If you suffer from tinnitus – persistent ringing in the ears – you may wonder whether meditation is a good idea. And yet it can be a powerful tool in helping you come to terms with the white noise inside your head. Meditator and long-time tinnitus sufferer Mandy Sutter airs some of the issues.
Tinnitus can make meditation very difficult. And because meditation is mostly silent, it may seem that meditation can make tinnitus very difficult, too.
It’s certainly true that as soon as you sit down on the cushion and close your eyes, the tinnitus seems to get louder. It isn’t really getting louder: it only seems that way because you are cutting down on other external stimuli. However, the thought that you’re making it ‘worse’ by meditating can be off-putting, if you let it go unchallenged.
Even accepting that, some days it’s still tempting to stay off the cushion completely. And of course, a missed day can easily turn into a missed few days, a week, a month.
Indeed, some tinnitus experts believe that sufferers should avoid silence altogether.
But this rather black-and-white view doesn’t help the person who wants to meditate, so rather than hanging up one’s meditation mat for good, I think it’s worth investigating some of the resources available to see if there’s anything out there (or in there!) to help you.
Courses and books
Perhaps the first thing to consider is attending a led course on managing your tinnitus through mindfulness meditation. These courses, which are becoming popular with healthcare professionals, are held in a variety of settings, including medical ones. They aim to defuse the anxiety and stress caused by tinnitus and they often report excellent success rates. Try typing the words ‘tinnitus’ and ‘mindfulness’ into your search engine to see what’s available in your area.
There are other types of tinnitus retraining, too. One scientist of particular interest is Pawel Jastreboff, who rejects the old idea that tinnitus is caused by damage to the ear and believes in re-educating sufferers to think of the condition positively as, say, ‘the music of the brain.’ He posits a strong connection between anxiety about tinnitus and its perceived severity, and has found that a shift in thought can have a dramatic effect on someone’s perception of their tinnitus.
Vidyamala Prue Burch’s book ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ (reviewed here on Wildmind) is another helpful resource. It doesn’t deal specifically with tinnitus, but uses meditation to approach any chronic condition. There are practical tips on how to cultivate a wider awareness of your body that puts your condition into context.
Some practical tips
Personally I’ve found this particular approach – of cultivating a wider awareness – invaluable. I now sometimes wear earplugs while I meditate (this is a complete no-no for some tinnitus sufferers, though, so please approach with care). Because wearing earplugs magnifies ALL inner body sounds, like swallowing and breathing, the tinnitus sounds seem to decrease by comparison, or at least just take their place among my body’s other normal noises. I find I can simply welcome them to the party.
I have also spent some time actively listening to my tinnitus during meditation, and although this may feel unpleasant and even counter-intuitive at first, I recommend it. When you really listen, you may identify sounds like crashing cymbals or whistles, or notice that your tinnitus varies in volume, or has a wave-like pattern. I have found it helpful to learn the length and breadth of my tinnitus in this way: it makes me less prone to worry.
Meditating with your eyes open can help: the increased visual stimulus acting as a balance to the unsolicited sound stimulus. You can use incense in a similar way. And I sometimes find it useful to meditate sitting against a warm radiator, the body sensation of heat again providing a balance. Walking meditation is another valuable and legitimate resource.
Also helpful are guided meditations on CD or mp3 (there’s a good selection of these here at the Wildmind store, and search the meditation pages for free ones. For an even wider selection, try Amazon). Of course, there are still periods of silence during a guided meditation (though some have background muzak) but the voice coming in and out focusses one’s attention away from the tinnitus.
Listening to ambient sound is another option. You can buy devices or download mp3 files that reproduce the sound of waves, or rain pattering on a windowpane, or the crackling of a log fire. Whale or dolphin sounds can also be good. You can concentrate on the sounds as the object of your meditation or use your normal meditation technique (e.g. counting the breath) with the sounds in the background. I have a Sound Oasis which I find invaluable. These devices can be pricey though, so it’s worth downloading some free ambient sounds to your computer before you buy one, to make sure this method suits you.
