As a musician, it is second nature to listen intently to other people’s voices and instruments. I listen for the warmth of tone in a wooden instrument or the crisp timbre of a flute, and the feeling in a voice. I listen for the crescendos and bursts of energy, or the quieter, more still moments. I find a great deal of life and joy in music and easily accept the range of emotional expression it affords. From the dizzying heights of ecstasy to unfettered rages, the deepest sorrows and everything in between, listening openly and without expectation has given me hours of happiness.
Perhaps my musical ear is why, when meditation comes to mind, what often arises is not the practice itself but the sound of the bell that begins and ends meditation. I find a quality of peace and spaciousness in that sound. When I listen for it and hear it, I feel at home because of its musicality and beauty. I often feel encouraged by the contemplative setting created by the resonance of the bell. It puts me at ease and I use it as a way to anchor the beginning and end of my meditation sessions.
One day when I was taking a walk with a friend from the sangha I unexpectedly heard the sound of the bell. Being nowhere near a shrine room, I looked around, wondering where the harmonious sound was coming from. My friend looked at me with an amused smile, reached into his pocket and pulled out his iphone, explaining that that sound was his mindfulness bell. He went on to say that our teacher, Ponlop Rinpoche, had made this suggestion to his students at one point, to support the development of awareness of the present moment.
That was months ago, but the other day, when I was especially suffering under the weight of my own thoughts and feelings, I finally decided to try the mindfulness bell myself and I set the alarm on my phone to alert me on the hour. The first few times the bell sounded I dutifully reset the alarm and I noticed my internal dialogue. It was an interesting practice and immediately caused me to think about the difficulty of staying mindful even when relying upon an external source. Even though I was setting this alarm, I found that my mind was still straying into habitual thought patterns about the past and future and I felt somewhat discouraged. I could not stop thinking.
But then, after the third or fourth time resetting the alarm, something happened; it occurred to me that even the best, most wonderful mindfulness bell in the world would not be able to stop my tumbling thoughts. Instantly this provided me with some relief, because I recognized it as just a bare naked fact: no matter how many dharma texts I would read, hours I would meditate, beautiful bells I heard or teachings I would listen to, nothing would disappear the thundering waterfall of thoughts as I had hoped. Nothing outside of me was going to save me. I had myself to rely upon on this journey and myself alone to make a good relationship to the goings on in my own mind.
And that is when it hit me; if there is nothing and no one else that can rescue me, then why rely on an outer bell when I have all the bells in my head, (so to speak), that I would ever need? I began to laugh and continued my line of thinking; In other words, I said to myself, what if I heard these persistent thoughts and feelings themselves as the bell? Suddenly I could see a whole new world of possibility opening up for me and the potential of infinite power to be awake to the present moment.
With new found anticipation and curiosity, I put this to the test and was amazed; I discovered that I had never before listened to my own thoughts, not the way I had listened to music, or to others, or to a sound in nature; not with my body. This meant that I was actually hearing something for the first time. I found that previously, I really had had no idea what I was saying to myself, what kind of energy the thoughts carried, their quality, their aural texture, their tone. I discovered that many of these thoughts and feelings resonated in my body, and that I could actually sit with them more easily simply by feeling them in a more neutral way, the way I feel the vibration of sound.
But even more salient than having a different visceral experience of my own thoughts and feelings, was that, when I practiced this way, my attitude went through a profound and easy shift. As I began listening to my thoughts and feelings with my whole self, a softness emerged. In the same way I have listened to others talk about their worries, pains, and fears without any agenda except to be there for the experience completely, the same feelings of tenderness and empathy welled up in me towards myself. It was effortless and a miracle of relief from the typical heat of self-doubt and shame. For a rare moment, I experienced myself as a natural phenomenon, very innocent, very fresh. Very acceptable.
Although this experience was just a taste of the ease that mindfulness promises, I am guessing that this result is, in part, what our teacher had in mind when he suggested we use the sound of the bell to practice! And it has given me an increased sense of confidence that resonating with a loving heart is no further away than a listening ear.