Sound healing practitioner, meditation teacher, and artist Lavender Suarez released her debut wellness book, “Transcendent Waves: How Listening Shapes Our Creative Lives,” on Dec. 15, 2020. The book is pensive, informative, and filled with color; Its intricate artwork is illustrated by Alex Tults and inspired by old science textbooks of the 1970s and ‘80s. The Harvard Crimson spoke with Suarez about finding sound healing, her inspirations and intentions with her book, the importance of intentional listening, and how we can adjust to our homes in quarantine.
The Harvard Crimson: In the section “Silent Distraction,” you mentioned how you started your practice at a Buddhist temple, and a monk told you to focus on your breath instead of on listening. How did you realize what the difference between that was, and what, since then, has influenced your work?
Lavender Suarez: The monk was saying — he didn't say listen to anything. All he said was just focus on your breath. And at that time, that wasn't enough guidance for me. You know, the idea of “focus on your breath,“it was like, well, does that mean think about your breath, does that mean listen to it? Should I be counting how long my breaths are? It just felt a bit vague. And then for the silent meditation, we also would sit on the floor, cross-legged, which, if you're not used to doing that, can actually feel quite uncomfortable after a while, so when I was first trying to get into meditation I was actually very uncomfortable, and my mind was racing, and I needed more guidance at that time.
So, when I started becoming more involved with sound healing, I realized that sound could be my guide, and I could then listen into the sound, I could hear how sound moved in the room, and if I was feeling distracted, I would just listen to the sound. And this was at home, me doing sound healing just for myself. I got really interested in playing instruments like singing bowls and gongs, and I think also doing a little bit of subtle movement while meditating felt really great for me, too. In the book, I talk about how I have led walking meditations, and something about the sensation of moving and meditating at the same time — I find it very calming, and it helps me connect with the mind and body much better than just sitting in silence.
THC: How long did that process take, finding guidance through sound and movement?
LS: It took a couple years. You know, I think everyone wants to attend to themselves and take care of themselves, and it takes a certain amount of courage to keep going, even when you feel like you fail at first, and to find what works best for you and to tap into what your interests are. So I've been a lifelong musician. I realized, “wait, there's meditations with music as well,” — which is an ancient, historical way to meditate, but at the time when I was researching meditation, everything just said, “just silent;” you just need silence. So it took a while of researching and looking into things and trying different kinds of yoga and all this different stuff to figure out what worked best for me. So, I understand deeply that that can be a difficult process for people, you know, they try one thing and, “oh, it didn't work for me, I just can't meditate.” So it's been great writing this book now, I wanted to share that trajectory with people — that initially, I thought it wasn't for me, and now it's become my whole life.
THC: The section on memory goes into how we remember sounds, or don’t, and how we can access that. Can you speak a bit to how sound can do that differently compared to other mediums of remembering?
LS: I love the neuroscience of listening and sound, and I love Oliver Sacks’s books about listening and music in our lives. I'll note as well I consulted with three neuroscientists on this book to make sure that the information I was presenting was correct. Music, in particular, is so powerful — the memories it creates in our minds. Sometimes when we see things, there's more of a pause because our eyes absorb information differently than our ears. There's a slight delay; our ears absorb information quicker than our eyes. And I think [that’s] so important because that goes into essentially who we are as primal beings. Our listening is our main defense system that we have in our body. Sometimes people like to talk about scent being the strongest sense that we have, but when you think about it, if you're walking down the street and there's a scary dog, you're not going to smell that dog, you’re going to hear that dog. And that's going to create a visceral sensation in your body. So, I love talking about how our ears are always there to protect us, and they're always searching for information, they're always gathering. We can close our eyes, but we can't close our ears.
THC: And does that apply to nonverbal sounds only or speech as well?
LS: All forms, because there's a big part in the book about communication. Listening skills aren't really formally taught most of the time; they’re something that we learn about in childhood. But even then, it can have sort of this framework of ‘listen to your parents, listen to your teachers,’ and that's never really fully explained. Everyone understands the concept of listening, but I like to explain [that] it's a lifelong process of development. And when you are listening more to the world around you, it also filters into your personal relationships. I also talk about inner listening, listening to yourself, creating a sense of self, [which goes back] to concepts of mindfulness and inspiration. So I feel like listening is such a beautiful, broad category that can go incredibly internal to completely external.
THC: The book was described as a medium for creativity and unlocking internal creative sparks. And I was wondering if the process of writing the book helped you as well as a musician, or did writing the book give you that clarity in unlocking that creative spark as well?
LS: This book came out of many years of teaching workshops, about sound in many different capacities. I've worked with people of all ages, from students as young as eight years old, up to elderly people. And I really wanted to put a little bit of all the information from all the lectures and workshops that I've done into one sort of starter book — an introduction to all these topics. So, I had just such a lovely time revisiting all those old workshops and remembering feedback that I received from students, questions that they had, topics that were really, of, of great interest, things that people wanted to learn about more; whenever I've done workshops about acoustic ecology and noise pollution people are just always really interested because they're topics that everyone knows a little bit about, people are familiar with the concept of noise pollution now. But in the same way that we're not taught how to develop our listening we're not really taught how to deal with noise pollution. The idea is just always “well, you just got to deal with it,” you know, it’s not very helpful, so I would teach workshops about, you know, changing our relationship to it. And then in the book I also talk about my concept of a sonic sanctuary, a place that you can go to that can feed you the sort of sonic palette that you need at that time, and about creating a relationship to place, and listening.
THC: How can we bring those practices into what’s been happening this year, especially in quarantine?
LS: With quarantine procedures, many of us are experiencing our homes in a way that we may not have had a chance to before. Maybe our homes were more of this place of transition, [but] now our home has to be everything for us — it has to be the library, it has to be the restaurant, it has to be where we sleep, it has to be our movie theater, it has to be all these things. So I was thinking about that when writing the book. Even within your own home, there’s different sonic palettes that come up — your instinct may be to set up your desk in your bedroom, but if you have a small table in the living room that has less street traffic noise or, you know, doesn't have other distracting sounds like radiators or air conditioners or whatever, [that might be better]. So even within your own home, there's so many different sounds that can come up and can create relaxation or disturbance.
I also talk about [how] sometimes we just need great music, and, you know, thinking about what's creating a personal playlist of music that you can listen to [like] when you otherwise can't really shut out the outside world and you just want to get your stuff done. Music can be incredibly motivating and I think it would have been unfair to completely ignore it in the book — that you know a lot of people get great work done while listening to music or podcasts, you know, audio books, all those kind of things. So, in the same way that artists need to have their tools ready, we need to have that ‘get-work-done’ playlist ready so that we don't go down the rabbit hole searching for the perfect podcast; we need to build that sort of personal archive up so that it's ready to go when we need it.