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Sound Effects

Everyday noises can be irritating and distracting—or they can provide another vehicle for mindfulness.

By Richard Mahler

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.

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Reader Comments


This information and practice is especially helpful, yet deceptively difficult, for victims of trauma, and those with PTSD. One little step at a time! Thanks.


good food for thought early in the morning

help please


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