Location: Forum Mezzanine, John Henry Brookes Building, Oxford Brookes, Headington.
In a discussion about the places people go for quiet reflection, my doctoral supervisor, Paul Whitty, mentioned the mezzanine study area overlooking the Forum Café at Oxford Brookes University. As is the current trend, the study area is open plan combining the facilities required for study with the laid-back feel of a café. Unsurprisingly, when asking people where they head to be alone with their thoughts, both cafés and libraries are frequently cited. Commonly open to the public, they are places where anonymity and personal space are generally respected and where being unaccompanied and doing nothing in particular, is socially acceptable. Their soundscape is typically unobtrusive, familiar and comforting, supporting concentration or allowing an individual to simply get lost in thought. The study area above ‘The Forum’ is one of these spaces. It comprises a large, open, mezzanine floor that permits the familiar relaxed babble of largely unintelligible chat, the reverberant knocks and scrapes of furniture and occasional bleep of electronic notifications to rise-up from the café area below. Despite the presence of an expansive glass window next to me and plastered ceiling above, the large sofas and carpeted floor dampened much of the reverberant sound. Only those voices in the immediate vicinity were intelligible, with semi-circular partitions helping to mute many nearby conversations. A couple sat together on a sofa in front of me and behind were two students speaking to each other in Arabic. As I have no understanding of Arabic, their chat rarely drew my attention. It was only the occasional English word that I registered; ‘Adobe’, ‘Photoshop’, ‘software’ and with no access to a context, these words remained briefly jotted mental notes. In all, there was little in the way of auditory distraction, unless you chose to tune in to the soundscape or strained to hear a nearby conversation.
After finding a place to sit, I erected and tested a rather conspicuous Jecklin Disc stereo recording array, set the timer on my phone and settled into the comfy bucket-style-sofa I had chosen. No one seemed at all distracted by the sounding of the meditation bell, no doubt because it was so ubiquitous, blending in with the many other sounds of technology permeating the space. I naturally slouched back into the seat, trying not to draw any more attention to myself, not because I felt self-conscious, but to avoid stifling other’s conversations through fear of feeling monitored. After only a few minutes of reclining on the sofa I noticed the strain on my neck from holding my head upright. Rather than adjusting my posture, I decided to simply observe how the position effected my ‘bodymind’ (a term that has associations with alternative medicine, but feels increasingly fitting the longer I practice). It was interesting to notice how my slumped posture seemed to promote a disposition of distracted relaxation, rather than relaxed focus. I have observed in previous meditations that maintaining the traditional position, with the head balancing on the erect column of the spine has helped to direct the mind and maintain awareness. This heightened focus could, of course, simply be due to association. Nonetheless, the upright posture seems to embody a balance, solidity and dignity that cultivates a calm, persistent attentiveness. By relaxing inconspicuously into my chair, I had inadvertently made my meditation that little more challenging. Laughably, the futility of trying to blend in became clear later when the couple in front of me who, on my arrival, had stopped talking and had become engrossed in their laptops, noticed I had dismantled the recording gear and so resumed their conversation.
In previous Lion Seats meditations I have noticed how the paraphernalia associated with field recording can easily interrupt the natural flow of a meditation and spawn layers of complexity that frustrate the simple act of maintaining singular attention. On this occasion, I quickly became aware of my leg brushing against the XLR cables, a noise exacerbated by sensitive microphones with little protective suspension. Small shifts of my calf or even slight upper body movements would induce a low rumbling on the recording. So, when itches arose in my foot, I was compelled to patiently observe the rise and fall of the sensation, rather than shifting my foot in the shoe. It was interesting to notice the way in which fixing my attention on the itch, far from increasing my mental agitation, offered a sense of relief and detachment. As with observing my posture, the itching sensation became the object of meditation, a focus that was supported by my desire not to ‘ruin’ the recording with extraneous ‘handling noise’.
On this occasion, the meditation was quite brief, lasting only ten minutes. Yet within this time there was much that resonated with previous experiences in other settings and brought particular issues into sharper focus. Certainly, working with the situation as it presented itself, rather than fighting against it, once again proved to be central in supporting a compassionate awareness. This required both an ability and willingness to change the focus of the meditation and to vary the approach taken. With a fixed idea of what the meditation should be, I would have remained closed to the possibilities that presented themselves. The ability to be adaptable and to draw from a range of alternative practices, afforded a frustrating circumstance to become an opportunity. These alternative practices may not involve maintaining single-pointed concentration, but continue to promote mindful awareness and cultivate insight through other means. Loosening attachment to expectations and outcomes appears to be key here.
The way in which the posture and position of the body influenced my orientation towards practice was also evident. If my body assumes a position that embodies an intention to meditate, my ability to direct and sustain attention seems to be improved. The degree to which this is due to established associations or inherent physiological factors will, no doubt, vary from person-to person and situation-to-situation. Adopting a traditional meditative posture may not always be possible or desirable, but it nevertheless emerges as an important factor in nurturing meditative focus.
Lastly, there is a recognition that whilst amplifying found sound has proven to be an effective means of supporting present-centred awareness, the requirements involved in making a recording and maintaining meditative focus are often at odds. The impetus behind samatha meditation, the principal practice in this project, is to calm the mind through sustained single-pointed concentration. The motivation of the field recordist, on the other hand, can vary but typically necessitates the modulation of attention between personal, technical and environmental factors with the intention of producing a recording that can be presented to others. Whilst these different motivations can both, at times, be accommodated they are, in my experience, more likely to compete. If Lion Seats was an investigation into mindful field recording, there would be little difficulty in accommodating the two practices of mindfulness and field recording. Such ‘informal’ mindfulness practice would simply require a present-centred awareness of the recording process whilst incorporating a ‘meta-awareness’ of the recordist’s perceptions and reactions to events. However, samatha meditation requires a singular focus, which for this project has been the rise and fall of the breath. Any activity competing for attention clearly makes this practice more challenging. The most satisfactory resolution has been to treat the two practices as distinct, setting up recording equipment and letting it run whilst meditating without monitoring or even considering the recording being captured. In some situations this approach has been effective, yet in the majority of cases creating a clear separation between the two practices has been more problematic. Thoughts such as ‘is the equipment safe?’, ‘did that loud sound peak the meters?’, ‘is the rain going to get into the mic?’ frequently persist. Although the process of undertaking these audio recordings of meditations has been insightful, it has also suggested that field recording and formal meditation are not always good bedfellows.