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Barbara O'Brien

No Silence

By January 30, 2010

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I've been researching what the Buddha and Buddhist teachers have said about mindfulness. The Buddha taught that we should cultivate mindfulness of our bodies and the sensations in our bodies as well as of our mental processes and the phenomena in front of us.

I'm a bit hung up on the sensation part. I have tinnitus, which is a fancy word for "ringing in the ears." Except I don't hear ringing; I hear crickets. And of course they are not real crickets. It's just a sound being made in my head somehow that sounds like a field of crickets on a summer night.

I've learned to function with the noises in my head mostly by ignoring them, but this is not mindfulness, is it? Even during silent meditation, there is chirping. If I focus on it, it gets louder and louder and soon overwhelms all my other faculties. But most of the time, during normal daily activities, I don't notice it.

In my case the tinnitis has no apparent cause as well as no apparent cure. My doctor is very sympathetic -- he says he has it too, and for many years. You get used to it, he says.

Considering there are people who practice with chronic pain, I feel a bit sheepish complaining about tinnitis.  My hearing isn't impaired, I don't think. It doesn't hurt. It's just a sound, and not unnecessarily an unpleasant sound. It just doesn't ever stop. The best I can do is acknowledge the sound and be mindful of other sounds as the imaginary crickets chirp away in the background.

Comments
January 30, 2010 at 5:43 pm
(1) Ton Bil says:

With compassion for your suffering and ailment, I’d still highly recommend mindfulness.

My understanding of the dharma, experience with vipassana and life in general tell me this: giving attention to it, will help you find the best way to deal with it. How could it be otherwise? Since they are an ailment, it does not feel nice to (have to) give attention to the crickets. Still, when you come to “accept”, I’d even say “embrace” that sound, your suffering will be ended. Don’t you think so?

And please consider this: what if all people would have tinnitus, like all people have to deal with other facts of life? I think much of our suffering comes from comparison with others, not from the circumstances per se. This “comparing habit” is one of those conditionings that a yogi will be dealing with in vipassana meditation.

Good luck and thanks for your work on buddhism!

February 1, 2010 at 10:53 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

When the crickets first arrived, three or four years ago, I was very distressed that I would probably never hear silence again. So I guess that was suffering. Now I am not distressed about it, I’m just not sure what to do with it. I don’t connect the crickets with “suffering” now.

February 1, 2010 at 10:37 am
(3) jasmine says:

“I think much of our suffering comes from comparison with others, not from the circumstances per se.”
that is a very good observation! thank you!

February 4, 2010 at 6:53 pm
(4) Meg says:

Barbara, I truly feel for you. I practise meditation and have a chronic pain syndrome. It helps that I acknowledge the pain, but I don’t dwell on it or concentrate on it, or like your tinnitis it seems to take over. My understanding of mindfulness is to exprience those sensations and recognise them, just like we recognise our moods (which are mostly fleeting). I hope this helps with your meditation.

February 4, 2010 at 9:21 pm
(5) Sreedhar Rao Sonti says:

I am reading a morning news paper. Multitude of sounds , in and around, do not disturb my concentration until some one touches me telling me to have my coffee!

February 4, 2010 at 9:47 pm
(6) Sreedhar Rao Sonti says:

I am reading a morning news paper. Multitude of sounds , in and around, do not disturb my concentration until some one touches reminding me of my coffee getting cold.

February 4, 2010 at 11:11 pm
(7) Michele Carbery says:

Barbara,

Thanks for sharing this personal aspect. I really appreciated this, as it is a topic I have thought about too in the context of mindfulness – I also live with this condition, plus chronic pain.

In meditation, or just sitting quietly, I also have the experience that the constant sound does seem to get louder.

I have applied different approaches during meditation, and to me focusing on it in any way unfortunately makes it into a ‘something’ that then becomes very enhanced and distracting in unhelpul ways. Trying to ignore it also makes it a ‘something’ with the same result because I’m resisting.

The things that have helped me personally so far are acknowledging it and other challenging experiences with a neutral feeling (as much as possible in the changing moments :)

Acknowledging it with compassion as a sample of what countless living beings are experiencing. And, mainly that it is in reality a changing phenomenon/experience that definitely cannot remain permanent, and neither will this form.

So then there is a wish to make the most of what IS working in this form at this time (however much or little that may appear to be), and trying to do something productive and beneficial with it :)

To me it then becomes a practice of mindfulness by leveraging the physical experiences to become focused on compassion, death awareness, impermanence and emptiness and bodhichitta.

Of course, there are many humbling times times when I sit there trying to ignore it and nothing seems to help, but when I find the balance above it’s really helpful :) Hope it helps others too.

~Michele

February 5, 2010 at 1:07 am
(8) Rajeev G says:

Do we have a different understanding on “meditation”. Is it not trying to understand everything as it is than trying to suppress something and trying to achieve something else?. Suffering exists….why do we forget the first noble truth? accept..accept..accept

February 5, 2010 at 7:43 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

accept..accept..accept

Nobody is saying otherwise. The question is, what does “accept” mean when sitting with pain (or, in my case, imaginary crickets)? Exactly what do you do with the pain? I also have mild to moderate spinal stenosis so I sometimes sit with pain as well as crickets. In Shikantaza, we sit in full mindfulness of our bodies and mental processes, but paying full attention to pain makes the pain get bigger and bigger. Unlike a thought object that one can acknowledge and let go, pain will very stubbornly persist after it has been acknowledged. One teacher told us to “be one” with pain, but in my experience this is only practical when pain is moderate. Otherwise you can actually make yourself ill sitting with overwhelming pain. There’s a subtle spot between ignoring pain and fixating on it, but that spot can be very hard to find.