You’ll find some ambient sounds more effective than others, depending on the character of your own tinnitus and the nature of your own emotional responses to things. I usually turn my Sound Oasis to ‘Harbour Swell’ (the sound of a creaking boat bobbing on the waters) but this might not suit someone who suffers from seasickness!
Listening to music may help, though you may find it too emotionally stimulating. In fact, this may be one of the rare occasion when muzak is better than music!
Forget any idea that this isn’t ‘proper’ meditation (something that bugged me for a while). It’s just a different kind of meditation.
For some tinnitus sufferers, wearing earphones is helpful. The sound is brought closer, as if inserted between your hearing and the tinnitus. This isn’t the case for everyone, though, so find out what suits you.
Going on retreat
Silent meditation retreats pose a particular problem for the tinnitus sufferer. Forget ‘me and my shadow’ – it’s ‘me and my tinnitus’ for days on end. What you can face intermittently during the course of a normal day can seem overwhelming when it’s continuous.
But it’s still do-able. My tinnitus is quite severe, but I go on retreat several times a year.
The important thing is to look after yourself. As you already know, tinnitus is an invisible condition, so no-one makes allowances for you automatically. You may find it difficult to make allowances for yourself, too. But however embarrassed or guilty you feel about making a special case of yourself in an environment where you are strongly encouraged not to, please do: you have my permission, at least! Retreat leaders can be very helpful if approached beforehand.
Request a single room if one is available. You can play ambient sounds and there will be less chance of being woken during the night (tinnitus sufferer often find it difficult to get back to sleep).
Keep your eyes open during meditations if you need to, or take yourself off for walking meditations while the others sit in the shrine room.
No matter what the normal rules are, allow yourself books, iPod or CD player and earphones. You may not need to use them, but they can act as a security blanket.
If particular foods exacerbate your tinnitus (e.g. caffeine) a retreat may offer the ideal opportunity to avoid them for a time. If other foods help, take them with you. Chocolate helps my tinnitus (only kidding, unfortunately).
Taking care of yourself on retreat can be a valuable lesson in self-metta (loving-kindness towards oneelf).
Coming to terms with tinnitus
Having said that, it was on a silent retreat three years ago where I had no security blanket that I perhaps came most deeply to terms with my tinnitus.
My single room hadn’t materialised, and I was sharing with someone who kept putting the light on through the night. Despite decamping to the sitting room a couple of times, I went for four nights with virtually no sleep. I became more and more anxious. My tinnitus, exacerbated by the anxiety, raged continually. I felt as if a jetplane was taking off in my head. All the meditations were a write-off. Finally I made a break for the retreat office to ring my partner and ask him to come and get me (he’d only have had to drive 200 miles). But I couldn’t remember our phone number.
I decided to stay till the next morning, if only because it was too late to leave that evening. And that night in bed, tinnitus raging, I felt despair laced with terror. What if this never ended? What if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life? My heart thundered and I had to stuff the pillow into my mouth to stop myself from crying out.
Then I heard a clear voice in my head. ‘You don’t need to follow that train of thought,’ it said. ‘You just need to calm down. You know how: you have the tools. But they won’t work if you don’t use them.’
For some reason, I was able to recognise the truth of this. It was a great relief. I lay in bed going through every relaxation technique I’d ever learnt, be that in cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation classes, or hypnotherapy. It took a while but eventually I felt my body and mind profoundly relax, and knew I would sleep, if not now then later. The tinnitus, loud and insistent, was still there. The feeling of relaxation wasn’t one of relaxing despite it, or beyond it, but alongside it. At that moment, some of the emotional charge went out of my perception of my tinnitus, and it has never come back.
So, through meditation, I’d say it’s eminently possible to reach some degree of accommodation with your tinnitus, no matter how you go about it. You may even come to see your tinnitus as significant, instead of a nuisance: a vehicle for self-nurturing, and for reaching accommodation with yourself as a whole (including all the painful, messy and inconvenient bits).
You may even find, over time, that you have made friends with your tinnitus: or at least that you are not the sworn enemies you once thought you were.