Category: Lion Seats

Two Rivers Sangha

This post is part of the Lion Seats project created by Richard Bentley. You can read more about the project here.

20:00 28-05-17

Location: Berkshire Pilates, 101 London Street, Reading, RG1 4QA


 
“With posture upright and solid…
we are seated…
at the foot of…
the Bodhi tree…
Body speech and mind…
all are one…
in stillness…
There is no more thought of right and wrong…
Our minds and bodies dwell in perfect mindfulness…”


 
As I sung the evening chant I felt myself settling into the quiet of the space. Familiar words sung at an unnaturally slow tempo were usually effective in grounding me in the present and connecting me to the others at the sangha meeting. Next came the sitting meditation, a time to still the body and rest my attention on the breath to let the monologue of thoughts fade to silence (well that’s the theory any way). However, after a busy week, a succession of late nights and broken sleep, my practice was simply to keep my head upright and my body from slumping over in an unconscious heap on the floor. My lowered gaze frequently became a blackout, my head falling forward – all the time struggling to right itself. I do not remember hearing anything during these twenty-five minutes of sitting, though the low rumble of traffic noise, the clicks and buzzes of the heaters warming up and the even rhythm of the clock were no doubt still present. Neither did any other thoughts appear to arise, I was not plagued by the ‘to do’ list that so often pervades my mind. My attention was gathered and united in a single mission – to stay awake.

It was with great relief that we began kinh hanh or walking meditation. I had made it through the first sitting. The slow movement offered a long-awaited break from what seemed like a lifetime of remaining stationary and upright. The struggling mind I had needed to keep awake gently gave way to an ease and calm. I found my breathing synchronise intuitively with the rhythm of my feet on the carpet. This peacefulness continued into the second sitting. Feeling more awake and without the struggle, I settled quickly, following the rise and fall of my chest as I echoed the gatha ‘breathing in…breathing out’ to myself. My eyes were soft-focused through my eyelashes, resting on a small stain in the carpet in front of me. For short bursts of a few seconds I heard the gatha clearly in my mind. During these moments I became very still, a contented tranquility permeated my perception. Strangely, the carpet in front of me appeared less solid than it had done in the first sitting. I played with this experience, seeing how the stillness ebbed and flowed as thoughts arose and fell away. I noticed the way in which sounds that pierced the otherwise unbroken drone of traffic on London Street outside would bring my eyes into sharper focus on the carpet and interrupt the serene composure. Knocks, bangs and movements from people in a connected terrace further along the street, children laughing and screaming as they walked by the front door, a distant siren from the nearby hospital, all pulled my attention from the gatha. Although I may have briefly labelled these sounds, I noticed how I had no inclination to ‘follow’ them, to explore their origin, meaning or substance. Each time I brought my attention back to the gatha and breath, peace descended again. And so this continued through to the end of the period of sitting. In contrast to the first sitting meditation, I could have happily sat there for another hour or more. Still, the twenty-five minutes came to an end and having fostered some degree of stillness, gratitude was able to permeate my parting gasho (bow) to those present and the Buddha, a ritual marking the close of the meeting.

Floating Point

This post is part of the Lion Seats project created by Richard Bentley. You can read more about the project here.

Location: Floating Point, Bourne House, Horseshoe Road, Pangbourne, RG8 7JQ

The hour-long floatation tank session began with ten minutes of restful ambient music, comprising of slowly shifting choral lines, rounded bass notes and gently modulating synth pads. I could imagine some criticising it as cliché, but its familiarity and strong associations with other relaxation treatments helped me to settle in to the unfamiliar surroundings. As I lay back and slowly sank my head beneath the water, the music took on a lower, mellower tone, hushed, less distinct and with a distant ethereal quality. Carefully adjusting my body to find a comfortable position, I noticed the movement barely made a sound. The lapping of my arms on the surface of the water was the only audible addition to the bed of ambient sound and music.

(Stereo hydrophone recording of the first twelve minutes of the float)

(Ambient stereo recording (Jecklin Disk) in front of the floatation tank)

With the first ten minutes of the float ending, the music faded to leave a continuous low hum, soothing in its constancy. Emerging from this hum I noticed my breathing, low and muffled. Familiar, but stark in the silence, the intimate presence of breathing when the ears are submerged made me pay attention to its quality and measure. As the pace of the breath slowed, I noticed, rather disconcertingly at first, the presence of bodily sounds, much clearer than I’d ordinarily hear them. Whilst, for the most part, the rise and fall of the breath masked these, I could catch hints of the pulse in my ears, indeed throughout my body. I even sensed the pulse creating ripples in the water, particularly where arteries ran close to the surface of the skin. Holding my breath unmasked a variety of gurgles and bubbling from somewhere inside my body. Strangely, a lot of the sounds seemed to appear at or between the ears rather than from the point they originated from. This was true of the high pitched, rapid succession of bubbles occurring in small bursts, more than likely emanating from my stomach. Yet strangely, without the vibration being felt, I had little sense of where these bubbles had come from. They simply appeared as a fizzing between the ears, at the back of the head or lower neck. In contrast, the lower pitched sounds could be sensed more readily as slight tremors in the abdomen. Blinking, I even noticed that my eyelids created a flickering sound as they opened. Being cradled in the warm salty water and having familiarised myself with the novel soundscape, my body largely disappeared from awareness. I placed my attention on the rise and fall of the breath and my mind rapidly sank into a deep, meditative stillness.

