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The Sounds of the City

Listen to the sounds of the city.

WHO is listening to the sounds of the city?

When we ask "who?" our natural reaction is to immediately bring our attention back to ourselves as something apart from the sounds we've been listening to. We often hear talk of "just listening" as if that were a simple, straight forward matter, and I think we all are sometimes too ready to say glibly that we just sit or just listen. But when we ask who's listening, we make explicit the experience of separation that really is going on all the time in most of us, no matter how much Zen talk about "just listening " we may have heard. As we listen, we may be trying to identify the sounds we hear, we may think some are pleasant or unpleasant, shrill or lovely; we may be distracted, entertained, or bored as we listen. Labeling our thoughts allows us to catch all these reactions as they occur, to notice the endless commentary that goes on in our heads as we listen. As we get experienced in labeling, we get less and less inclined to get caught up in the content of our thoughts, but are able to just watch them go by as thoughts. And the same thing holds true for our bodily reactions, the emotional responses, tensions, and pain we feel as we sit. Gradually we become more willing to let that pain simply be there as part of our experience, the way we let whatever sound that comes through the window simply be there. But it's a long and difficult process. When we listen, we don't think we're listening to OUR sound; but when I'm in pain, it's MY pain, and it not so easy to simply sit still and feel it.

The more we allow our inner experiences of thought, emotion, and bodily tension to simply be there, the more they become like the sounds of the city. Some pleasant, some unpleasant - we notice these reactions inevitably arise - but we allow ourselves to feel them as they come and go with less and less resistance or attachment. Inner and outer blur. We simply experience the succession of thought, sound, sensation, and so forth. It's then that we're genuinely just listening, and the question of who's listening drops away.