Zen in the Art of Listening


“One of the most significant features we notice in the practice of archery, and in fact of all the arts as they are studied in Japan and probably also in other Far Eastern countries, is that they are not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but are meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality. Archery is, therefore, not practiced solely for hitting the target; the swordsman does not wield the sword just for the sake of outdoing his opponent; the dancer does not dance just to perform certain rhythmical movements of the body. The mind has first to be attuned to the Unconscious.”

– D.T. Suzuki, introductory remarks from “Zen in the Art of Archery”

I recently cracked open Eugene Herrigel’s classic, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” and found myself reflecting on the <ahem> “alternative” experiences that listening to music can evoke from the listener, and how it might relate to certain aspects of the Zen experience – the present moment where the “you” of your identity disappears. “Mushin no Shin” – or, the mind without the mind – an intuitive state that forgoes the distractions of anger, fear, ego, desire, etc.

You may sometimes read, from myself or others, comments that refer to feelings of immersion into the music, or “becoming one” with the music, and other similarly abstract notions. Oftentimes, someone might read this and attempt to parse it intellectually, to compare it against their checklist of audiophile sound-effects and conclude that these may be reference codes for more mundane sound effects like imaging, soundstaging, “sonic holography” and the like. They do not, even if those aspects are in evidence – even if they are plentiful and masterfully rendered. They refer to those deep moments when your “you-ness” drifts away and your awareness dissipates into this field of beauty that we call “music” – so, while Hi Fi is certainly a shared enthusiasm around which we can gather in numbers, there is also this other, very internal experience that is possible.

As Eugen Herrigel explains about archery in the opening pages of his book, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” we can also observe that music (and the implements through which we listen to it) were not necessarily in service to spiritual causes, as it were, but rather had perhaps much more mundane purposes. Aesthetic and even intellectual stimulation are perfectly laudable purposes, but nevertheless do not break through the membrane of personality or the experience of self. However, music can also be used as a means to catch some fleeting glimpses of the world outside that membrane and to experience, perhaps, those first few inklings of what Suzuki referred to as “ultimate reality”.

In this pursuit it becomes very easy to get distracted by the materiality of it all. There are no few writers in this audio field , professional and otherwise, that are almost entirely attached to the objects and their performance parameters. They run from the strict materialist/objectivist (measurement freaks) to experimentally subjectivist (sonic apparency) to the musically subjectivist (apparent immanency) [for more on these notions, please read my article, On Observation and Opinion] – however, in each case the ‘doctrine’ excludes the listener from the music; the object separated from the subject.


The Subject-Object illusion

“The whole problem is that we think of ourselves as ourselves. That is, as objects – bestowed with sentience, perceivers of the world, stumbling our way through life burdened by circumstances over which we have no control, all the while pretending that we do. And always lurking in the back of our mind is the knowing that ultimately we are going to die.” – GÖRAN BACKLUND


Traditionally, classically, the experience of audio (and of music, thereby) is an experience of observing, of perceiving the outward forms or “husks” of the performance. There are traps herein that catch the unwary with all sorts of distraction, whether those be beautifully-made objects (for the gear-slut), sprawling record collections (for the hoarder), impressive sound-effect performances (“pants-flapping low frequencies!” – imaging, soundstaging, liquid midrange, praeternatural presence, PRAT, ad nauseam), precision measurements (for the objectvist), and more. These kinds of things can be extraordinarily distracting for anyone, myself included, and it becomes very easy to stop and graze in these abundant gardens of delight. Indeed, reviewers – both old and new – carve their niches and ply their trade around these, perhaps never experiencing the ecstatic, and further still – that fleeting experience of “self-forgetfulness” that Suzuki intones elsewhere in his introduction to Herrigel’s classic.


The “Subject-Object” illusion is at the heart of classical materialism, and it’s a very safe and comfy philosophical cocoon to inhabit. There’s no use in arguing the fact, for instance, that all matter is composed essentially of empty space, probability waves, and excruciatingly impossibly small (and indeterminately locatable) particles and sub-particles. As proof to the contrary, all the classical materialist needs to is bop you in the nose with a Bertrand Russell book, chant “ipso facto,” and call it a win.  And yet – “Proof” notwithstanding – the assumptions of classical materialism (or logical positivism, or any form of reductionism) are simply not meaningful enough to be usefully-true beyond the mundanely-falsifiable world. Nevertheless, these are the very roots of our institutional systems of inquiry, and their products are often confused for Truth (as in “Ultimately True”) instead of just being understood as the opinions generated by observations made within the limits of the inquiry.

