Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learning the Ursonate: the mind-clearing benefits of non-conceptual sound poetry

In the last two weeks of a 4-month Tibetan Buddhist retreat, we were instructed to engage in “non-conceptual silence.”

I already knew how to engage in silence, as I had worn my “In Silence” badge many times earlier in the retreat. Non-conceptual silence was new to me. It meant no reading of the many Buddhist books I’d amassed or even my Kurt Vonnegut short stories collection. It meant no dance parties to pop songs. Literature and lyrics are chock full of concepts, and the challenge was to avoid engaging the mind in concepts unless absolutely necessary.

I still wanted a way to spend my breaks, some way to engage my mind. That’s when I remembered a 3-minute long animation called Primiti Too Taa, which illustrates a “sound poem” of made-up syllables. That animation had stuck with me since first watching it in college; I’d find myself looking it up once a year to watch again or share with a friend. There was something about the rhythmic nonsense sounds that resonated with me.

This time after re-watching the animation, I researched its source. The original poem is The Ursonate by German Dadist artist Kurt Schwitters, and it is an entire hour of made-up syllables spoken with rhythmic intonation.

And thus, I spent my breaks reciting that poem in my room. I listened to mp3 recordings while I followed along with a PDF of the text.

I loved how it engaged my mind fully while not miring it in concepts and judgments of how things are or should be in the world. I found myself reciting my favorite verses while doing other activities, and that allowed my body to enjoy those activities more. My mind is one that likes to fill itself with thoughts, and as those thoughts tend toward the critical/anxious side, they can take away from my bodily enjoyment of activities. By engaging it with the Ursonate, I make it harder for the negative thoughts to pop up.

Because I benefited so much from the Ursonate, I want to make it easier for other people to recite it. Using a text-audio sync-up tool, I’ve made video recordings of the entire Ursonate with each line bolded as Kurt recites it, and uploaded them to Youtube. You can watch the entire Ursonate, the 4 parts separately, or if you're short on time, my favorite progression of verses.

If you try it out, do let me know how it works for you. Everyone’s mind is different, and I’m curious if there are other minds out there that benefit from sound poetry.
(And hey, maybe one day, we’ll all get together and recite the Ursonate together in a room. Mind-clearing, engage!)

Monday, March 6, 2017

My Nightly Gratitude Journal

It can be hard to keep up any practice, especially at night when willpower is at an all-time low and the body wants to rest. I have found that when a practice is powerful enough, however, my mind and body can find a way.

I have now been keeping up a nightly gratitude journaling practice for more than 3 months — and I intend to continue it.

I first started the practice during Thanksgiving last year, after a seasonally themed gratitude class by Erika Rosenberg at the Nyingma Institute. Erika mentioned various studies where people’s positivity and general health increased while gratitude journaling, and recommended we try it ourselves. I’m a sucker for science-backed positivity boosts and for doing the extra credit in class, so I immediately started my own journal. I was also in the midst of a 4 month Buddhist retreat, so I had ample mental space to start practices and study their effects.

For my gratitude journal, I decided to focus on feeling grateful towards people rather than things, because I was also working on my tendency to negatively judge others. I figured that I could counter the negative judgments conjured up by my mind by purposefully conjuring up positive judgments as well. Anecdotally, it works!

Now, every night, I write “Today I’m grateful for”, number my lines 1–10, and in each spot I write “person X for doing action Y”. Admittedly, 10 is a high number for a gratitude journal, but I like forcing myself to dig deep to think of 10 interactions each day. And if it’s been a solitary day, I can always thank my cats for being playful. :)

To encourage friends and family to start a gratitude practice, I made them journals for Christmas by pasting the instructions below (PNG, PSD) on the inside cover of little notebooks.

As with any practice, I encourage you to experiment with the format and see what is most effective for you. I wish you well on your journey.

Instructions for gratitude journal