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Ears and Ideas

While camping in the Mojave desert last week, I heard coyotes every night. Early in the night, while my friend and I drank our beverages of choice, we'd hear them far in the distance, their characteristic laughter-like yelps punctuating the silence of that vast place. Some nights, we awoke to the sounds of coyotes howling much closer - a single coyote about ten feet from our feet one night, and on another night, four coyotes surrounded our tent on all sides, each about twenty feet away.

On the first of those nights, I later awoke to shuffling sounds around the tent. My ears came alive. I heard the sound of gravel crunching. I heard sniffing sounds. It was an animal, curious about the tent and its contents. I listened intently to these sounds, wondering if it was the coyote or something smaller, feeling slightly frightened, but mostly highly aware and focused.

My ears were not working alone. They were collaborating with my imagination, which was searching for a tangible object - and potentially a threat I should ready myself for - to match with these sounds. After much careful listening and wondering, I determined that there was in fact no animal around the tent. The tent was pitched on gravel overlaid on rock, making it impossible to stabilize the fly with stakes. The wind had kicked up as the desert air cooled, and was flopping the tent fly around, scooting it across the gravel and creating breath-like sounds as it scraped back and forth across the earth around the tent.

A couple nights later, we camped in that same spot and awoke to the coyotes surrounding our tent a few hours after we laid down for the night. A few hours after that howling party, I again awoke to sniffing sounds and gravel crunches around the tent. After much careful listening, I determined it was once again the tent fly flopping in the desert's nighttime winds. It surprised me that even with the experience I'd had a couple nights earlier, it still took a while for me to to feel wholly convinced that I was safe.

The human mind possesses a natural bias towards alerts for danger. Our ancestors survived because they were on the lookout for threats, so that's how our minds are hard-wired. Those humanoids who were unaware of threats were gobbled up along with their happy-go-lucky genes. On that second night, even though experience told me the sounds I heard were most likely the tent fly flopping in the wind, I remained alert until I was absolutely certain that's what I was hearing.

What continues to strike me as I explore the art of listening is that it is a highly collaborative sense. When I look intently at something, it's easy for me to tune out other senses. In such a state, I can fail to notice that I've become too cold, or that I'm thirsty, or that a sound has emerged in the atmosphere. When I look at something, I don't necessarily think, "I wonder what this sounds like?" However, when I listen intently, my awareness tends to stimulate other senses, including a sense of wonder. I often find myself wondering what could be causing a sound that I hear. I often instinctively turn my head to look in a sound's direction, and if it's invisible, my mind often attempts to visualize its source, as in the case of the coyote-tent-fly.

I wonder, then, if the practice of listening is not only a path of deeper awareness and presence, but also a means of enhancing imaginative abilities.

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