Deep Listening

            A tape recorder, a microphone, and headphones were the three objects that, for Pauline Oliveros, began a lifelong listening practice. The everyday environment, filtered through the microphone, became a new field of sounds that had escaped Oliveros’ perception. For the first time, Oliveros became aware of the direction of her attention. She noticed how her listening sculpted the environment around her. And her experience of the world broadened, opening up to the possibility of objects beyond her everyday awareness. The familiar became unfamiliar and new through the medium of a tape machine. Beyond that specific medium, what was once noise became an ordered part of her intentional listening. She noted that even without the recorder, she could create a new world by listening carefully, opening up a generative and creative practice.

            Pauline Oliveros practiced what she called “Deep Listening,” which is a conscious form of listening that tries to “[go] below the surface of what is heard,” and is “listening in as many possible ways to everything that can possibly be heard.” Here, to break beyond the surface is to, in a sense, play with (every) other possible surface. That deep practice of listening is tied to possibility, generating (potentially!) non-conventional approaches to objects we take for granted. Although you could literally just go out and buy audio equipment to reproduce Oliveros’ experience, Oliveros considers the practice of Deep Listening meditative, and others, focused on other fields, consider it a form of contemplative practice. 

           Willa Miller, however, does not run around silly with a tape recorder. Instead, she is a scholar of religion versed in Buddhism and Christianity, using the term “Deep Listening”  to categorize something beyond Oliveros’ experience (though I’d still recommend running around with an audio recorder for fun). As a cultivated quality of a space, deep listening becomes a relational practice, or a conversational skill that can be improved over time. It both focuses on the narrative content of speech and the non-conceptual elements of the present moment.

            This means that there are a few simultaneous approaches to listening: the first is to be in touch with a non-conceptual sort-of ground, noticing the space upon which the conversational narrative unfolds. This is where you chill out, or the “deepest” part of deep listening. I like to think of it as being in touch with the world oustide yourself, beyond your immediate control. The second is to encounter how the conversation lands in the body, utilizing sense perception to be aware of the present moment. The third is to be aware of the content of speech (you actually have to pay attention to the conversation!!), in order to formulate a compassionate response. 

            For others (AKA Duane Bidwell, who seems to be a Buddhist Christian engaged in psychotherapeutic practice), Deep Listening is a discipline of engaging mystery and doubt without reaching for facts or reasoning. It is pre-conceptual and a form of “peaceful abiding” that directs attention towards the unknown and unexpected. Necessarily, chilling out with the unknown and unexpected becomes pre-conceptual.

            Unfortunately, Byung-Chul Han, trying to re-enchant our depressed and burned-out capitalistic world, hates that pre-conceptual aggregate because it, apparently, is noisy. Agh! He wants beauty! Yet, he also likes the idea of a negative aesthetic experience, which would sometimes be painful, sometimes be ugly, and, in some way, offer us a resistance that would require us to step outside of ourselves. A beautiful object brings an event of emptiness—disastrous and terrible—where we are no longer related to, but can still contemplate, the object in front of us. This experience of “resistance” might be something that noise, in spite of Han’s protests, actually enacts. For noise, often removed from immediate recognition, invites a “disinterested lingering” (Han likes that) that allows us to contemplate the object in front of us while also becoming “immersed in it” (Han also likes that). Han’s mostly just likes the idea of “stillness contemplating beauty.”  

            Yet, Han’s dismissal of the pre-conceptual experience forces him to place narrative and concept as a one of the foundations of reality (narrative, unlike stillness, moves). He lives in a world of concepts and narrative, which is an approach that strikes me as very bookish. Han stops short where others would go “deeper” beyond the narrative structure, or that non-conceptual realm of experience where others would watch the narrative unfold. In other words, some might risk an encounter with noise in order to find creative, generative, and contemplative ways of being, where Han defaults back to narrative and conceptuality, even while acknowledging the importance of aesthetics that are not immediately consumable (which may realistically be different forms of narrative and concept that aren’t instantly recognizable). Yet, where noise, beyond narrative and concept, might be bad in Han’s thinking, noise finds a positive place in others’ thinking.

            Martin Laird, a contemplative writer, deals with noise too, and sees it as a way of deepening a contemplative practice. He tells us of a man named Gareth, who escaped into a weekend-long contemplative retreat in a mountain village. Unfortunately for him, his mountain neighbors decided to use an electric table saw during his prayer time. Like everyone who thinks noise is noisy, Gareth preferred birdsongs or rain sounds or something warm and inviting. Nobody goes to the mountains to hear a sporadic electric saw! And so annoyed Gareth grit his frustrated teeth at his neighbors, thinking of how stupid the buzzsaw was in his mountain-retreat prayer practice, and could not focus on the contemplation retreat, which he probably paid for too! The saw developed into a concept, which grew into a narrative in Gareth’s mind, which, in fact, is what contemplation tries to avoid. So much for Han’s stillness that contemplates beauty: the saw is not included in that.

            Heroically, (this is why the story is in a contemplation book) Gareth learned to retreat into that non-conceptual space that simply listens to the saw. Here, I imagine that the saw is just as natural as a birdsong, which sounds literally insane. But if you were Gareth and tired of being annoyed, like most of us these days, wouldn’t you simply just accepted the existence of the buzzsaw? Most of us would grumble at that. So maybe he learned to enjoy noise music, in a way that turns your experience into an aesthetic one, as if he put headphones on. He probably encountered stillness after doing that. Sure. And maybe his thoughts no longer became “immersed” in the saw, in spite of Han’s theory, and he was able to linger “disinterestedly” and step outside his own pettiness. Peaceful abiding with the saw: that’s spirituality, apparently. 

            Which brings us back to “Deep Listening” as a contemplative practice. When Pauline Oliveros put on tape-recorder headphones to become re-immersed her environment, she hears the familiar as unfamiliar, with a distanced curiosity that transforms “noisy” sounds into an intentional part of experience. And underneath this, her “deep” listening points to an experience of depth into that non-conceptual swamp of stuff, where unfamiliar sounds can emerge without being attached to any particular object, opening up listening to potentiality. The same goes for our Buddhist-Christian theorists, who might see narrative and embodied senses as helpful to approach the non-conceptual stillness and a part of the space cultivated for listening, but continue to prioritize the mysterious. And Laird even relates Gareth’s story as a way of escaping from the conceptuality of the saw, reframing it without needing to comment or narrate its existence. Only Han is our outsider, expecting beauty but also expecting us to, somehow, contemplate things that make us uncomfortable without recourse to a space of non-conceptuality. Without that space, Han is incoherent compared to these contemplative writers, and if this was his intention, he may have effectively led us into this non-conceptuality that he seems to dislike.

Where this seems petty, I’d like to bring in an implicit ethical component that the contemplatives reference: that assocaited with Deep Listening is a “compassionate response.” Let me be a bit broad: being able to listen to others in unexpected ways allows us to irredubcibly encounter the humanity of an “other.” Practicing Deep Listening, even with Pauline Oliveros’ tape recorder, might be practice for encountering others in compassionate ways. 

I’ve also started listening to a band called “Old Saw,” which, although it isn’t exactly noise, makes me think of Gareth. And that’s nice.