John Cage and The Art of Listening

Inspired by our launch of The Creative Hours, I’ve been compiling a diverse collection of practices that nurture creativity. Tools, rituals and exercises from around the world, across disciplines, and from the nether regions of my own noggin, that are aimed to foster fluidity, imagination, innovation and play. It struck me that a good portion of my collection was dedicated not to making and doing, but rather observing and listening.

Learning how to pay close attention and be receptive is a foundation for creative thinking.

No one embodies this principle better than artist and Buddhist, John Cage. His beloved book Silence: Lectures and Writings is both charming and profound.  I highly recommend keeping it near for creative inspiration and grounding. It is a wise book that never grows old, and offers itself for fruitful rereading again and again.

John Cage
John Cage

Composer, writer, and artist and music theorist, John Cage is considered one of the major American creatives of the 20th Century. He pioneered ways of thinking about sound, silence, instruments, composition and chance.  Also influential in the world of dance, Cage was life long partners with the equally seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham.


For our first creative practice on The Creative Hours, let’s channel John Cage. This exercise pays homage to his his passion for the world of sound and draws from his artistic commitment to mindful listening:

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THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: LISTENING  MEDITATION   

  1. Find a private moment in your day, and a tranquil spot. Close your eyes. Breathe Deeply.  
  2. Start to turn your attention to the soundscape that surrounds you. Notice the many threads and types of sound.
  3. Start by focusing on the sounds that are farthest away. Do you hear cars humming, wind blowing, an airplane or the buzz of lives spinning outside. Spend one minute carefully finding and listening to these “in the distance” noises. You do not need to name or comment on the sounds, but simply to pay close attention. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  4. Next listen for the nearby sounds that are in your immediate sphere. Let the far away sounds recede, and listen carefully to the composition of sounds around you. Listen to tone, quality, pitch, rhythm of all the different ambient noises. The rumble of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the rustling of a pet. Again, just listen for a minute or so.
  5. Finally, shift your focus inward, and try to listen to the sounds within your own body.  Hear your heartbeat, your stomach growl, your breath rise and fall. See if you might even be able to hear your brain churning or your blood flowing. Stay attentive to the smallest details and feelings. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  6. Take a deep breath and open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Take stock of your body, breath, your emotional state.
  7. What did you notice? Experience? Share your reflections #TCHlistening or email them to thecreativehours@gmail.com

This is a wonderful and grounding meditation to do before you begin a creative practice. It puts you in a sensitive and receptive state- a great state for letting the creative process flow.

Further reading: 

Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage

First published in 1961, Silence is a wise and whimsical collection of Cage’s essays and lectures.  In keeping with John Cage’s experimental approach, many of the pieces feature poetic methods of presentation or composition.

 

John Cage: Visual Art, To Sober and Quiet the Mind by Kathan Brown

A treasure of a book featuring 116 color images.  This exquisite book features Cage’s sublime chance made drawings, and Brown’s insight into his work and the role that art can play in this world.

Author: Alex Posen

Alex Posen is an artist, writer, designer and veteran creative director. She writes and speaks about creativity, and is available for workshops, private coaching and consulting.