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The Sound of...

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written and asked you to read an awful lot of words, so this week, I primarily offer someone else’s words. I came upon this story with no known author many years ago. It’s a well-known story that I’ve slightly adapted, and if you look for it on the internet, you’ll find it, but with a different ending than I offer here. I don’t remember if I found it years ago with the ending here or if when I saved the story, I revised the ending myself. Either way, I like this ending much better than what I see elsewhere.

A woman is driving down the road and her car breaks down near a monastery. She goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, "My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?" The monks and nuns graciously accept her, feed her dinner, even fix her car. As the woman tries to fall asleep, she hears a strange sound, a sound unlike anything she's ever heard before. She imagines it’s like the sound the Sirens used that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship. She doesn't sleep that night. She tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound. The next morning, she asks the monks and nuns what the sound was, but they say, "We can't tell you. You're not a nun. But we can show you." The woman excitedly says, “Yes, please show me!” One of the nuns holds up a mirror to the woman’s face. The woman is confused and frustrated. She complains, “I don’t understand. Please tell me what that sound was.” The monks and nuns repeat that they can’t tell her because she’s not a nun, but they can show her, and they hold up the mirror again. The woman tries again, but to no avail. Distraught, the woman is forced to leave.

Years later, after never being able to forget that sound, the woman goes back to the monastery and pleads for the answer again. The monks and nuns reply, "We can't tell you. You're not a nun. But we can show you." One of the monks holds up the mirror to the woman’s face again. The woman says, "I don’t know what that is or why you’re doing it. If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a nun, then please, make me a nun." The monks and nuns reply, "You must travel the Earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a nun." The woman sets about her task.

After years of searching she returns as a gray-haired old woman and knocks on the door of the monastery. A nun answers. She is taken before a gathering of all the monks and nuns: "In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the Earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Nothing is what we think it is. Only the Divine knows what you asked me to find out. All a person can know is themself, and only then if they are honest and reflective and willing to strip away self-deception."" The monks and nuns reply, "Congratulations. You have become a nun. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound." They lead the woman to a wooden door, where the head of the monastery says, "The sound is beyond that door." She gives the old woman the key, and the woman opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The woman is given the key to the stone door and she opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that she needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl, and diamond. Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks and nuns say, "This is the last key to the last door!" The woman is extremely apprehensive. Her life's wish is behind that door! With trembling hands, she unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Hanging on the wall directly in front of her face she finds that same mirror. She stares at it for a long time, tears running down her cheeks.

Our minds tell us that the world we live in is “out there”—that we live “in” the world. And our minds tell us that the things that happen to us and the things we encounter come from someplace outside us and thus if we want to embrace them or change them, we have to take some action in the outside world. None of this is true, though it is very hard for most of us to believe that, and it takes a good deal of practice to allow that realization to come. Swami Satchidananda, a yoga master of the 20th century, likened that practice to the laundering of a stained white shirt. He observed that when we wash the stain off, we do not turn the shirt from dark to white: the shirt was always white and remained white even when part of it was covered by a dark stain. All we do when we wash it is clear away the stain that has obscured the shirt’s inherent whiteness. Similarly, when the seeker in this story was first shown the true source of the sound, the misperceptions she carried that made her believe the sound came from somewhere “out there” made it impossible for her to see her true self. Our true selves—that part of ourselves that is undisturbed by the ups and downs of life and the stories we carry from the past—is accessible to anyone who is willing to take a good, hard look at who and what they really are.

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