Guest post by Rob Clarke
I’m a tinnitus sufferer, but to say that isn’t entirely correct. I should say “I have tinnitus”, I can’t say I’m a sufferer because I’m not really suffering, at least not any more.
My tinnitus started up out of the blue in 2014 on the final day of a meditation retreat at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hertfordshire, it was a silent retreat ironically. I went to do some meditation in the large temple there before I went home, which is the quietest place I’ve ever been to on earth; you can hear a pin drop. During that hour I couldn’t shake this very subtle ringing in my ears, I thought maybe I was imagining it or perhaps that I’d been focusing too hard in meditation. I spent the next few weeks back at home trying to work out what it was as it gradually got louder in volume, it was really distressing and I just wanted it to stop. I was worried I’d go mad and started remembering stories I’d heard about people living with long term tinnitus who had resorted to suicide.
Tinnitus can present itself differently for everyone; mine is a high ring in the right ear (the same kind of pitch you used to get when you switched on those old CRT televisions). I only hear it when everything is quiet; it fades into the background noise during the day. Certain things intensify the sound like if I’m tired, stressed or run down then it’s usually louder.
The only thing I can liken it to is when you own a refrigerator that hums, it’s really annoying and at first it’s all you can hear, but then as you live with it for a while your brain learns to tune it out – because it’s irrelevant noise. I’ve tried all kinds of ‘remedies’, I even got referred to the audiologist and had a full check up but no source for the tinnitus was found. The last thing the audiologist said to me when I left was “just try and forget it” – that’s pretty lame advice coming from a medical practitioner, but he was right actually. There is no known cure for tinnitus and the cause of mine is still unexplained, but sure enough things did get easier when I gave up trying so desperately to solve it, because the more attention you give to a sound the more prominent it will become.
I actually returned to the monastery a year later and spoke about my problem to one of the teacher monks there, he told me he thought that maybe I had spontaneously stumbled across the ‘nada sound’ or the ‘sound of silence’ – a concentrated meditative practice that some monastics have spent decades trying to cultivate. Very flattering for him to think I was capable of such a lofty breakthrough but I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s going on here.
Initially though there was anger, the “why me?” kind of anger. I avoided meditation almost entirely for the best part of a year, I was afraid of what was happening, I didn’t want to face it, I didn’t want to sit with it. I thought, “How can I be a meditator if I don’t have the ability to hear silence?” Over everything I was afraid that I may never hear silence again (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).
We all assume the sole condition for meditation is silence, but most places on earth are rarely if ever silent. How often do we experience complete silence? Meditative practice puts a lot of focus on silence, and there’s nothing wrong with finding a nice quiet place to sit and meditate, but what is really important about the practice is cultivating inner silence. I’m talking about the kind that is neither audible nor inaudible – a silence of the mind.
Silence of the mind means also silencing the inner noise created when you try to resist outer noise (I’m counting tinnitus as outer noise here). Inner noise usually takes the form of that chattering voice we all know so well, that constant inner dialogue that is always protesting about the current conditions. So in my case the unwanted condition was ringing in the ears and all the internal panicking I was doing about it was actually disturbing my mind more than the ringing itself. Stupid.
Perhaps surprisingly, even Buddhist communities can be busy places and not always situated in entirely quiet neighbourhoods. Ajahn Chah was a monastic and founder of monasteries in Thailand. When his pupils would come to him and complain of local noise disturbances interrupting their meditation practice he used to simply say “Why do you go out to bother the noise?” So he was flipping it on its head, using it as a way of getting people to consider whether their problems were really external or internal. This also rings true with the philosopher and meditator Alan Watts when he said, “It’s all just sound, there is no proper sound or improper sound”.
If meditation can be said to have a goal then it is to arrive at unconditional peace, in other words a peace that is not based on conditions being just right, a peace that exists independent of external circumstances. Because if you base your peace on there always being silence, then what happens to your peace when unwanted noise occurs?
In short I’m not un-peaceful because my ears are ringing, I’m un-peaceful because I’m preoccupied with the idea that I’d rather my ears weren’t ringing. I have invented an idea that unless the noise stops then I cannot allow myself to be whole.
So tinnitus actually worked wonders for my meditation practice and deepened my understanding of it. I’m able to sit alongside my tinnitus now, I’ve just had to redefine my definition of silence, and for me now silence has a sound. So the quest in the end has been not for the obliteration of noise, but the obliteration of the self, the one who has an opinion about the noise. Something is only a problem if you construct a problem around it.
This lesson also stands for all mental phenomena, we can no more eradicate our unwanted thoughts and emotions than I can eradicate my tinnitus. But if we can start to cultivate an inner space that isn’t touched by those things – then there is our real refuge.
Silence in the age of noise – Erling Kagge
Inner Listening – Ajahn Amaro
(this book is available for free from the link below)