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Sound Effects

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

By Richard Mahler

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.

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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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