Friday, September 19, 2008

The Awakening Ballad

Rain of Roof II originally uploaded by Jeff Epp

The rainy season has arrived here in earnest. And what could be more delightful than listening to the sound of tiny raindrops drizzling gently onto different surfaces? This time, there is an added incentive - mini-enlightenment!

As a result of contemporary, urbanised lifestyle, it is regrettable that many of us regard rain as a nuisance, an unwelcome guest arriving at the most inconvenient hours.

The truth is, life unfolds the way we choose to live it. The very same rain ballad can mean a inspiration and refreshing tonic to some, a frustration and let-down to others.

How would you choose to look at it?

The Japanese have a monumental gallery of words for rain-related expressions, not to mention countless nature-imitating sounds to describe the different sounds of the rain and raindrops. Potsu-potsu, shito-shito, poro-poro and (quite similar to Thai) su, tsu, sa, saa, and zaa are but a few.

The pleasure goes beyond nature-imitating sounds. The expression "spring rain (rain in one fine spring day)," for example, carries with it a romantic connotation to Japanese ears. One could almost visualise a scene from a lovey-dovey music video. Thai expressions for rain are probably less romantic, given the fact that we live in the monsoon-ridden tropics. "Rain to shoo away the elephants (fon lai chang)," anyone?

The underlying implication is that the ancient Japanese must have been extraordinarily mindful to be able to differentiate the sounds of rain. At present, paying attention to the different sounds of raindrops has a scientific twist. Scientists now believe that "white noise" has therapeutic benefits for ADHD sufferers and/or those who suffer from insomnia. Commercially-produced white noise CDs usually feature, among others, different sounds of rain and raindrops.

In fact, even without science, our intuition already told us that this must have been the case. Who does not remember lying down in bed during childhood listening to the sound of gentle raindrops on the roof and feel at peace with oneself before drifting off happily?"

Children are among those fortunate few that can listen attentively, non-judgmentally - an important element of mindfulness practice. In Buddhism, there are many teachings relating to the benefits of mindful listening. "Those who listen well will acquire wisdom," is one. Another teaching points out that, to be a valued friend, one should possess the ability to listen objectively without letting emotions or bias take over.

Zen Buddhism gives us plenty of real-life examples of the importance of mindful listening. The Rinzai sect, for example, favours the use of koan - a type of question to trigger the listener's Enlightenment. Those questions usually sound beyond rationality yet making perfect sense to those who have meditated enough.

Want to try one? How about, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Ok, now meditate hard on it. After all, this is a real koan from the 17th century that actually enlightened someone!

Is this real? Had anyone, beside those in Lord Buddha's time, actually got Enlightened by an aural trigger, verbal or otherwise?

The answer is yes. Among others, Ikkyu the Zen monk got Enlightened by the sound of a crow one early morning while meditating on a boat on Lake Biwa.

Yes, humans can achieve Enlightenment from a sound from nature. Whether 15th century Japan or 21st century Thailand. Nature remains nature and so do humans. Our sensorial perception does not change with time. Let us make full use of it!

If you feel the idea of Enlightenment is so far-flung for a layperson, you are not the only one. But don't feel disheartened just yet. The truth is, there are many levels of Enlightenment we can aim for, at least in the beginning. The Japanese have a word for it: kizuku, "awareness". It is known among Zen practitioners since the old days as "small enlightenment." In the simplest sense, kizuku is one's ability to be aware of what goes on with our body and mind. It is when someone becomes mindful naturally.

Which brings us right back to the middle of the rainy season here in Thailand. Why don't we turn our perceived crisis of endless downpours at the most inconvenient hours into an awakening opportunity? Next time, when you are stuck somewhere, either in very, very bad traffic, in shade upcountry, or in a golf course's clubhouse waiting for the rain to stop, try opening your ears, and thus your mind, to welcome each droplet with peace. Practice mindful listening. Simply listen without evaluating, criticising or complaining.

