Phonetics in the Key of Zen

In the Fall, I with my friend and co-facilitator of Life Through Art, Surabhi Khare, finding ourselves with a little free time got to helping each other fine-tune our pronunciation in English and Hindi, respectively.  (A.K.A. Your perfectly standard coffee break.)  Surabhi diligently worked on isolating ‘w’ and ‘v’, an English phonetic distinction tricky for South Asian speakers (Hindi collapses these into the singular sound, ).  I in the meanwhile had tongue-curling fun getting my retroflex on and checking that my aspirations (i.e. ‘ta’ vs. ‘tha’) weren’t coming across as too breathy or over-the-top.


You have to have a fairly good sense of humour to work on phonetics, as listening to and trying to repeat a set of generally (or at least eventually) meaningless sounds does feel vaguely ridiculous; and indeed, Surabhi and I both found the whole thing a boatload of laughs.  However on a completely other note it occurred to me that what we were engaged in was quite like meditation.  (We had just finished up one of our weekly art sessions and as the class’s opening and closing rituals tended to include a body scan or some variant, meditation was right on the tip of my brain.)

The mental attitude one attempts to cultivate inside the meditative state is one of quiet and careful listening: it is not so much intended to “clear the mind” as it is to pay close attention to perceptions and thoughts that are simply there, and allow them to be as they are, without the interference of making them into ‘this’ or ‘that’.  As though mind were a mirror, the goal of meditation is to strive to reflect the ‘original’ source (i.e. Life Itself, or whatever’s Out There) with greater fidelity than can the mind and its representations when assumed to be self-sufficient.

Conceived of this way, meditation at its base consists of an engagement with difference – that thing which you do not create, and which is not “you”, but which surrounds you and uniquely facilitates your normal sense of self.  In tuning one’s pronunciation to another language one effectively brushes aside the usual cobwebs of consciousness to achieve the clearest and truest perception of pure sound possible, as one hopes to reproduce it.  Considering that our tongues and throats and mouths are all programmed to perform very different repertoires of movement depending on what language we speak, this is not such a very obvious or easy thing to do.

One does often make very useful internal distinctions through meditation, but it rarely provides such a concrete shock as literally not being able to tell the difference between two sounds, even though both clearly fall within aurally perceptible limits.  I find this is a beautiful metaphor for working within a multicultural environment, in that it demonstrates how powerfully our biases can affect our getting the whole story – despite how aware of them or how determined to expand them we may be.


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