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.