Metaphysics, or the inquiry and exploration of ideas and experiences as emanating from an “Ultimate Reality” is dismissed by the materialist as phantoms of psychology, or the psychological byproducts of superstitious beliefs – be they religious, or otherwise. Nevertheless, psychological byproducts are at the very structures of materialism – at least, it seems, from the Zen perspective.

In his very short blog-essay, “The World is made out of perceiving,” Göran Backlund describes a manner of encountering reality as an unfolding field of concept-projections that originate in the mind. His approach will certainly earn the ire of those materialists who will declare his notions as solipsistic nonsense (i.e. “I think, therefore you are”), causative of a logical strange loop whereby the world is just in your mind, but your mind is in the world, which is in your mind, which is in the world, which is in your mind, which is in the world, in an infinite regression. But in order to be a materialist in the first place, you must believe – some say superstitiously – that all of reality is hierarchal. Without that foundation, strict materialism falls apart.



To bring this back around, the experience of music and Hi Fi and audiophilism is largely hierarchal, as well – at least in that we tend to experience music, hi fi, and the lot as events or impressions happening outside of ourselves; in essence being projected materially at us. And to the degree that we participate in that model’s assumptions, we can measure and otherwise “prove” that this assumption is “true” – like getting bopped on the nose with a Bertrand Russell book, the paradigm is the proof of the paradigm (but here again we can talk of reflexive infinite regression). Stop and graze in the obviousness of this kind of logical positivism and you might not have that “Aha!” moment, fleeting as it might be, when the walls come tumbling down and your you-ness disappears into the music.

yinyangeggBut this sort of transcendent experience is the big easter-egg, the prize inside of the Hi Fi, and it happens when you’re least expecting it – because that is how these things happen. You drop your guard, you forget that “you” are listening to music being hurled at you by some collection of machinery. The union of subject and object, or the revelation that there isn’t a separation between the classical “you” and the classical “it” is an extraordinary and priceless experience. It doesn’t require any notion of religious or theistic belief, it doesn’t require magical or superstitious thinking of any kind … it just requires a kind of surrender that happens, usually accidentally (or unintentionally), when you’re listening to beautiful music and the whole world melts away. There is no hierarchy any more, there is no more “you” and “it” in separation, there is just a Continuity.

When this happens, it is typically by accident as I described above. You become so carefree in that musical moment that you stop “being” you and just converge with the music and float beyond whatever it is that we think of as ‘physicality’ – not just in the physicality of ourselves, but in the physicality of everything.

happysignOnce you go down this path a few times accidentally, you begin to notice some of the “road signs” – sensations within you that indicate the potential for approaching the experience – and it becomes possible to train as a listener, not for listening critically – that way lies the trees that cause you to miss the forest – but for listening as a vehicle that transports you into a much deeper experience of the music. Music is therefore very much like a psychedelic drug that can tease you into a state of alternate awareness. And the more you do it, the more you will be able to do it.

And while the materialist will blithely demean the experience as “just psychological” – (meaning, to them, a false illusion generated by the brain and therefore not reflective of “reality”) – it is they who are missing out on the far bigger picture, and therefore deserving of pity. It is the intractable rigidity and crystallized certainty of the materialist, the logical positivist, the reductionist that is what prevents them from having the experience in the first place. This “Cartesian Anxiety” is the roadblock that actually prevents the indoctrinated logical positivist from having the convergent experience … at least without the help of psychedelic “snacks” of a sort. But it doesn’t take a magic mushroom or a lid of ‘cid to move into that space … it just takes surrender.

But surrender takes practice.

So you might say that, at least to some minimal degree, “Musical Zen” might be the practice of surrendering and converging. Mushin no Shin. Not the act of losing your mind, but perhaps the act of losing the “you” in your mind.

“The wheel revolves when it is not too tightly attached to the axle. When it is too tight, it will never move on.”

-Takuan Soho

Hi Fi is certainly a fun hobby, and there is much to be said even for the superficial enjoyments that can be had. But there is so much more to experience than the mere projection of sound at your ears … you may even have had the experience for yourself. The Art of Listening is just a way back to having a glimpse of that Zen-flavored experience of “self-forgetfulness” which may have the potential to create that convergence and the feeling of being One with Everything.

Chris Sommovigo loves music, enjoys audio, designs cables, seeks Truth. Since the mid 1980's he has been on both sides of the microphone, all sides of the industry, prefers tubes and vinyl, appreciates and respects solid state and digital, and will make great efforts to be present for a wonderful meal. Aside from this present foray into editorial life, Chris remains a small-scale manufacturer, importer, and specialized retailer and has recently started taking guitar lessons again after a 32-year hiatus.

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