For long periods of time over the next thirty minutes, my awareness of sound fell away completely. I was left resting floating in the darkness of the tank, with no sensory stimulation for reference, spare the occasional brush of my skin on the side of the tank. Yet even this sensation was so subtle that I could not tell whether I was merely imagining it. The slow fade-in of the ambient music once again, calmly announced the imminent end of the float session. Beginning with small movements, I gradually came back to awareness of the body and its sensations, exploring movements as if I were observing my body from a distance, re-learning the skill of moving one limb at a time. The noise of the tank’s filter commencing its cleaning cycle marked the end of the float and a return to the noise of the world.

Caversham Weir

This post is part of the Lion Seats project created by Richard Bentley. You can read more about the project here.

13.00 06-09-2017

Location: Caversham Weir, Berkshire

 

Resting for a second on a bridge straddling the two halves of Heron Island, I noticed a flicker of shimmering green on the bank of the river. Adjusting my position to see past the reeds, a kingfisher stood, resting momentarily to inspect the water below, before darting off to the jetty on the opposite bank. This felt like an auspicious start. Continuing my leisurely stroll upstream towards Caversham Weir, the restful sound of birdsong and my footsteps on the leaf-strewn track were only intermittently disturbed by the rumble of air traffic overhead. Nearing the weir, I noticed the effectiveness of the acoustic baffle formed by the trees. I was surprised to find that the weir was largely imperceptible, until I was within twenty meters of it. Only when the trees flanking the footpath thinned-out, did the thunderous rumble of the weir become noticeable. At this threshold, I veered off to the right, spotting a small clearing by the river bank overlooking the weir.

(Walking to the weir from Caversham)
 
I set about assembling my recording equipment, extending the front legs of the tripod to compensate for the sloping bank down to the river, attaching the blimp which housed the microphones and adjusting the gains on the portable recorder. Finding a dry spot of grass on which to sit, I turned my attention again to the relentless torrent of white noise that dominated the soundscape. Amplified through headphones, the weir’s size and force was magnified, low frequencies rumbling more threateningly than when heard by the naked ear. From above the roar, amplification brought-out the doppler-drone of aircraft circling for Heathrow, sirens of emergency vehicles, horns of diesel locomotives on the Great Western mainline and construction noise from yet more glass-clad office buildings for which Reading is famous. Taking off the headphones to start the meditation timer, I noticed how the weir masked all but the loudest peaks of these interruptions, leaving me feeling cocooned on the shore of this small river island.

(Caversham weir)
 
As the automated bell of the timer was invited three times, I lowered my gaze and rested it on the reflections of clouds distorted by the small waves reaching me from the weir. My eyes focused on the ripples and the grey clouds behind them, almost believing they formed the bed of the river here. Slowly drifting eastwards, the clouds appeared to be swept along with the rivers’ flow. Closing my eyes to turn my attention inwards to my breathing, a mild dizziness came over me. The shifting images of clouds and waves had stopped, emboldening my remaining senses to adjust to feeling more firmly anchored to the river bank.

Whilst being a stone’s throw from the town centre, the weir effectively masked the familiar soundscape of urban sprawl beyond. The weir’s endless, scarcely fluctuating roar provided a certainty which was reassuring and restful. Without the distraction of urban clatter, of signals and cues, movement and purpose, networks, transfers, commerce and industry, I settled quickly into my assignment, to simply follow the in breath and out breath. With other work on hold until the following day and plenty of time on my parking ticket, I could afford myself this luxury and allow the weir’s strangely calming interference signal to sever links with plans, deadlines and projects. After a few minutes, thoughts, like the clouds I had been watching pass across the river bed, seemed altogether more distant and ephemeral, well at least for brief interludes. Yet, whilst I felt shielded from distraction by the weir’s gentle onslaught, there lingered a slight unease at being unable to hear passing visitors. Interesting and eye-catching microphone set-ups can deter people from disturbing a recordists seclusion, particularly when they are adorned with headphones. However, my position with a view across the weir also meant there was the chance that someone would notice me from the footpath crossing it and would wish to have their curiosity satisfied. Certainly, the roar of the weir, would give me little time to collect myself and prepare an account of my presence in the event of someone approaching. Such distracting thoughts were hard to shake, but eventually my mind relented and gave in to trusting passers-by to afford me some solitude, or at least to trust myself to respond to an enquiry without frustration or resentment.

With three more sounds of the bell, I moved slowly to pack-up. I left feeling pleased to have found a small corner of the town, just across the river, that I could return to should I crave some detachment from the busyness and bustle.

(Walking from the weir to Reading Bridge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St.Mary’s Whitchurch

This post is part of the Lion Seats project created by Richard Bentley. You can read more about the project here.

