happened.
This is one of the few proverbs that I have few, if any, reservations about, because it seems to apply to pretty much all conditions. There’s lots of darkness about – ignorance, dogmatism, hatred, prejudice – and it’s very tempting to merely curse it. If, like me, you’re of a critical disposition and can easily see problems and false assumptions in almost any position, it’s especially easy just to sit there in the dark criticising on all sides and working up anger and hatred in the process. Yet lighting a candle takes a moment of awareness and creativity. It demands that we consider the sphere in which we can act rather than remaining fixated only on the wider sphere of concern. If we have criticisms, it requires that we also think about the positive alternatives we have to offer.
Starting the Middle Way Society (which has been going since 2013) is one attempt to light a candle. Before that, I was developing Middle Way Philosophy, seeing problems in one absolute position and then another on all sides, convinced that the Middle Way was the best practical option, but unable to offer much as an alternative to the positions I criticised. Being able to offer something positive, in which philosophy is clearly and inextricably linked to practice and supported by a developing community, feels more and more valuable. Even if it turns out that the candle is blown out by a gale, I’ll be glad that I lit it.
The current political situation might also provide a important application of this proverb. Personally, I have found the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK (and now the calling of an opportunistic election in the UK) a time of considerable political darkness. Nor am I sure, at present, of any realistic political action I can take that will make any difference. The best way I can light a candle, it seems, is to carry on doing what I’m doing, developing and offering the Middle Way, in the hope that this will have a small but positive effect on political life.
Are there any occasions when it is better to curse the darkness instead? One might imagine circumstances where lighting any kind of candle was impossible, because of living in a highly repressive society for example. I can understand people being afraid to light candles in places like North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Even in a politically more open country, you might feel yourself to be trapped in circumstances that snuff out all candles – in a highly frustrating and exploitative job for example. But even in these kinds of circumstances, merely cursing achieves nothing except creating conflict. However much you may hate your rulers and however dark it may be, it seems better to sit with awareness in the darkness and to think about creative ways forward, than it is to merely curse.
I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off your scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.
If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments, and experiences. The truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.
–David McRaney You Can Beat Your Brain
About an hour ago someone I’d never met before knocked at my front door. I gave him a pair of headphones, he said thank you, and the transaction was done. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever meet again.
We both benefited, me and the stranger: he gained a working pair of good quality hi-fi headphones, and I was rid of an object that I really didn’t need to own. This wasn’t as random an act as I’ve made it sound, and I haven’t started giving away everything I own in a fit of asceticism or altruism… it’s just that there are some possessions that I really don’t need to hang on to, and freecycle.org exists in order to rehome those things that I don’t have the energy or inclination to sell.
A familiar story?
Here’s the backstory: a long time ago—probably over ten years ago—I bought a pair of headphones. At the time I was spending a lot of time listening to music through some tiny in-the-ear earphones, and it seemed sensible to treat myself for my birthday or whatever to a reasonably good-quality pair of hi-fi headphones. So I did. The sound quality was great, but however I adjusted them they were never really very comfortable to wear and after a few weeks of trying I pretty much gave up using them.
Every now and then I’d rediscover these headphones, wherever I’d stashed them, and try them again and then realise why I’d stopped using them. It got to the point where I’d accidentally find them, glare at them because they reminded of how I’d invested a reasonable amount of money by purchasing them, then ignore them. One more thing that I owned, but never used any more. One more thing that I might as well not own, but could not get rid of because (once again) I’d been taken in by the so-called ‘sunk costs’ fallacy.
Actually, about six months ago I re-discovered these headphones, found that the material on the ear pads had perished, and bought some replacement ear pads over the internet. Thus investing even more money in this thing that I owned, but never used. I thought I was being rational, after all – what good were the headphones if the pads were falling to bits? Buying new pads would make the headphones great again! But that was the fallacy at work. A more objective view would have been that I was ‘throwing good money after bad’, expressed very clearly as ‘the truth’ in the quote from David McRaney’s book at the top of this article.
Anyway, conditions have changed and I think I’ve now made a better decision by freecycling the headphones rather than putting them back in a box under my bed to be ignored for another six months. There’s always going to be the nagging concern in the back of my mind that I might just need those at some future point, and I’ll regret having got rid of them. But I’ve felt that often enough before, and I seem to have survived.