February 5, 2010 at 8:52 am
(10) Tessan Bob says:

I have also had tinnitus for a number of years and it has become like the dial on a radio – which station do I listen to at the moment, the crickets, or the sounds I must hear for work or conversation, or the station that broadcasts from somewhere between my head and heart.

February 6, 2010 at 1:35 am
(11) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara,

http://what-buddha-said.net/Canon/Sutta/SN/SN.III.196.1.htm. May be of some help.

With compassaion….Rajeev G

February 6, 2010 at 1:48 pm
(12) M.V.Sankaran says:

I have had mild tinnitus for three decades now and I have learned to live with it. The tinnitus problem may be due to eardrum rupture or middle ear bones (stirrup bones) becoming unstable or inner ear (the conch) being injured (through head injury or loud noise) or infected (through any type of virus that attacks the body) or afflicted through medication that is harmful to the ears sometime. It could also be due to some central nervous problems. There are certain medications (blood vessel dilators) that may effective in case of constrictions of blood vessels as in the case of onset of epilepsy. I do not practice meditation, but I do take my mind off the problem by concentrating on my work or personal hobbies that keep me absorbed. At night, however, when the sounds of the day are still, the problem may be somewhat acute.Then some medication as prescribed by an ENT specialist may be taken. However, their side-effects should be noted and the same discontinued upon further medical advice. Surgical treatment is resorted to in some acute cases. I do not know about ‘meditation’ being a cure to tinnitus at all. Or how comparison with others can solve the problem or even reduce the magnitude of it. It may bring some solace,, but that does not solve the problem itself. We have to learn to live with it like so many other problems.

February 6, 2010 at 4:21 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

I do not know about “meditation” being a cure to tinnitus at all.

I can’t imagine that it is. We’re talking about what to “do” with it during silent mindfulness meditation. You’d have to be an experienced silent mindfulness meditator with some sort of chronic pain or other non-optimal body functioning to understand the conversation, I think.

As far as the tinnitis goes, in my case it may be a side effect of some medication I take, but in consultation with my doctor I’d rather live with the tinnitis than without the meds. Maybe somebody they’ll invent something that treats my other condition without causing tinnitis. Until then, it’s me and the imaginary crickets. CHIRP CHIRP CHIRP.

February 7, 2010 at 11:06 pm
(14) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barabara, I had some throat infection last month. Since I try to avoid taking “pharmacompanies” antibiotics than the natural ones like garlic, honey, turmeric with pepper etc, it continued for almost a month. When I used to cough, it feels like sometimes my complete throat is going to blast and eyes going to pop out. Can I meditate during this time? It is a wrong question. I accepted that state of body as part of state to pass on…reduced my suffering. The usual questions comes to our mind during this time is..why to me…lot of things to do…why it is not getting cured…frustration coupled with pain…can’t we avoid that frustration part..and only have the pain??? Achieving pure pain situation is possible if mind’s judgement is not there..Pure pain is not “intolerable” pain…it is just pain…Also, seeking treatment also to be done…Buddha also used to get treated by his attending doctor…..all the best..and continue your blogs…get well soon.

February 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rajeev, I am not a doctor, but sometimes you really need to take the real antibiotics and not the “home cure.”

February 23, 2010 at 5:29 am
(16) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara,

I don’t disagree…you are right. Sometimes we have to take real antibiotics. But, as a Buddhist, can we do that as a last resort? Because, the so called antibiotics kills not only the bad bacterial, but the good ones which works for our body. But, a cure through home remedy, it keeps the good ones in shape and fights with the bad…even I am not a doctor or scientist or doctor read somewhere….

Moreover, due to increased use of antibiotics, the bacterias getting stronger and stronger through society and generations. If we can feel some individual responsibility to reduce the use of it, “bad bacteria getting stronger” can be slowed…just by optimism….any takers???

February 27, 2010 at 5:08 am
(17) Rich says:

Hi Barbara
With regards to mindfulness practice we focus on one of the four categories. Unless a sensation overwhelms us we stay focused on that category- breathing, feelings etc. If your tinnitus isn’t impinging on your normal life (you don’t notice it) and you have developed concentration on the mindfulness subject then it shouldn’t pose any problem.
You are not asked to focus on the ringing. Even in open awareness practice your focus goes to the internal process calling for attention. In some forms of practice you may focus on the ringing but, as with pain (I have chronic pain) you are not achieving the right practice if the sensation is not merely perceived as sensation. My pain is only pain when I contract around it. The same will be true for the ringing getting worse, plus there are some other factors.
My thoughts would be to:
a) practice shamatha- mindfulness without a base of firm concentration can be self defeating.
b) not worry about focussing on the ringing and concentrate on the four categories of mindfulness..breathing in particular.
c) remember that we solve any problems we can prior to meditation..taking painkillers if chronic pain, that isn’t related to the psychological effort of sitting, is present and in your case, ignoring the sound if that’s what makes it unproblematic.
Hope this helps.

March 10, 2011 at 10:39 pm
(18) Bill says:

I got tinnitus from a botched ear surgery. I mostly do breath meditation and I try focusing all my attention on my breath as it comes through my nose. So, my focus isn’t really on the ringing. Sometimes it’s too loud for me to not focus on it. Other times I can focus just on the breath.

Sometimes I get frustrated thinking: “If only I didn’t have tinnitus my meditaton would be so much better!” However, thinking this way isn’t productive and doesn’t get you anywhere, except depressed about your situation. Anyway, I’ve started changing my attitude to just accepting it and moving on.

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