Turning Sounds into a Meditation Practice

You don’t need calm and peace to be mindful. Here’s a guided meditation that takes the basics of mindfulness into the noisier parts of life.

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Take a moment right now, pause, and just listen. As we allow our minds to settle into hearing, we start to see that sounds have the same nature as sensations in the body and thoughts. They appear and disappear, and each time one disappears, that sound doesn’t leave a trace. There is silence until another sound appears.

Any sound can be the object of our focus in mindfulness practice. Even the most annoying sounds, like a horn blaring outside, an alarm clock beeping, or people yelling, can be perceived differently when we bring mindfulness to them. The annoyance of those sounds doesn’t come from the sounds themselves; it comes from our interpretation of those sounds as “bad.” When we bring mindfulness to it, we shift our relationship from aversion to curiosity, allowing the sounds to rise and fall, lessening their negative impact.

When we bring mindfulness to irritating sounds, we shift our relationship from aversion to curiosity, allowing the sounds to rise and fall, lessening their negative impact.

It’s worth setting some time aside to just sit or lie down and listen to the sounds inside the house, out in the city, or in the contemplative setting of nature. In mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, we introduce a formal practice that combines mindfulness of the breath and the body scan with sound in the appropriately titled meditation “breath, body, sound.” The beauty of this practice is it builds on the basics: You start with a narrow attention on the breath, then expand out to the body, and then expand further to the world of hearing.

To allow you to fully experience this meditation, we recommend that you listen to the audio version. However, you can also simply read the text below. If you choose to do so, read through the entire script first to familiarize yourself with the practice, then do the practice, referring back to the text as needed and pausing briefly after each paragraph. Take about fifteen minutes for the practice. You can do this practice in a seated position, standing, or even lying down. Choose a position in which you can be comfortable and alert.

A Meditation on Annoying Sounds

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1. So, taking the next few moments to just find a posture for you that gives you a sense of comfort yet wakefulness the same time becoming mindful of the various movements that you need to make to come into this posture.

2. And as you’re doing this, beginning to become aware of how this body is just naturally breathing itself. Taking a few moments to notice where you’re aware of the breath most prominently. This may be the tip of the nose, or the chest or the belly. Just noticing where the sense of breathing seems to be the strongest.

3. And so as you become aware of this, breathing in and just noticing the breath coming in, and breathing out and just noticing the breath going out, as it’s happening moment to moment. Being aware of the breath coming in on an inhalation, and going out on an exhalation. Just being aware of this simple inflow and outflow of the breath. And just letting it be, breathing in and breathing out. Just taking this part of the practice one breath at a time.

4. In doing this practice, it’s quite natural for the mind to wander off thinking about this worrying about that could be a memory or a dream. When this happens, just take a moment to notice where the mind has wandered to. And maybe even just labeling it as thinking thinking very gently guiding awareness back to just breathing breathing in. Just allowing for this natural inflow and outflow without any need to push the breath out or pull the breath. And we’re simply being aware of breathing much like a fallen leaf can sit on the ripples of waves or maybe the inflow and outflow of waves coming onto the beach and off the beach. So too, our awareness can simply ride the natural inhalation and exhalation of the breath.

5. And so now, just allowing the breath to go into the background of our awareness as we begin to shift our attention now to include this entire body. Now we’re just being aware of sensations in the body. This body has a field of sensations that are occurring at any given point, appearing and disappearing, coming and going. There may be sensations of heat or coolness shakiness itchiness tingling pressure pulses heaviness or lightness. There may even be parts of the body that feel pain. So as much as possible, holding this body in awareness and just being aware of the variety of sensations that seem to be coming and going, and just allowing, allowing and letting be. And bringing the mind back that’s wandered.

6. As we’re paying attention to sensations in the body, we might even adopt an attitude of curiosity or beginner’s mind, becoming aware of these feelings that are here as if for the very first time. And in doing this practice, we may even notice emotions arise, at times a sense of frustration or irritation a sense of boredom maybe anxiousness or maybe there’s calm. So being aware of where these experiences, your feelings are in the body. And again, just being aware of them without striving to change them or make them any different just allowing their presence and letting them be.

7. Now, beginning to gently shift from the field of sensations in the body and allowing that to fall into the background of awareness, and now in the foreground of awareness we begin to open our ears, bring awareness to our ears as we become aware of hearing. Because of the brain and the ears, we have this gift of audibility, of hearing sounds. Sounds come in the form of pitches or tones, sometimes frequency sounds. Even in my voice right here. You may notice that as sound comes from a sense of silence and then has a picture tone, and rises and then falls and then goes back into silence. You may have noticed that even in between the silence there’s some sounds there. So just being aware of this very fundamental aspect of hearing sounds, rising sounds, falling just sounds. Taking a moment to know if you’re trying to hear sounds.

8. And if so, just allowing the pure sense of just being aware of whatever hearing is occurring and just allowing yourself to be in a receptive place of just hearing whatever sounds or hear. Recognizing and allowing and letting be. And doing this practice you may become aware of how the mind becomes busy with images or stories connected with the sounds. As much as possible, just noticing this and just coming back to being aware of the fundamental aspect of hearing. Sounds appearing and disappearing, just sounds. And beginning to withdraw awareness from hearing now as we come back. To breathing in and knowing, breathing in and breathing out, and knowing breathing out. And in a moment you will hear the sound of a bell and that will signify the end of this practice. Until then, just acknowledging the active choice of taking this time out of all daily busyness for your own health and well-being. This is an act of cultivating awareness and is also an act of self care. To thanking yourself for even taking this time at all.

This article has been adapted from MBSR Every Day by Bob Stahl PhD and Elisha Goldstein.