While the emphasis of this website and blog is on the visual arts, from time to time offerings of other ways folk attempt to express the direct experience of inter-being are included. (Haiku poets Gabriel Rosenstock and Ron C Moss, for example.) This is the first time I have featured writing about the art of listening with the entire constellation of cells called a body – a somatic listening from silence that erases the perceived separation between the hearer and the heard in the same way that the awakened eye erases the gap between the observer and the observed.
I know of no one more capable and qualified than Suprabha Seshan when it comes to speaking and writing of these things. Suprabha is an environmental educator and restoration ecologist living and working at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghat mountains of southern India – a community that has been focused on plant conservation and nature education for 40 years. She is an an Ashoka Fellow and a winner of the Whitley Award, the top prize from the UK for nature conservation. I first met her at Brockwood Park School – she is an alumna of the Krishnamurti Schools – and later, on visits to the Sanctuary, had the delight of witnessing her relationship with her jungle environment. She is clearly a woman in her element!
This post is a teaser of sorts – a sampling of excerpts from her article The Music of Everything – which was recently published in EarthLines Magazine. I hope you’ll click through to this page to read the whole piece, and see more of Meena Subramaniam‘s wondrous paintings.
I sing to elephants. It’s what I do. I sing because I like to, and because I believe my elephant neighbours are comfortable in my singing presence. I sing all the time, and it’s when I sing that I know more precisely how I feel. My own speech never does justice to my thoughts and emotions: always a little clumsy and coarse, somehow inadequate, and inexpressive. It’s different when I sing. My utterances are more in tune with my intentions.
I also sing to the langur across the river, and the whistling thrush when he graces this ridge where I live. I sing to treefrogs in the monsoon. I sing to hornbills when they swoop by, matching their cackles and caws, so they swing their heavy-beaked heads to look at me. I sing to hill mynahs all through the winter, my favourite of all musical pleasures. I sing to crows several times a day. As they increase in number in this once crowless place, signifying changes both local and global, the crows here hold lessons in ecology, as well as in musical discovery. As do the macaques, with their so-called commonplace behaviours, and commonplace sounds.
To live for long years in a place works the body, the vocal chords and the mind in a specific and exact way. Epigenetics is real. We are shaped by our environment, by everything and everyone we touch and are touched by, as well as all the stories and messages passing through. The body receives, remembers and transmits, evokes meaning through its very receptivity and eagerness to relate. The jungle tom-tom beats daily, not as the stereotype of a dark man beating a drum to warn other humans of portentous events, but in the million messages, prompts and invitations that pack any column of air or ground. The land, the forest, this community are all abuzz with vibrations: little sonic ripples, and dances of molecules. The art of listening is to be open to these, to become aware and conscious of the effect of them on your supremely conscious body. For life (tissues, cells, organs, bodies and minds) is suggestible. And moreover, it suggests. Not just now and then, but continually, through touch, movement, speech and song, wave and particle. It is a fact that all living beings are tuned in.
It was in going to the wildest places on the land by twilight, and many times in the night, often by moonlight, when my eyes fell quiet, that my ears opened out and shot through a sonic barrier to confound the rest of me.
To experience directly without recourse to authorized systems of knowledge is to be adrift in the open ocean, no anchor, no bearing, no rescue ship in sight. To listen to the night sounds of the forest is a particularly disorienting experience. The ventriloquists are busy, the eyes are dimmed, and the cranium is resonant with its own music; but the main problem is in accessing any thread of meaning. When I fully experience this lack of meaning, when I am aware of my utter lack of comprehension, when I cannot find a single marker or orientation to direct my mind, I can feel the physical impact of every sound, and also of every thought.
Given time, and a settling down of our ideas and preconceptions, we would perhaps have recourse to that infant wisdom we all came into this physical world with, that rippling openness to all sensory stimuli, that vibrant sea of awareness in which every sound causes a unique impression in our minds. When one is rested in this, as little children are, a different depth of discernment is born, and the more direct it is to one’s own experience, the more subtle the discernment is.
How to hear an ant:
To hear them one has to be prepared to hear nothing, or what appears to be nothing, silence. One has to get past the tinnitus, past your baseline brain sound, past the wordstream, past the big sounds in the environment, past the littler sounds, then the fainter ones, and further, further and further, and still further, softer, quieter, until you go so far out and so far in, past the sound of the mist, past the sound of the sun, past the silence, past the confusions. Did I actually hear that, did that actually make a sound, did I just make it up, am I hearing what I think I’m hearing? Then you will hear the ant.
Painting by Meena Subramaniam – The Wood Life, acrylic on canvas