When Siddhartha listened
attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not
listen to the sorrow or the laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one
particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the
unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word; OM -
Hearing is the second most
intensive sense we have. It allows us to detect events without the benefit of
light or a direct line of vision. It is also alerts us to potential dangers. In
interviewing Susan I learned that her hearing did become more acute since losing
her sight but that was less a blessing than might at first appear. She heard
more sounds but was confused as to both the origin and the location of these
sounds. Instead of aiding her awareness of her environment, it actually hindered
her awareness with overwhelming noises that often caused feelings of fear.
Strange sounds and noises
cause anxiety in all creatures, its one of our survival instincts. A loud or
unusual sound will cause the nervous system to respond with alarm. A sighted
person would immediately look in the direction of a strange sound to assess
potential danger, but a blind person can only wait for either nothing or
something bad to happen. Many of us have had a similar experience of anxiety
after moving into a new home. Not being used to the different sounds a house
makes can keep you up all night wondering if that’s the sound of the compressor
in the refrigerator, or someone trying to break in the window, or if that noise
you hear is the house settling or someone at the door.
There is an exercise for anyone
moving into a new house and who might be bothered by strange noises at night
such as single women that goes as follows.
Before nightfall, turn on all
the lights and make a thorough search of the entire home. This is to insure that
no one could be hiding in the house and lock all the doors and windows behind
you. Then lie down in bed and listen to all the sounds the house makes. If you
hear something you cannot identify then get up and track down the source of the
noise. For example, furnaces often make a knocking sound before turning on. Go
and check out the source of the knocking sound, listen to the sound the furnace
makes. Do this for every other sound that you cannot identify such as flushing
pipes in a neighbour’s apartment, the sound of the refrigerator’s compressor or
the sounds of traffic out on the street, and so on. Once you identify the sounds
you are less likely to become alarmed by those sounds when you hear them late at
This method although developed
with sighted persons in mind, provided the clue as to how to train Susan’s
hearing. Part of Susan’s problem was that now that she was more sensitive to a
wider range of sounds, she was unable to recognize those sounds and had no way
of investigating them and therefore did not gain any information from what was
going on around her. The solution to dealing with this problem is surprisingly
simple and very effective. I have coined the name “Sound Recognition Indexing”
for this exercise and it is described below. To this exercise I also added
another that is of a similar vein but is of a totally different origin. Called
the “Extended Hearing” exercise, it is an ancient Yoga technique as described in
the Tantric schools.
All of these methods are aimed
at improving auditory perception. Eliciting a change in auditory perception can
be as simple as providing clues as to what to look for. For example, if you play
two musical notes on half tone apart such as a C and a C#,
they will sound discordant, but they will also create a third vibration known as
a pulse tone. Inside the sound you can hear a beat or a pulse. Unless you are a
musician who has studied musical theory as well, it is unlikely you would have
knowledge of this phenomenon and just as likely to never have noticed the third
tone. However, once it is explained it becomes self evident. I have played music
since I was a child but the first time I read of this was when I was an adult. I
immediately went to my piano and played the two notes and sure enough there it
was a third pulsating note. The sound was always there but now I could “hear” it
because I was made aware of it. Similarly in the following exercise much of the
initial improvements are brought about by the mere awareness that we are capable
of sensing much more than we originally thought.
Before we go into the exercises
its is important to know the mechanics of hearing and of a recent development in
our scientific understanding of how the brain processes auditory information
that gave rise to our third training exercise called “Audio Calibration”.
What the Ears Sense
The ears sense pressure waves that
travel through the medium of air or water at frequencies that range between 16
Hz to 20,000 Hz.[i]
These pressure waves enter the auditory canal and cause a membrane in the ear
(eardrum) to vibrate. This vibration is transmitted through a series of tiny
bones that amplify the kinetic energy. This energy is finally transformed into
an electro-chemical signal and transmitted via the auditory nerve to the
auditory cortex within the brain where this signal is “heard” as sound.
A curious fact is that the
auditory nerves are stimulated by both external vibrations that enter the
auditory canal and internal vibrations transmitted directly through the body.
Low frequencies such as bass tones can pass through and resonate in the bones of
the skull and jaw and vibrate the auditory nerve itself. The skull and jaw act
like the sounding board of a guitar or violin and just as the shape of those
instruments affect the sound they produce, so our experience of sound is
affected by our physical structure. This is somewhat unusual since no other
sense organ can receive direct stimulation of its enervation, its transmission
cable. For example if you could shine a light on only your optic nerve you would
not see a light.
It is thought that the low
frequency sound waves stimulate the body's nervous system producing an
adrenaline/endorphin high. If this is true then this helps explain why the
armies of all cultures have gone into battle beating drums and making loud
noises, and why young people like to listen to loud music. The low frequencies
act as a stimulant. This may also explain why music and chanting can reduce
pain. The auditory signal created by the chanting of a Mantra releases
endorphins, a morphine like chemical thought to inhibit pain, but also literally
drowns out pain signals through what is known as cross talk.
