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As noted in other posts, my brain is host to a bad case of tinnitus. Tinnitus is the result of neuroplasticity run amuck. In the United States it is estimated nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Trauma, sickness, and age related hearing loss can bring it on. The brain senses that some essential part of the auditory spectrum is compromised so it tries to fill in for the missing bits by recreating the lost frequencies for itself. It turns out this adaptation is in no way positive but there is currently no way of calling the brain to a different course of action. So while I would prefer that it “give up and let go” this 4100 Hz banshee has been my constant waking companion for over 28 years.

fanPopular wisdom is that people with tinnitus can better cope with their tormentor if they have white noise around them and I am sure that many folks use white noise generators, like fans, to keep their tinnitus at bay. For me the only white noise that dampens the din in my brain is the noise my mind creates when it is thoroughly occupied. Work, study, play, movies, even the sound of birds and crickets are all good distractions and take my mind off the noteworthy scourge. The rest of the time I prefer things to be quiet because most “outside noise,” especially electrically generated white noise just seems to make things worse.

When it is quiet I can cocoon myself peacefully inside of, yet detached from, the noise that envelops my world. It is “within” this space that all my meditation and contemplation take place. It is from here that I have to be roused from when someone wishes to speak to me. It is from this deep well that I find solitude yet it is a principle source of the unconfined gushers of frustration and anger that can spring forth – for this place is both wellspring and geyser, sanctuary and prison. That said, fans, especially loud ones do not provide a respite from my tinnitus but are just another noise in an already noisy space.

The Fourth Ox Herding Picture

Print by Master Gyokusei Jikihara

Having tinnitus has made me more disciplined but far from being a good thing, my discipline is somehow austere, idiocentric. I don’t respond well to changes in my environment, especially where sound levels are concerned. I rarely turn on music or television just for the sake of hearing it in the background, and on bad days I can be irritable with others for a reason they can’t discern. Having tinnitus has not made me a better meditator. My waking/active mind long ago learned that distraction is the best way to escape the banshee’s grip but this defense mechanism fails miserably when I am concentrating, interacting with others, or trying to meditate. It’s a bit like the fourth image of the ten ox herding pictures. In my case a distracted wandering mind is like an ox that has never known a lead or halter. Like the herdsman in the picture l poses both items but every time I start to get them hitched the ox charges off in a new direction leaving me freshly distracted and the bell still ringing.

While I may not be a better meditator I have become a diligent one. It was a terrible shock when I finally realized that the ringing wasn’t going away and it impacted my meditation practice so completely that I stopped sitting for over two decades. Eventually I started meditating again and shortly after turned to Bhante Sutadhara Tapovanaye for help in meditating with tinnitus. He gave me some excellent advice and suggested I try employing mindfulness practice. He said I should ‘observe’ all my thoughts, including any worries about tinnitus and to use my mind to find out everything there was to know about the ringing in my ears. So I sat and observed every thought and listened to every tone. Often this effort was excruciating but I began to make discoveries. For instance, it wasn’t just one ringing there were several tones, a kind of Irish keening or wailing, five in my right ear and four in my left. Later I discovered Mandy Sutter’s excellent 2011 blog post, “Meditating with Tinnitus.” Here I found that I was not alone and people are still commenting on this article after all these years and she still responds to every one of them.

Several years have passed since I rebooted my daily meditation activities and as you have surmised I was not immediately cured by mindfulness practices. Most of the time I feel unaffected by the ringing but it seems a long path to accepting that tinnitus is part of who I am, that it doesn’t have to rule my life, and that I can just let it be. It hasn’t been easy. I still display plenty of idiocentric behavior. I still have bad days and find myself obsessing about it and in so doing, fearing and hating it rather than observing it for what it is, a bell ringing in an empty sky.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

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