The ‘sunk costs’ fallacy
The headphones story is just one aspect of a greater springtime sort-out that I’ve been engaged in over the Easter holiday. And turning up unused item after unused item I’ve been realising that I’ve been reluctant to let go mainly due to the sunk costs fallacy. This fallacy is behind a huge range of dysfunctional human behaviour, from the relatively harmless (eating a whole bag of crisps, even though you’re not very hungry, because you paid for a whole bag of crisps) to the very harmful (a head of state starting a war against another nation, even though the war will not improve things under current conditions, because you had previously committed your country to that course of action based on the conditions back then).
In economics a ‘sunk cost’ is a cost that has been put into a project, and that cannot be recovered. In psychology the same term, by analogy, applies to emotional investments that have already been made: things that we cannot forget or un-do. The fallacy part comes in when we assume that we’re operating rationally (by not allowing the sunk costs to disproportionately influence our decision making) while actually operating irrationally (because of the strong emotional investment we have already made).
Apparently this fallacy is a consequence of the way that human minds work; the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on our behaviour than the promise of gains—which is also known as ‘loss aversion’—which means that we tend not to treat losses and gains in an even-handed way. In David McRaney’s highly readable book about cognitive biases and logical fallacies, ‘You can beat your brain‘ (US title: ‘You are now less dumb‘), he explains the enormous success of the Farmville game on social media in terms of the sunk costs fallacy. You can read this chapter of the book on McRaney’s own website (link).
Love people. Use things. Before I finish I’ll tell you about one more example from my springtime sort-out, one where the monetary value wasn’t a factor. And I’m not talking about the box of sixty leather bookmarks, although that was snapped up the same day by an enthusiastic freecycler whose mother apparently ‘loves all things books!’
For the past 25 years I’ve been hanging on to an A5-sized spiral-bound drawing pad, full of black pen landscape drawings that I’d done when I was about 15 years old. It was so long ago that I can’t quite remember what it was that made me start filling this book – I liked drawing and wanted to get better at it, I had time to spare during the school holidays. Anyway, the thing is that I’ve been hanging on to this pad for a quarter of a century: whenever I moved house, and that’s fairly often, the pad moved with me. I couldn’t get rid of this thing that was the only tangible reminder of the hundreds of hours I’d spent drawing these pictures in my mid-teens.
Looking through the pad of drawings a few days ago, with slightly more objective eyes, I realised that 90% of the drawings weren’t even original! I’d been working through a tutorial-style book called something like ‘How to draw landscapes‘. So I’ve removed the three pictures from the back of the pad that were my own creations, and recycled the rest. In fact I’ve gone one better and I’ve scanned these three pictures and they now live in ‘the cloud’ instead of my sock drawer.
And it’s not even the pictures that have value for me, it is the meaning they hold for me and others, and this meaning doesn’t depend on the continued physical existence of the object. For example, one of the drawings was of the row of cottages where my grandparents lived for most of their lives (shown in the picture here). I know that my grandfather, in his 90s now, will find this fascinating, it’ll be something we can talk about. We can laugh together about the sheds where he accumulated about five duplicates of every kind of gardening tool – that was quite an effort when he eventually moved out and down-sized, to help him let go of 60 years worth of well-hoarded stuff.
Let it go, let it go…
To conclude then, I’m not going to tell you that you might as well get rid of that material clutter in your life – you probably already know that! I’m not about to give you any advice about how to let go of the stuff that you’re needlessly hoarding either, there are enough minimalism blogs and progs which can help you with that. My point is this: remember the sunk costs fallacy, which lies behind your irrational reluctance to get rid of stuff that is of no value to you. And in remembering it, you’re no longer beholden to its underhand influence. If you can remember this with the more trivial issues of day-to-day living, there’s hope that you might also avoid the unethical actions that we are driven towards by loss aversion.
Looking to the near future, it will soon enough be time for the great summer sort-out, which means tackling the dreaded shed. Wish me luck.
Our guest today is the Australian artist Abdul Abdullah. His interdisciplinary approach is primarily concerned with the experience of the ‘other’ in society. This, and the wider topic of prejudice will be the focus of our conversation today. The youtube slideshow version also includes around 40 pieces of Abdul’s work.