Everyday noises can be irritating and distracting— or they can provide another vehicle for mindfulness.
I began my media career back in high school, as DJ Captain Kilowatt on a tiny Top 40 rock station. For more than 30 years, I've enjoyed shaping music, voices, and sound effects into compelling broadcasts, but my work has had an unanticipated side effect: I've become more sensitive to noise than most people I know.
Thousands of hours spent in soundproof studios with sophisticated audio equipment have no doubt contributed to my keen awareness of the sea of vibrations through which we swim. As a consequence, I plug my ears when motorcycles roar by, I back away from bawling children, and loud movies make me cringe.
Our world is a noisy place, and it's getting noisier all the time. Statistics confirm what my experience suggests: People have become so inured to noise that they are actually hurt by it. For example, a screening of about 64,000 Americans by the League for the Hard of Hearing found that between 1982 and 2000, the incidence of measurable hearing loss increased by 15 to 60 percent, depending on the age group. While this suggests that avoiding unnecessary noise is a healthy strategy, that's not always possible. In my own adaptation to this reality, I've found a way to transform uninvited sound into a welcome benefit.
Once a curse, my aural acuity has become a valuable gift in my meditation practice. I now use nonjudgmental hearing as a focal point for attentive, moment-to-moment perception. I let urban sounds—from the snarl of lawn mowers to the honking of car horns—play a role similar to that of breath, emotion, thought, and bodily sensation when I seek one-pointed attention.
In a 1999 dharma talk that was given at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, vipassana meditation teacher Christina Feldman described what may occur when we concentrate on a single object of attention, such as sound. This practice of deliberate focus, she noted, "challenges our lifelong habits of distractedness and grasping." The challenge stems from the fact that "despite our intention to apply and sustain one-pointedness, the mind continues to regurgitate its habitual patterns and become lost in its own busy-ness."
Fortunately, as we allow sounds to flow unobstructed through our consciousness—without getting drawn into analysis, judgment, and preference—we can become more skillful at sitting calmly through all sorts of stimuli that might otherwise irritate, distract, or disturb us.
Tuning In to Awareness
In my own practice, the first step in using sound skillfully is simply to notice what I am hearing. This involves taking a thorough aural inventory. In the same way that I bring focused awareness to the cycles of breathing in my daily meditation practice, I become attentive to what is bouncing off my ears, including many sounds of which I am usually unconscious. As I slow my mind to listen, each ear acts like a giant antenna, gathering impressions from near and far. I inevitably notice that every location has its own "sound signature," as unique as a fingerprint.
At home, I am greeted by what's familiar: a humming refrigerator, the whoosh of cars on a nearby street, a ticking clock, a hissing water heater, breeze-rustled leaves, and the skittering of birds or squirrels on my roof. In a nearby meditation hall I frequent, these sounds are replaced by the drone of airplanes, the whine of sirens, the buzz of fluorescent lamps, muffled voices from an adjacent room, and the clang of pots in the kitchen. Of course, I always encounter the mundane sounds of the human body, from stomach gurgling and nose sniffling to throat clearing and itch scratching. With attention, the ceaseless cavalcade of sounds becomes a meditation.
To try this kind of attentiveness on your own, choose a time at home when you are unlikely to be interrupted for at least 20 minutes, then assume a comfortable seated position. At first, direct awareness to your breath, following the sensations in your body that accompany the process of breathing. After a few minutes, deliberately and mindfully shift the focus to your sense of hearing. Resisting the urge to name or get involved with the various sounds circulating around you, simply review them. Notice how some noises arise and disappear rapidly, or are heard only once, while others are steady and recurring. Observe the different qualities each sound exhibits and the level of your desire to associate a sound with a mental picture, label, or emotion.
As you tune in, cultivate a quality of detached, choiceless awareness that allows this auditory mélange to pass effortlessly through your consciousness, like a cloud floating silently through the sky. If you find that your mind has been caught by a particular noise, perhaps lapsing into a reverie triggered by it, note the fact that this has occurred and then, without judgment, return to a nonclinging awareness of sound. During your first sitting, this noting and letting go may occur many times. With practice, however, the occurrences should become less frequent. The important thing is to become conscious of your attachment and develop the ability to release it.
Once you have experienced "sound meditation" at home, experiment with it at other locations, such as your workplace, health club, or school, or while traveling. If you use public transportation, try this practice while commuting. Urban noises may be distracting initially, but many meditators have told me that over time, their relationships with sounds that once annoyed them shifted dramatically. I urge you to explore sound meditation on a regular basis for at least a month before drawing any conclusions about your own experience. Consider adding it to the repertoire of techniques that help you develop a deeper understanding of your own consciousness.
Simplicity, Peace, and Poise
This kind of attunement is a useful discipline at any time, if only to sharpen your sensory awareness of the present moment. It takes genuine effort to bring the fresh, alert "beginner's mind" to commonplace sensory stimuli. That's because the alienation from our bodies that many of us feel results, in part, from a well-intended and deeply programmed coping strategy. Faced with an unending parade of aural provocations, we tend to minimize our awareness of everyday sounds unless something seems out of order. We use various psychological tricks to accomplish this, ignoring the ordinary in order to minimize distraction and reduce irritability.
It's easy, of course, to convince ourselves that many noises are obnoxious. I am sure each of us can name some pet peeves. Mine include garbage trucks at 5:30 a.m. and leaf blowers during breakfast. However, I've learned that the more challenging path is not to measure the value of such sounds, but to accept them in a true spirit of equanimity. This does not necessarily mean we have neutral feelings about such intrusions; rather, it means we are not so invested in our rote reactions that we cannot separate ourselves from such responses.
The Buddha is said to have taught that the foolish connect with the world mainly through their physical senses, whereas the wise seek to understand the nature of those connections. As we grow wiser, some Buddhist scholars suggest, we may become better able to maintain our inner stillness and serenity in the midst of whatever sensations confront us, including unwanted sound. Instead of being swept away by the raw energy of a noise or by our identification with what we think is wrong with the noise, we learn to let those vibrations wash over us without disruption. In this way, we develop a clear hearing of our hearts and minds.
One of the most respected modern teachers of yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, echoed this sentiment when he wrote in his book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health (DK Publishing, 2001), "The primary aim of yoga is to restore the mind to simplicity, peace, and poise, and free it from confusion and distress." In silent seated meditation (dhyana) and observance (niyama), as in our asana practice, we are challenged constantly by what our hearing—and any other physical sense—stirs within us. Bringing mindfulness and restraint (yama) to our ears is like bringing mindful attention to our breath, balance, and muscles as we move through asanas. Both practices can become vehicles for developing the health-promoting qualities of clear awareness and letting go. Yoga uses the term parinamavada to refer to the acceptance of constant change that parallels this mental state. Yet such equanimity is not easily accessible within any contemplative practice if sound functions as a screen, irritant, or diversion.
The wise poet Rumi spoke to the human tendency toward irritation and distraction in his poem "Only Breath": "There is a way between voice and presence where information flows. / In disciplined silence it opens. / With wandering talk it closes." Rumi could not have anticipated the modern Tower of Babel that generates constant discord, but I believe his injunction to listen attentively would be repeated with even more emphasis if he still walked—and listened—among us today.
Richard Mahler is a freelance writer and teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction who divides his time between Santa Cruz, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. His latest book is Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude.