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this is a journey into sound ...

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Back in the day when unhappy marriages were fashionable, poison was easy to come by and electricity unearthed, carpet bags and pigs were both convenient and commonplace. Murder, while officially recognised as "a bad thing", in fact blazed a trail as an inclusive, solutions-orientated industry, happy to provide motive, method and waste management for anyone with a grievance. Today, with surveillance culture how it is, it makes sense to dial a different 'M' to dispatch the causes of our suffering. I am of course talking about meditation.

Don't think I didn't see you roll your eyes. I know. Meditation-schmeditation, you're thinking. Bang, bang, bang, there she goes again on her big (sadly imaginary) drum. Toot, toot, toot on her fantasy trumpet.

Take heart. This is another story in which I fail to come across well. Bear with me, let me be your cautionary tale, a practical, step-by-step manual of general fuckwittery and how not to be. No, I quite insist, my pleasure and delight. Let this be my gift because:

  • it's always cheering isn't it, when it isn't you?

  • being human is messy; I spill it it down myself all the time. Maybe you do too but you'd rather not. So I'll go first, showing you how it's done

  • laughing at our humanness comes recommended. So is tipping a hat in recognition of our less than lovely bits. Honestly. Because in the final analysis every last one of us, one way or the other, is adorably certifiable

  • meditation is not about avoidance. (I was sad too when this finally sunk in. Sorry, but no.)

Once upon a time, a bunch of twenty-five meditators headed to Holy Isle (off Arran) for a retreat at the Centre for World Peace & Health. The retreat, run by Mindsprings Meditation, was on the subject of "Beingfulness", a simple meditation practice designed to help people realise joy and clarity in the present moment, and a beautiful way to learn how to choose the way we experience life, rather than radically alter the material facts of it.

But other people, eh? On an island far from help. Yet things were unlikely to collapse into an orgy of conch-holding because, sighs of relief all round, people who meditate aren't often predisposed to anarchic savagery. Nope, the lovely folk joining me on this adventure had love, light and tolerance in abundance. However, down to my funky wiring, I had certain ... misgivings, which were borne out as the week went on.

There's always a cougher, isn't there? Studies at The Insitute of Thinking have proven that if a bunch of fit, healthy people are thrown into a silent room and left to marinate for ten minutes with the occasional stir, at least one of 'em will develop a croak. We'd all tested negative for the 'Rona so we had no basis for an outraged side-eye. This individual needed our compassion – they were in the throes of a summer cold which are the worst.

Did that stop me from praying that they would drown in their own post-nasal drip as they lay there busy being? No, dearest Reader. I'm ashamed to say that it did not.

I offer in mitigation my opinion that this was no normal cough. This was performance art, taking inspiration from the first two bars of Beethoven's Fifth ...

... over and over again. In fairness, fully aware of my tendency to exaggerate for the temporal thrill of entertaining, it was more E than E♭, the whole piece working towards a gusty coda comprising two extravagant yet despairing exhalations. Having my eyes closed to give the appearance of holding-all-my-shit-together serenity, I couldn't time the precise period between paroxysms but roughly estimate every three minutes and forty-two seconds.

Each time I'd manage to smugly embody, the cougher would hack, allegro con brio, all the way to eleven. My nervous system hummed along, coursing with adrenalin, cortisol and undiluted stabbiness.

On the second day things took an even darker turn. From across the peace hall came a countercall. A paler imitation, a beta cough to the orginal alpha to be sure, but the challenge was unmistakable – cuh-cuh-cuh-CUH! Two bronchial elks calling to each other across the territory claimed by a vase of flowers and our weeks' intentions.

I froze midway pitching my somatic tent, any notion of beingfulness dead in the water until I knew the outcome of this mighty clash. I found myself rooting for Alpha Cough despite my original ire. My trust was not misplaced. Veterans of the game, they held firm, delivering a volley of unassailable resonance without even accessing their inspiratory reserve volume. A masterclass in intrathoracic pressure management and glottal control.

Beta Cough could only wilt under the onslaught, their final salvo a sheepish throat-clearing fading to the heavy breath of defeat ...

Oh deary me. I think we can see that my mind experienced a hostile takeover by what retreat leader Alistair blithely terms "phenomena in the four fields". Anyone who meditates will be familiar with how the mind likes to elope with itself, seduced by what it can experience through the Four Fields of Body, Emotions, Senses and Thoughts.* It's normal, part of the process, and provides rich material with which to work in strengthening your meditation game. But I had to frown at Alistair's suggestion that "there's no such thing as a bad sound".

M'lud, I offer in rebuttal aforesaid Coughy and its known associates Sniffy, Swallow, Chewer, Slurpy, Lip-Smack and Chomp. Think Snow White for misophonics.

In case you don't know, misophonia is a condition whereby certain – allegedly innocuous–sounds trigger the fight/flight response. And boy, does it. Growing up, my children received teeth-gritting sympathy for the first 24 hours of any virus after which, if it demonstrated no audible improvement, there was a general expectation that they live at the bottom of the garden in a soundproofed box.

I should add that this is more than minor irritation; it's anger, often partnered with disgust and panic. It's irrational and horribly intolerant any way you look at it, but there we go. You might like to check out this neuroscience-y article if you too get the urge to do something regrettably irreversible whenever within earshot of mouth breathing.

