In December 1988, a few months after my third birthday, Life magazine ran a cover story based on the question of “Why?” Roughly 115 people, from the Dalai Lama and Richard Nixon to Elie Wiesel and Run D.M.C., hazarded theories on the meaning of life. Many of them were, perhaps unsurprisingly, thorny.
The answer that gave me the biggest tussle was that of John Cage: “No why. Just here.”
I first came across the Cage quote shortly before I started meditating, a practice that I’d adopted initially out of the need to give myself some space from my work in the music industry. I needed peace and quiet, but mostly I needed quiet. I needed a neutral territory to sit with — and listen to — my biggest adversary: myself, even if half the time all I really have to say is whichever ABBA lyric won’t stop running on repeat in my head.
When I started practicing at MNDFL, a Greenwich Village studio that offers classes based around different branches of mindfulness, an offering of sound-based practice seemed counterintuitive to someone whose livelihood depended on sound, and for whom everything triggered something. The 4 and 5 trains hum “Somewhere” from West Side Story when they pull out of a station. My synesthesia is triggered by hearing something viscerally visual play on a coffee shop’s tinny speakers, and I can’t get the vision of fir trees out of my head. The first domino tips and it’s all downhill: I’m suddenly not in my own body, but rather in everything else going on in our sonic world. I’m out of the moment and down a rabbit hole. Hello, “Why?” – it’s good to see you again.
And then one day I walk into a sound class, because MNDFL is running a punch-card promotion and I tend to go after those contests like Tracy Flick with a high school election. Sara Auster is a sound therapy practitioner and meditation teacher who works with crystal singing bowls and tuning forks at the front of the soft white room.
The resonant qualities of the bowls, infused with elements like smoky quartz and carnelian, work on a level unlike anything I’ve heard at Lincoln Center or (Le) Poisson Rouge. They landed in a way that my ability to see sound and hear colors has never quite experienced. Having been a critic for years, I was used to hearing the storyline, to following the overall arc of a piece. Here the improvised nature of Sara’s work, intuitive and customized to flow with the vibe of the group in any given session, lends a sense of the ephemeral to the sound.
“When more senses are engaged it can help us to access an even deeper connection to the present moment,” Sara explains of the effects of a sound bath. For me, each moment is pure, shining, and good like a child in a Christmas story, and as you meet each new moment there’s no nostalgia for the past. “Why” ceases to be a question. It’s not even a concept. There’s no need to run towards the sound or from it — it meets me, nods, and passes on.
“Why?” did, however, become a question at the forefront of my mind on November 9. If my Spotify history during that week had a literary counterpart, it would probably best match up with Notes from the Underground: rambling, visceral to the point of existential, messy. All of the “why,” none of the “here.” I was disembodied, hairpinning between the sepia-toned idealism of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to a daylong binge of the Chieftains’ The Bells of Dublin in hopes of tamping down post-election malaise with premature Christmas cheer. (Despite all best efforts from Kevin Conneff and the McGarrigles, no dice.) As I careened among stages of grief, I toggled between Pussy Riot and Sibelius before capping the week with Leonard Cohen.
And then I wanted silence again. Not the kind of stone-cold silence late in the evening of November 8, or the stick-to-your-ribs silence that hung on the N train during the morning commute on November 9, but an open field of silence where I could sit with myself, remarry mind and body, and take a step back from the grief, fear, and anger. I wanted to go back into myself and avoid hearing the concession speech, the talking head analyses, the conspiracy theorists, the what-ifs.
Of course, this isn’t the point. Meditation is breathing with the world rather than in spite of it. And this includes the multitude of sounds — good, bad, and neutral — that populate it. Meditation is a practice for life. The time with Sara, who takes practitioners in a vulnerable position of surrendering to the moment and whatever may come with it and in return gives a soundscape that lays like a vast Nordic tundra on which our experience may play out — good, bad, and neutral — is time that we train for when our skills are called upon off the cushion.
“We could all stand to listen with a bit more compassion,” Sara says. “When we label something as bad, we start to build a resistance to it; even your physical body can start to harden. This can cause stress or unease. We can’t always control the sounds around us but we can absolutely begin to shift our relationship to those sounds.”
Experiencing the capacity to listen with the whole of the body versus simply the head is a genie that doesn’t go back into the bottle. You suddenly know when you’re faking it from there, and if this world needs anything right now it’s less fakery and more genuineness.
So I began to listen. I listened to my Uber driver who voted for Trump out of the belief that, even as an immigrant from Central America, he stood a better chance for a stable life with him than with Clinton. I listened to the guy who cuts my hair talk about his coal-mining family in West Virginia and his husband’s family in Michigan. I listen to the anger and fear expressed by protesters in Times Square.
I don’t seek out the experiences, but from moment to moment there is plenty to hear in this brave new world. I’ll take it, wholly and unconditionally. I’ll meet what it has to say on the field that Rumi describes out beyond our ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, because essentially we’re all singing the same song. It’s the song of our fears, our fever dreams, our bank accounts, our laundry lists, our high school crushes, and our imaginary friends.
The “Why” is here.
The Home Version
Sara Auster offers a simple listening meditation to work with in any setting:
“Close your eyes for a moment and listen. See if you can notice the sounds in the room and outside of the room. Trying to fight the sounds is unlikely to work. The sounds are not going to go away because you don’t like them. If you respond aggressively to them, then you are just getting yourself into a fight that you cannot win.
“Call to mind the living, breathing, feeling human beings behind the noises and sounds you hear and wish them well. Accept these sounds as part of your meditation practice. Stay loosely focused on your breathing, and let the sound be a secondary focus of the practice. If you can stop seeing the sound as the enemy of the practice and instead see it as part of the practice, then the conflict will start to dissolve.
“Let the sounds you hear be your anchor to the present moment. Don’t judge what you hear or analyze the sounds, just listen, observe and experience them. If you become restless or impatient, notice these feelings and allow them, but do not react to them.
“Stick with this for at least 5 minutes and notice how your awareness has shifted.”
Olivia Giovetti works in digital and creative media for 21C Media Group, which manages public relations for National Sawdust among others. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time Out New York, NPR, and more. (She currently has “Does Your Mother Know” stuck in her head.)