sound

A taste of mindfulness

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

Get yourself into a comfortable posture. You can be sitting or lying down, it’s up to you. Relax for a moment to allow yourself to settle. Now, notice how your body feels. What physical sensations are you experiencing at this moment? Maybe you feel pressure between your bottom and the chair you’re sitting on or the floor beneath you. What does this feel like? For a few moments, just be open to any sensations in your body, experiencing them with an attitude of kindly curiosity.

Now take a moment to listen to any sounds you can hear. Observe their quality, register and volume, and how you instinctively respond to them. You may feel an urge to try to identify where they are coming from, but try to park that for a moment and instead simply notice the sounds as sounds.

Your mind might also ‘fly out the window’ towards the sounds. See if you can let the sounds come towards you instead, keeping your awareness inside your body as the sounds flow in through your hearing sense. If you’re in a very quiet environment, then notice the silence.

Now notice your breath. What does it feel like? What parts of your body move as you breathe and how many different movements can you feel? See if you can rest your awareness ‘inside’ the movement and sensations of breathing, rather than observing them as an onlooker. Is it pleasant or unpleasant to inhabit your breathing in this way?

Now allow your awareness to focus on your emotions. How would you describe how you are feeling overall? Are you happy, content, sad, irritated or calm – or is it hard to be entirely sure what you are feeling? Take note of any thoughts that pass through your mind. Ask yourself, what am I thinking? Rest your attention on your thoughts for a few moments: see if you can look ‘at’ your thoughts as they flow through your mind rather than ‘from’ them.

Now spend a few moments resting quietly as you allow your awareness to rest inside the sensations and movements of the breath in your body; and any thoughts, sounds and feelings as they come and go. There’s no need to look for a special experience. Simply notice what is actually happening, moment by moment.

OK, so this may not have been the most extraordinary of experiences, but, if you have engaged with this exercise to any level, congratulations – you have just had your first experience of mindfulness, and have started your journey towards enhancing your awareness of life. The implications of this are immense. It means you can move from ‘autopilot’ – being driven by habits as you drift from one thing to the next – to experiencing life as a stream of creative possibilities and choice.

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

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Space, sound, thought

Big Ben and traffic on Westminster BridgeFor several years, around the time I first learned to meditate, I lived in an apartment above Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow—one of the city’s main shopping streets. Sometimes it was acutely noisy, with newspaper hawkers advertising their wares, workmen digging up the roads, drunks singing as they staggered home from the pub, or couples having loud—and very public—fights. But even at the best of times there was a chronic, ongoing hum from the thousands of surrounding vehicles, and the quieter babble of pedestrians’ voices. This was something I had to get used to when I was meditating.

At first I would battle to shut out the noise, and try to force myself to focus inward on my breathing or on cultivating kindness (metta). Although sometimes I’d successfully tune out these distractions, this approach was generally very frustrating. Meditation became a competition between distracting sounds and the welcome relief of inner quiet. Eventually, though, I learned a better way to approach sounds, which was to see them not as distractions, but as part of the meditation practice.

At the beginning of my meditation practice I’d consciously pay attention to the world around me. I’d be aware of the space surrounding me, and I’d pay mindful attention to the sounds filling that space. Since my apartment was near the top of a hill that ran a good mile or so down to the river Clyde, there was plenty of scope for being aware of the physical space in my environment. And I found that the sounds I was hearing helped me to be even more aware of that space. The accelerating bus roaring its engine a few streets away, the squeal of a truck’s brakes, or the sound of a jet tearing through the sky as it passed overhead, would emphasize the scope of the world surrounding me.

Paying mindful attention to the sounds around me allowed me to accept them without resistance. No longer was there any sense of a battle. I didn’t need to choose between hearing noise and being mindful—I could do both at once.

One side effect of this was that being mindful of the space around me helped to radically calm the mind. Often it seemed that my inner chatter would almost entirely shut down. It seemed that my mind itself had become spacious, filling the world around me. It was as if my consciousness were reaching out to fill the streets and even the sky. This was very different from my normal state of mind, where my awareness would often be contracted around one particular sensation or thought, with no sense of spaciousness.

Although my inner self-talk became less frequent at times, it didn’t entirely stop. But when thoughts did arise, my relationship to them was different. With the sense that my mind was now expanded and spacious, thoughts now became more like objects I noticed as they passed by, and they were less like the fully immersive movie-like experiences I was used to.

It became possible, at times, to notice thoughts arising, passing, and vanishing. They became, in fact, like the sound of a passing vehicle, appearing, arising, and then fading away. I’d still have times when I’d become absorbed in a particularly compelling thought and be truly distracted, but being able to follow thoughts as if they were the sound of a passing car gave me a new way to relate to them.

I’d recommend that you try this in meditation, and even outside of meditation (why not right now?). Become aware of the sounds around you. Let your mind fill the space in front of you, to the sides, behind you, and above you. If you’re up high, then perhaps you can feel and hear the space below you as well. Let your effort be gentle. Perhaps you’ll find that you even have a sense of your mind resting in this spacious awareness. And within this space of your consciousness are internal sensations too: from the body and from the mind. Notice all of this.

Now, invite yourself to notice whatever the next thought is that arises. If you can stay in touch with the spacious breadth of your awareness, then you may well find that you can sense your thought not as a story you are immersed in, but as an object—like the sound of a passing airplane or car. Standing back from your thoughts in this way, you may find that you feel free of their emotional drama, and that you feel calmer and more joyful as a result.

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Listening as meditation

listening meditation

I recently wrote a post about how we can use listening as a way to quiet the mind, and how the arising of thoughts can become a “mindfulness bell,” calling us back to mindful attentiveness of the sounds around us. (The post was specifically about persistent thoughts that take the form of music, but the same approach works for all thoughts.)

A commenter on that post directed me to a video featuring the Canadian composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer. In the video, Schafer very cleverly leads us into a form of listening meditation, in which he guides us from being mindful of recorded sounds to the “real” sounds in our personal environment. There’s a clever fake-out toward the end of the video that I didn’t see coming!

Enjoy!

See also:

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