When someone recommends a percussion concerto so discordant that you can feel your heart cold-sweating its way to a stop, it's okay to doubt their world view that there are no bad sounds. But hold on. Alistair went on to say that sounds arise like music, coming in, fading out, lah, li, lah, lah, lah ... It's like they're on a musical score, notated, each with its own cue, key, length and rhythm.

Taking this quite literally, I imagined a stave on which I placed the noises manifesting around me. Any red-mist triggers I dropped on to a stave below where I could "see" that they would start, sound, fade and end. Somehow this decoupled the noise from the emotional response, and after a while it became easier to demote Alpha Cough to backing. I mentally high-fived myself for this meditative breakthrough.

Some might say I peaked too soon. They might say that, if ... I dunno, scraping chairs, clattering plates, clashing cutlery, the continual thrum of 360° movement and gabble of a dozen different conversations going on at once with the expectation that I contribute to at least one of them while I simultaneously zero-in on the tea-slurper six chairs away and one table over like US Special Forces on bin Laden's mountain hideway cause me to exit the dining room at a speed too slow to call a sprint exactly but fast enough to lift hair and leave a fine mist of perspiration hanging on the lunchtime breeze.

They might, yep, they might say that.

At 5.20 the next morning, I sat in the tragic rain on the shore overlooking Lamlash. Thoroughly fed up with myself, I'd just om-gam-ganapataye-namaha'd my way through my mala as I do most mornings when I need to get out of my own way. I am not a before-breakfast person so discovering the world was still there at such an ungodly hour was confusing. In this state of sleepy displacement, lo! a miracle appeared unto me!

After the storm, sunshine breaking through low cloud to illuminate Lamlash and the Firth of  Clyde.
The view from Holy Isle to Lamlash

I'm perched on a boulder, a favourite of mine (it's amazing how quickly you bond with inanimate objects when denied social media for a week), mesmerised by rain shadows skimming across the water from Lamlash, getting a little wetter each time they make land, hair frizzing peacefully.

A rainbow chooses that moment to high-step its way from one side of the bay to the other. Those of you who don't enjoy instances of childish delight and who are, no offence, a little dead inside, may dismiss this as nothing more than a common-or-garden meteorological phenemenon: in a land where all weather happens all of the time, a rainbow isn't that surprising.

Even so, what delights me further is the spontaneous arising of the nāda sound (the unstruck bell, the sound of one hand clapping), clear and bright. In yogic philosophy, this inner sound, unchanging and omnipresent, is believed to be the sound of universal consciousness and the fourth silent syllable of the bija mantra aum. I've spoken about it in class– an almost subliminal noise more readily heard in the middle of the night when nothing else stirs. A continuous, impersonal, high-pitched tone.

As a child, I frequently experienced nightmares. In these lucid dreams, I somehow stumbled across the knowledge that if I could summon this otherwordly note, I'd be able to wake myself. I cannot tell you how many vampires, witches, sharks and random drownings the nāda sound saved me from. So I have to smile as I sit in dampness under that rainbow, fully appreciating the same sound again "waking" me from illusion. Did my japa to Lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles, get through the cosmic switchboard after all?

Later that morning, I fair bounced into the peace hall buoyed by all the happy unicorn feels. Going forth, my meditation strategy would be to skip resting awareness on pesky external sounds which were obviously beyond my capability to manage like a grown-up and establish instead the nāda sound as the steady, reliable go-to. Peace, light and love was in da house. This plan was abso-bloody-lutely foolpr—

And even before Alpha Cough had finished expectorating the viral load of the second bar, my mind's eye framed the shovel at its parabolic apogee where it stalled, for one perfect sunlit moment, before descending in a cleaving sweep of pure righteousness.


Hm, yeah. Not an entirely redemptive ending to this sorry little morality play. Let me hear a hell-yeah for work in progress, okay?

And that, really, is what I'm getting at. Meditation will stop you from driving yourself mad, that's why I bang on about it. However, when we meditate – and I don't mean closing our eyes and daydreaming – when we really sit with ourselves, all of us will have stuff we're going to bump up against, stuff that we're not too thrilled about, that doesn't put us in a good light, that's at odds with our carefully crafted self-image. Hell, stuff we don't even know is there. You know this from previous posts.

Stick at it. It's all going according to plan even when it feels like one step forward, two steps back. All that mental agitation that causes you to fret and foment? To quote Hamlet, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Put the shovel down and contemplate instead the delightful sound of one hand clapping in celebration of your journey along a new, quieter, less murderous path.

*Want to learn more about Beingfulness, click here to find out about the Mindsprings home study course.

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Trudy I love your vocabulary! And I enjoyed reading your article. I would like to go further into meditation as my physical abilities are now sadly not good. I fractured a bone in my foot 6 weeks ago by walking up town in Berkenstock sandals, hadn't fallen or twisted my ankle or anything. The physio asked if I'd been tested for osteoporosis.......argghhhh! Looking forward to September when I will be meditating or relaxing while the others do the physical, standing on one leg, arm in the air.

Barbara Gray😊

Trood Morrison
Trood Morrison
Jul 14, 2022
Replying to

Hey, Barbara. Ah, thank you! Lovely to hear from you as always! I'm so sorry to hear about your foot - what a (literal) pain. I am thinking of re-introducing meditation classes so keep an eye out for when I get my bum in gear. It's such a valuable tool to help us manage the ups and downs of life. And yes, you do the exact right thing in class - let those youngsters do the flinging of legs in the air bit. We know it's not required! T x

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