In the Mahayana tradition of buddhism the bodhisattva Avolokitesvara is revered for his compassion and his concern for other beings. This maha – sattva has a face turned at every angle and a hand and arm reaching out in every direction. Even more intriguing is his name which is translated from the sanskrit as – “he who looks down upon sound”. This sound referred to is the cries of suffering beings trapped in a world of repetitious cravings and reactivity. Not only does the bodhisattva see in every direction, and reach out in every direction but he hears the sounds that vibrate through all space and time. He hears without exception, he listens to all beings, not just a chosen few.
We see this quality of receptiveness in other religious traditions – in christianity the virgin Mary and many of the saints are attributed with this quality, not to mention the animistic deities of paganism who reside in the natural world and who can be reached out to for help. For those who feel dispossesed or ignored these figures offer the opportunity to be heard, either through prayer or devotional mantra. To feel listened to is to feel connected. But what does this mean in our modern secular times? If we can connect this human need to be heard with our human ability to listen it might be raised to another level where it fulfils a spiritual need.
The Quakers, in their weekly meetings, sit in silence for up to an hour as part of their worship. They sit and wait to hear that ‘still small quiet voice’ that leads them to speak if required. This kind of listening does not involve the ears, it involves ones whole being. We need to recognise that this still small voice is that which, when ignored, is replaced by a world of distraction and noise. Nowadays the majority of people live in this condition, not so much unwilling to listen in the way defined above, but never even aware that it is possible to do so.
For this sort of activity to make more sense maybe we need to move away from the literal interpretation of listening as a physical quality of our sensory experience and look a little more deeply at the state of mind that arises when we open our selves to really listening to the world. What happens within our consciousness when we sensitise ourselves to that which might otherwise not be heard? In some ways it might feel like a dropping of barriers or a stripping away of restraint. This goes beyond a physical action and becomes an intention of mind, we open our whole being to the the universe, without qualification or judgement.
In our present time it is possible, through the use of mechanical equipment to hear sounds we never knew existed or to hear things in a way that our ears cannot accomplish without augmentation. Although there is some element of novelty in this, it does also reveal a world previously hidden from us, sounds and vibrations that we never knew were there that can contain many levels of communication that connect us to this fascinating world around us. Suddenly the shifting sands of the dessert have a voice, the worms in the earth or the sub-sonic resonances of tectonic plates can speak to us. This is the the realm of the artist; she, who will take the sounds of the world and reveal them to us, point out to us their specialness and the richness of the auditory landscape around us.
This ability to listen closely and carefully is not always easy. The deaf cannot experience this world and yet they can still ‘listen’ with their bodies, sensing the world as it moves and vibrates. These vibrations are all around us on a spectrum that we can travel on from sub to super sonic yet most of the time we choose not to hear. We have, as the great sound recordist Chris Watson said in an interview about his work –
‘… to learn to listen again”.