[This article first appeared in my A to Zen column in the November/December issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]
Perched on a mesa overlooking Mission Valley, nestled in the quiet San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights, the Carmelite Monastery is home to the daughters of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic. The nuns live simple lives of silence and contemplative prayer. Keeping with tradition, the bells are rung by a different nun every day so their rhythm and cadence varies – an aural expression of the unique human hands on the other end of the rope.
These cloistered mystics have little interaction with the outside world, yet the sound of the bells penetrates every fiber of matter in a two mile radius – the homes and bodies of thousands of people. For 82 years, twice a day, nearly 60,000 times, these bells have startled an entire community out of their distracted, busy minds and into the sacred thrum of this present moment; the ringing clarity of the here and now. Sound does that. It gets your attention. It passes unimpeded through every cell of your body and leaves you changed.
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning God spoke the world into being. He could have pointed his mighty finger or simply intended the universe into existence with his divine mind, but instead he chose sound and language as his creative medium – the original spoken word artist. “Let there be light,” he said. And there was light. And it was good.
In an act of alchemy the spoken word transforms intangible thoughts into physical vibrations that travel through the air and alter distant objects, even the fabric of reality itself. Words have power. The well-intentioned nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” turns out to be disingenuous if not downright false. While it is true that no one can shame us without our permission, it is also true that violent hate speech greases the skids to actual violence. Stemming one curtails the other. Words, it turns out, are real things.
This is why the Buddha made Right Speech one of the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. If we are serious about transforming consciousness, then along with increased mindfulness, right action, and meditation, we must learn to use words thoughtfully, compassionately, and truthfully. As Don Miguel Ruiz pointed out in The Four Agreements, our negative self-talk is the first place to start. If the spiritual practice of being impeccable with our word is to bear any fruit, it must begin with self-affirmations strong enough to counteract a lifetime of habitual self-loathing and denigration.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it does not make a sound. The impact of the tree makes waves in the air that travel a mile in five seconds, or 767 miles per hour. These waves cannot properly be called “sound” until they are perceived by a hearer. When they hit our eardrum our brain converts these waves of soundless energy into an experience called “sound.” Sound, like color, exists only in the mind of the perceiver, not in the outer world. Perception is an inside job.
So it is that sound connects us to each other and to the outer world in an intimate, symbiotic way. We co-create the perceptual field in concert with the stimuli around us. We are all creators who hear and speak the world into being.
Every time the nuns ring the bells, despite their vows of silence and chastity, they join with us and with the world in a way that transcends the categories of corporeal and spiritual. Sound joins us to each other and to ourselves by avowing our boundless, indefinable nature. The toll of the bell moves through us and shifts us on a molecular level. Throughout world philosophy this truth is affirmed – the soul itself is a musical harmony, and the sound emitted by all things impacts the physical and metaphysical composition of all other things. In this way, we are all one in sound. May we have the ears to hear the needs of others. May we speak the truth, and sing our love. May we choose to create instead of destroy. May we repeat the sounding joy in this and all seasons.