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meditation 101: working with sound

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Three of us met at the beach on Sunday morning. Light drizzle, occasional sun, dark clouds, winds from the East, temperature around 9°C. We lugged cushions with cardboard underlay, blankets, rain gear, and the tea-and-snacks basket to an outcrop facing South. There we sat, in silent meditation, for the next two hours.

I noticed many sounds: boats, float planes, cars, people jogging, dogs sniffing, birds calling, waves lapping, ship’s horn blowing, metal pounding on metal, a lawn mower at full-throttle. My mind wandered to a summer day ten years earlier when my Zen teacher taught me to practice with sound.

Sit still and listen, she said, pointing to the open window behind her. Then notice what the mind wants to do: first, there is pure sound (say, bbbrrrrhhh); next the mind wants to identify and classify (ah, this sounds like a lawnmower); then judging mind kicks in (geez, they shouldn’t be allowed to make such a racket …). Bla bla and off we go, thinking about this and that, into fantasy land. 

Aware of that habitual response, I began staying with sounds just as they were — a screech here, a hum there, some voices over there. Nothing added, simply sounds here and now. In conversation afterwards, we talked about hearing voices and chosing to either listen or not listening to what’s being said.

So here’s one more practical tool to experiment with in your everyday: hear sounds as they are, then notice the mind’s habit of wanting to interpret, categorize, like/dislike, and so on. Be patient. Begin to notice, to distinguish sound “as is” from “add-ons.” Then, over time, in small steps, train the mind to stay close to the actual experience.


6 responses »

  1. Tammy, one of the three beach-sitters, writes:

    “As we sat … I found myself feeling fully present surrounded by nature’s beauty … that is, until I began to experience back pain halfway through our sitting. Thoughts began going through my mind like, I’m not sure my back will hold up. I can’t concentrate when this pain is becoming excruciating … now my left leg is falling asleep … With each thought, my pain intensified and I felt an uneasiness. However, I discovered that when I changed the focus of my attention to my breathing, or opened my eyes slightly to the rolling waves of the ocean, or focused on the sounds around us, my pain subsided and sometimes disappeared for a few moments. Even when I felt pain, it only bothered me when I allowed my mind to dwell on it.

    “I also became aware that pain, thoughts, sounds and sensations, when experienced simply as they are, are a constant motion of comings and goings, ever changing from one moment to the next.”

  2. Splendid — not just your writing but the thing itself. you’ve captured what I think of as the essence of shifting and returning awareness. Thank you, Tammy

  3. Sitting by the beach was wonderful but not for the reasons I expected. First I noticed my expectations, believing that sitting in that setting would somehow enhance my meditation. Then as I drew my attention to my breath, the surroundings diminished. I noticed the sounds of the birds and the waves then returned to my breath. I felt comforted knowing that the setting doesn’t matter. It is not about what’s outside. Sitting in a quiet room is just as valuable as sitting by the mighty ocean.

  4. Peter B. Reiner

    I recently was introduced to another type of sound meditation which is especially useful when trying to introduce mindfulness to children. In a group setting (you can try this alone, of course), someone taps a meditation bowl, evoking a long ring which subsides gently over time. Ask everyone to listen as hard as they can, gently turning over their hand resting on their thigh only when the sound disappears. It is not a competition – everyone’s ears are slightly different – but rather a very straightforward way to maintain concentration for ten seconds or more, something which we do far too rarely.

  5. thank you peter b., a playful way to focus attention. have done something similar in the weekly gathering at a seniors’ centre but had never thought of using it in other settings.


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