All cranial nerves carry a
non-steady current, which produces magnetic fields that can both broadcast and
receive EM (electromagnetic) waves. Because cranial nerves are densely packed
together, when the auditory nerve is stimulated it generates an EM pulse that
can be picked up by other cranial nerves. This is known as cross talk.
For example, experiments show
that even mild and incidental noises cause the pupils to dilate. The auditory
nerve can cause a stimulation of the optic nerve. It is believed that this is
why watchmakers, surgeons, and others who perform delicate manual operations are
so bothered by uninvited sounds; the sound causes their pupils to change focus
thus blurring vision.[ii]
This is also explains one reason why a warrior yells at the moment of attack, to
create an instantaneous and uncontrollable disruption in the opponent's nervous
system. This also reminds us that having a quiet place to practice is a good
idea since noise is a bigger distraction than you might think. (See Chapter 5,
The Seventh Sense)
In addition, the auditory nerve
picks up internal sounds produced by the body's natural processes. These
include: muscular movement, heartbeat, breathing, blood flow, digestion, and an
ambient “static noise” of the nervous system (The hissing sound you can hear
when quiet). This allows one to listen in on and monitor certain internal
functions like respiration and heartbeat, something again no other sense can do.
it is a fairly recent bit of research that offers the most evidence to support
the idea of improving hearing. We know that the sound signal is sent to an area
of the brain called the auditory cortex where it is turned into sound. How
exactly the process is done is still a mystery but what scientists have
discovered is how the sound is sorted. The auditory centres in the cortex have
been found to contain a three-dimensional map of the sound space picked up by
What this indicates is that the
auditory cortex is highly specialized to accurately detect the direction and
position of sounds in the space around us.
This specialized ability to pinpoint sound sources would
suggest the possibility to much more accurate fine tune auditory perception.
Whereas the eyes, without moving the head, can detect objects only within a
slightly less than 180 field, the ears can detect the positions of sound sources
a full 360 degrees acting like radar to accurately detect moving objects within
hearing range. This would be a valuable skill for a martial artist and we
devised a simple biofeedback exercise that seemed to work called “Audio
Calibration”. (See below)
So now we know how hearing
works and some of the curious ways in which we hear. The following are the
exercises I was able to find that stood the test of trial by error.
Learn to be silent. Let your
quiet mind listen and absorb.
anxiety caused by unusual sounds could best be dealt with using the method
similar to the one used to alleviate new home owners from the fears of strange
noises. The logic is simple; if you know what the sound is, it is no longer
strange. This was accomplished by having the student listen to a variety of
sounds and noises and then trying to identify what caused them. A sighted
training partner would then confirm or correct the student’s answers. For
example, we all recognize the sound of footsteps, but could you recognize the
difference between the footsteps of a woman or a man, or between those of an old
man or a young man? Most of us could not. But our inability is due only to not
having spent the time to learn the differences in sound. Sound recognition
training consisted of going to different places and identifying specific sounds.
For example, in walking down the street if you see a squirrel scurrying in the
bushes stop and ask your student to identify the sound. Or if you notice people
walking behind you ask your student to guess how many people, heavy or thin,
young or old. While sitting on a park bench have your student try and identify
each of the surrounding sounds, such as children playing, dogs running, a
fountain, and so on.
Places in which to apply this
exercise include the home and then places where your student would commonly go
or would like to go to regularly. In Susan’s case she lived in a small town and
she wanted to be able to travel to the local grocery store on her own. The store
was only a few blocks from her home but she had been too uncertain of herself to
dare the trip on her own.
Few of us who have never been
without sight can hardly imagine what an enormous task walking a couple of
blocks to the store can be. First you have no sense of direction, so which way
do you turn first? If we follow the sidewalk how will you know when you came to
a break that you are crossing the road or crossing a driveway? How many
driveways or roads would you need to cross before arriving at your destination?
These are directions no one could possibly provide you unless they went
personally with pen and paper and wrote out almost every step you need to take.
The solution is to take what I
called a ‘Walking lesson’. This is simply walking the route to the store
while questioning the student and confirming or correcting her answers. This
provided what is called real-time feedback of not only what those sounds
were, but also where those sounds are.
Susan and I walked to
the store and as we walked I would identify the different sounds we encountered.
After a couple of trips Susan had become familiar with the auditory landscape
involved in a trip to the store. The questioning evolved to the point where she
could make accurate estimates of her position on route to the grocery store. For
- Instructor: “Which direction is the grocery
- Blind Student: “That direction” (Pointing)
Instructor: “How do you know?”
Blind Student: “Because the store is on main street and most of the traffic
sounds come from that direction.”
- Instructor: “How far away are we now?”
