Not doing anything. Really?

I think that I’ve read more about the compositions of John Cage than I’ve actually listened.  Of course, there’s not much to hear in his most famous piece 4’33”, which I have experienced.  So, I could smile smugly during the movie Tár when the conductor gets frustrated at the orchestra during a rehearsal and makes the snotty comment that she’s there with “a four-thirty-three trying to sell a car without an engine.”

There are three movements in the piece: 33 seconds, 2 minutes 40 seconds, and 1 minute 20 seconds, for a total of four minutes 33 seconds.Cage’s only instruction is tacet, “it is silent.”  In the original performance, the pianist David Tudor simply opened the lid over the keys at the beginning of each movement, and closed it at the end.  Otherwise, silence.

But the experience does not tacet.  Inevitably there are sounds.  Even in an anechoic chamber Cage heard his own breathing and heartbeat.  In a concert hall, one can hear the shuffling of feet, the groaning of seats as people move, the drone of an HVAC system cycling on and off, not to mention the usual coughs and clearings of throat.  In my apartment, I always hear the traffic outside, sometimes a faint hum, often a roar, a beep, a siren.  There are people walking in the unit above me.  Doors open in the hallway.  My dog Sammie rolls over and scratches his bedding.

This is what Cage learned as he pursued his original goal of producing silence as the absence of sound.  So, instead in 4’33” Cage asks the audience to listen to “nothing.”  Not a nothing that is something, as the analogy to zero made earlier.  Rather, the more we try to block or filter out all sounds, the more we try for that paradoxical goal of dwelling in the presence of absence, the more we learn as Cage wrote “try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

In words reminiscent of guides to meditation, William Brooks describes the lessons to learn from failing to hear silence

Cage proposed that we, we listeners, attend to attention: that we notice that we are noticing, not merely what we are noticing. … For this kind of attention Cage reserved the word ‘discipline’, … attend to the act of attending in order to challenge the habits, the preperceptions, from which your experience is built.

This morning’s Daily Dharma from Tricycle magazine quoted an article from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, “Do Nothing.”

Meditation is one of the rare occasions when we’re not doing anything. Otherwise, we’re always doing something, we’re always thinking something, we’re always occupied. We get lost in millions of obsessions or fixations. But by meditating—by not doing anything—all these fixations are revealed.

Earlier this year I was frustrated that my mind never seemed to stop buzzing when I sat to meditate.  Sometimes I tried to quiet the buzz and to focus my mind by paying attention to readings of the suttas.  If I could keep my mind from wandering for more than 2-3 minutes, I was doing good.  Now, I think I’ll work on  just paying attention to the buzz that sitting quietly doing nothing else lets me experience.  Not what the buzz is about, just the buzzing.

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