13.00 22-06-2017

Location: St. Mary’s, Whitchurch on Thames, Oxfordshire


 
[Outside St Mary’s Whitchurch 1pm 20th Sept 17]

Beside an old oak tree in St Mary’s churchyard

As I passed from the graveyard, through the entrance and into the vestibule of the stone church, the drop in sound levels was marked. The difference in the soundscape was paralleled by the change in brightness, from summer sun to the shade offered by the church. Inside, the only light came from the subdued glow of the stained-glass windows and a handful of dim electric lightbulbs.

I set up my recording gear and sat down for a short meditation on a gratifyingly creaky, but well-padded pew. No sooner had I set the meditation timer underway, than the clacking of shoes on the stone floor interrupted the silence. I glanced back to the doorway to see a man in smart trousers, shirt and a weathered panama hat. The visitor had a relaxed gait as he wandered aimlessly around the back of the nave. I settled back into position, closing my eyes and resting my hands on my legs. The bell sounded to begin the meditation and after a few minutes, the gentleman departed.

Now, there was little to pull my attention away from the meditation. The soundscape of the empty church consisted predominantly of a low rumbling drone, probably from traffic going over the toll bridge at the bottom of the lane. This was layered with dogs barking, bird calls, aircraft passing overhead and the occasional rhythmic rumble of trains rattling through Pangbourne on the other side of the river.

[St Mary’s, Whitchurch on Thames 1pm 22-06-17]

Meditation inside the church

A clunk of the large iron handle on the church door signalled the arrival of another visitor. They moved across the back of the nave. The swishing of fabric and soft tread of rubber shoes came closer and stopped to rest a few pews behind me. A deep sigh seemed to signal a relief in finding somewhere quiet to rest. After some settling-in, unzipping and rummaging through a bag, the haptic bleeping of a phone’s keyboard began. The constant irregular tapping was accompanied by whispered sighs and groans and the occasional respectfully muted chuckle. I managed to return to my breath, the object of my meditation, for short periods of time. However, it was difficult not to get distracted, imagining the text conversation that was taking place. Perhaps due to these distractions, it did not feel long until the closing bell from the mobile phone sounded to signal the end of the meditation, surprising the visitor and affording both of us a moment of quiet reflection.

St. Leonard’s Church

This post is part of the Lion Seats project created by Richard Bentley. You can read more about the project here.

11.50 23-06-2017

Location: St Leonard’s Church, South Stoke Road, Woodcote, Oxfordshire

 

(Recording made beside my pew in St Leonard’s church)

A handwritten notice outside the timeworn oak door of St Leonard’s Church says “PLEASE IGNORE HANDLE AND PUSH DOOR HARD”. I lent into the door, pushing against its resistance, until I abruptly overcame the inertia and stumbled in, almost prostrating myself before the font. The sound reverberated around the empty stone church, my embarrassment subsiding as I realized I was alone. I made my way, rather more reverently, to a pew about two thirds of the way down the nave, set up the recording gear and settled in to the space. After loading the ‘Zazen Lite’ app on my phone, I set the timer going for twenty minutes and waited a few seconds to begin the meditation. As the bright ‘ting’ of the bell faded, my attention was left lingering on the soft murmuring of distant traffic noise from the A4074 down the hill and the wind stirring the leaves in the various broad leafed and coniferous trees in the graveyard outside. This shifting drone was punctuated with bird calls including the familiar screech of kites circling on the thermals and planes circling on approach to Heathrow. The only noticeable break in this bed of shifting ambience was the occasional shout from the farmyard cottage next door or cars and vans passing hurriedly along the South Stoke Road. After a few minutes spent familiarising myself with the soundscape, I turned my attention to my breath. A simple gatha acted as a focus for following its rise and fall:

breathing in, I know I am breathing in,
breathing out, I know I am breathing out,
in,
out…

The scarcity of sounds interrupting the calm of the village meant that distractions came mostly from my own thoughts, thoughts about the sound recording, the project and my solitary presence in the empty church space. Some thoughts lingered, meandering from one to the other whilst others surfaced and swiftly vanished. It was, however, quite a struggle to hold my attention on the breath for any length of time, my mind was habitually pulling in a variety of directions.

About fifteen minutes into the meditation, the sense of struggle stopped, quite instantaneously. The environmental sound appeared slightly sharper, brighter and clearer. My ability to stay with the gatha improved and my mind seemed to accept that this is what I wished to do. The excerpts of conversations with myself, the creaks of the pew and the wind and traffic outside still drew my ear, but I no longer had a compulsion to follow them or construct stories from them.

When the end of the meditation came, I packed the equipment away, this time with a heightened awareness of my movements. Quite naturally there arose a feeling of care and appreciation for the objects I was handling, accompanied with a presence and contentment markedly different from my experience of setting up. On my way out, I noticed the following biblical quote arching across the doorway:

THIS IS NONE OTHER THAN THE HOUSE OF GOD, AND THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN. GEN.XXVIII.17