- Blind Student: “About two blocks from the
Instructor: “How do you know? “
Blind Student: “Because we are just passing the gas station and I can hear the
sounds of compressed air tools and gas pumps.”
- Instructor: “Where is the entrance to the
- Blind Student: “In front of me to the left.”
- Instructor: “How do you know?”
- Blind Student: “Because each time someone goes
through the doors I can hear the sounds of Muzak and shopping carts coming
from that direction.”
This exercised provide two enormous benefits. First,
it alleviated many fears by helping Susan to understand the source and nature of
hundreds of previously unidentified sounds. She learned what sounds were not
threatening such as squirrels, kids playing, and various sorts of machinery and
sounds which might be potentially dangerous, such as the sound of approaching
traffic or footsteps walking too closely behind.
Second, the walking lessons helped create not only a
mental picture of her theatre of operations, in this case her home town, but
also created what could be termed an auditory map. Based on the sounds around
her she could estimate where she was in town, what direction she was facing and
which direction was home.
Tips for Trainers
In true Zen fashion the teacher
during this exercise must also become a student. An important element in this
exercise is to ask as many detailed questions and provide similarly detailed
answers. This requires the trainer to also focus on his or her auditory
information and to listen and try and identify sounds that most sighted people
would overlook. The trainer must become one with the student to hear what the
student hears and then to provide visual information becoming the student’s
eyes. This takes a little extra effort on the trainer’s part but you will also
be rewarded with enhanced auditory perceptions of your own.
A hypnotised person could
hear a constant hissing sound at 230 yards, although non-hypnotized people
typically could not detect the sound until they were within 30 yards of the
Eugene Marais, The Soul of
this exercise the student stands in the middle of the room and imagines him or
herself to be at the centre of a clock face: directly to the front would be
Twelve O'clock, directly behind is Six O'clock, ninety degrees to the right is
Three O'clock and so on.
This is similar to positioning
lingo used by fighter pilots except whereas in the case of aircraft the clock
position indicates positioning on a vertical plane i.e. above or below. The
positioning is plotted on a horizontal plane, i.e. in front and behind.
The trainer moves about
stopping at random and calling out “Now”. The student must then guess the
direction and distance or range of the trainer’s position. For example, if the
trainer is standing directly behind the student the correct answer would be;
“Six O'clock/six feet”. When a correct answer is given the trainer answers in
the affirmative, if incorrect, the trainer would say the correct answer so that
the student can associate the correct answer with the immediate auditory
experience. When the student is able to guess correctly nine out of ten times,
you can move to the next level of difficulty.
This time the trainer moves
around the room as quietly as possible and the student calls out every fifteen
seconds “Stop”. The trainer does not answer and tries to make as little noise as
possible. The student must again guess the correct position; the trainer again
corrects or affirms as above.
Tips for Trainers
Instruct your students to not
only listen for sounds that are there but to listen for sounds that are not
there. One way to tell when someone is coming into close range is by detecting
the muffling of the ambient background noise. As the approaching body absorbs
this noise, it casts the auditory equivalent of a shadow. One senses a hole, an
absence of sound, coming from the direction of the other person.
Bathe in the centre of
sound, as in the continuous sound of a waterfall. Or, by putting your fingers in
ears, hear the sound of sounds.
Soch-anda Tantra, 112 Ways
Extended Hearing Exercise
the following while sitting in a comfortable position with the eyes closed. This
exercise is intended to train the ability to detect and identify various sounds
and their locations. Again imagine being in the centre of a circle but in this
case imagine concentric rings emanating outwards at fixed distances.
to the all the sounds originating within a three foot radius, mentally ignore
other sounds even though they may be louder. It is possible to consciously
reduce louder sounds to the background while focusing on the sounds within a
particular range. Next expand your hearing range to ten feet and concentrate on
the sounds found within this range. Continue to expand the ring in increments to
include the interior of the room, the building, the surrounding walk, the nearby
park, then the entire town or city.
briefly focus on each different sound such as; footsteps, conversations,
mechanical noises, the sound of the wind through the grass, the rustle of
leaves, the buzz of insects, the sound of running water, the distant roar of the
You can also
listening to the body's internal sounds. Find a very quite room, or you can
place your palms over your ears and press lightly. Listen for and isolate the
sounds of your breathing, heartbeat, and digestive organs, until you can isolate
sound of the nervous system's static hum - the sound of one hand clapping.
familiar with the sound of one's environment you are better able to distinguish
what is a truly peculiar, out of place noise, from imagination. This can be a
useful warning signal.
case after we had created the auditory map through the walking lessons and
Auditory Indexing I instructed her to use that map in her extended hearing
exercise. By sitting quietly in her backyard I asked her to extend her hearing
outwards from her home, To listen first for the occasional car that passed by
her front door. Then to the children playing in the schoolyard three blocks
away, to the gas station she passes on her way to the store and to the sounds of
traffic on Main Street.
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