The trick is to allow yourself to immerse in this simple activity for a continuous period of time. Do nothing else, just listen. Pay attention to how different the rain sounds when it falls on different surfaces. Listen to how hard, or how gentle, it is raining at that moment. Notice how each sound of the raindrop simply comes and goes. No sound lasts forever. Perk your ears to catch the changing pattern of the rain as it happens. You will be amazed how much you can learn from this simple, mindful listening experience. If there are any other sounds of nature rising during that period: thunder, birds chirping, a frog croaking, crickets singing, etc, note it, too.

The real learning is not going to be about the rain itself, but it is about you! The first thing you may become aware of is how restless your mind is! Streams of thoughts or feelings simply refuse to go away. Do not force them. Just be aware of those thoughts as they come, accept them (that this thing does happen), and let go. Then, go back to pay attention to the rain attentively. Be persistent. Don't give up.

Once you have mastered this exercise, you will notice a change in yourself, most notably when you have to engage in a conversation. You will realise that most of the time in the past, you were not really listening to what others want to say. You were listening to your own thoughts!

In other words, you are likely to talk to yourself or plan a reply (or retort) all the time while your partner is still talking! Mindful listening to the rain would not only let you know how to relax while listening to anything yet remain suitably focussed, but also how to listen without judgement.

This, in turn, would help you really understand your conversation partner's feeling and the key message he/she wants to convey. Sympathy and compassion will naturally follow. By listening to the rain mindfully, you will discover a natural way to cultivate positive mental quality in your heart. It is dhamma in its purest form - from nature, to nature.

Given this month's weather trend, it is probably raining now outside. It is your chance to get Enlightened! Don't wait, act now.

Until next week, let us stay mindful.


Jom said...

Thanks for this inspiring writing.

nash said...

Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words, K. Jom. :-)

Jom said...

I like many points you've made. The winning one is you wrote, "You will realise that most of the time in the past, you were not really listening to what others want to say. You were listening to your own thoughts!" - I'll look forward to your upcoming posts. Thanks again :)

nash said...

Dear K. Jom,

If you are interested in similar topics, try searching for "deep listening" and "The Zen of listening" on the web.

You'll find that my writing is just a drop in an ocean of those who practice the same thing. :-)

Deep Listening is becoming a "hot" issue in leadership and management training.

But listening is just one of the various perceptive senses we have. In my humble opinion, total mindfulness training offers a more wholesome approach.

Hope you have a chance to try it yourself one day! :-)

Jom said...

Well, honestly, I like how you elaborate this 'drop in the ocean' - it's very comprehensive. Also, you remind me of someone who shares your lastname!

I have been practicing meditation and it is very powerful to help me deal with pressure and complexity in life - esp when I'm away from home (I'm in Madison, WI).

Anyway, now I have this 'deep listening' as an add-on to my current practice. Will keep you posted re my progress :) Thanks again.

nash said...

Keep it up! :-)

Mindfulness would only bring one pleasant surprise after another to your life!

And, what a coincidence, your name also reminds me of an old nickname of mine(!) Yes, I used to be called "Jom." Long story. So it is amusing to see this conversation thread. Because it feels as if I'm having a conversation with my old self! ;-)

Anyway, please also feel free to send future messages, if any, to my email listed on my profile page.

And thanks again for your kind words. For a writer, words like this are priceless. It makes us want to try harder to give what we feel is the best to our readers out there, whom we know must exist.

Also feel free to drop any questions if you may have regarding mindfulness meditation. I'll try to cover them in my future articles as best as I could.
(Not that I think I know much, but I prefer to respond to specific needs of the readers.)

Have a nice day! :-)

sultan said...

I have had a lifelong interest in Buddhist philosophy--since 1963, in fact. I greatly enjoy and value your pieces in the BKK Post

nash said...

Dear Mr. Sultan,

Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the trouble to drop me a line. :-)

Please let me hear from you again regarding your interests in Buddhist Philosophy. You certainly have studied it long before I did. Before I was even born, to be precise! :-)

Therefore, any advice, suggestion, or comments are more than welcome. Let us contemplate together for our mutual spiritual growth and for the benefits of all. :-)