For many years now, I have been using software in my meditation practice. In Buddhist meditation, we traditionally open and close each sitting by ringing a bell three times. One is instructed to follow the sound waves until they subside, providing a gradual transition in and out of the silent state of awareness. In today’s computer age, those of us who own computers – and from 2000 – 2006 I did not – can stream or download mp3 files that play a digital recording of a bell being rung three times at the start of a sitting, and three times at the end. One can choose meditation timers of various lengths, typically ranging from 20 minutes to one hour. Bells come in many sizes, and are used differently in different traditions, but every dhamma practicioner loves their bells. I was once sitting a three week retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh at his center Plum Village in the south of France and I’ll never forget the look of love with which he unwrapped a brand new 4.5 foot tall cast iron bell and took it for a test drive before it was brought into the main dharma hall. The look made me think of the way some folks might gaze upon a brand new luxury automobile.
The advantage I found in using a digital bell is that when you don’t have to open your eyes to look at a clock to keep track of how long you’ve been sitting. The computer takes care of that for you. This helped me concentrate more clearly on the chosen object of awareness, whether it was the breath in samadhi mode or physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts in Vipassana mode. I didn’t have the excuse to go wandering off checking on the time, because that was taken care of me. I found my concentration improved as a result, as mental chatter about how long I had been sitting, should I open my eyes to check, etc., subsided. I could also store multiple presets to vary the sound, and open as many bells as I wanted within a file of my DAW, leading to an interesting multi-tracking effect to begin and end my sittings. The results were especially effective when I streamed the bells, rather than downloading them. Playing the files in iTunes provoked a dangerous spiritual materialism, in which I was tempted to feed my ego by checking how many times I had played files of various lengths, turning meditation into a statistically measured competition like baseball. This mentality happily subsided when I stuck with streaming.
One down side to digital dhamma remained: I missed the full sonic range of the sounds of a real bell. Perhaps if dhamma centers used sophisticated and expensive analog emulation plug ins to record and master their tracks, this would not have been a problem. Inexplicably, they don’t. The dynamics of the bells were compressed by poor recording and the limitations of the mp3 format. No alternatives to mp3 were offered, a major oversight in my view. I longed for wav or aiff files, but couldn’t find any online. I was too lazy to make my own. Distortion and surface hiss are also prominent on these virtual bell files. They do not flatter the recorded bells in the same way it would the vocals and instruments of a musical track. Lo fi has no place in the dharma hall.
When ringing a real bell, there is a remarkable differentiation between two different pitches, one low and one high, an octave apart. They weave in and out of each other like the main and sub oscillators of a synthesizer. Except the distinction is more purely captured because there is no filtering or noise, leaving you with a pure tonality. No synthesizer has ever captured the synchronized swimming of over and undertones of oscillation like a meditation bell, though some come close.
That is why I have left digital devices and virtual reality behind in my meditation practice. I asked my sister to give me a physical three dimensional analog bell for my birthday, and I’ve been pleased by the results since it arrived. Some bands you just have to see live, and it turns out The Mindfulness Bells are one of them. Their first two records do have some good stuff on them, though. You might want to track the vinyl pressings of their early stuff down on ebay.