A Symphony of Sound

Let’s talk about sound. I’m settling in to my new living space and adjusting to being in closer proximity to my neighbors than I was before. Next door to me are a group of college freshman who do what college students do: party. All night. Very loudly.

I’ve found the sounds coming from next door really bothersome. They keep me from sleeping, and I’ve found it hard to do my meditative practices during or after their activities. (I wonder, do my Oms at 6am bother them?)

Yet, one of the meditations I lead asks participants to treat sound as just another passing phenomenon. Sounds can be as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

One morning I sat outside and tried to experiment with this. Closing my eyes, I immediately began to notice the sounds all around me. I also observed how my mind likes to label and make patterns. It went something like this: “It’s an animal…it’s a bird…it’s a hummingbird.” “It’s a vehicle…it’s a truck…it’s a UPS truck.” “It’s a person…it’s a child…it’s a child crying because he doesn’t want to go to school.”

I admit I found the “neutral sound” meditation very difficult. Maybe it was all the ear training I received when pursuing my bachelor’s degree in music theory. My brain hears sound and wants to give it a name. I hear a car horn and think, “That’s an F Sharp!” A doorbell rings and I hear it as a musical interval. I visited a Buddhist temple where they had a fan going intermittently and I heard it as wind blowing through the Himalayas.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

But if we can let go of labels sound can be like any other ephemeral, passing occurrence. You might even begin to hear sounds as if they were instruments in a symphony: the percussion of a helicopter, the bass of a car stereo, the soprano of an ambulance siren. When we can detach our emotions from these sounds, they become neutral. And when we take the stance of the curious observer, we can lessen our suffering.

Give this practice a try with the following meditation:

·       Settle into a comfortable position and become aware of your breath flowing in and out.

·       When you are ready, shift your awareness to the sounds that are present in this moment.

·       Without searching for sounds, let them come to you and fill your ears while simply hearing sounds near and far away.

·       Notice any judgments or thoughts about the sounds and let them pass away.

·       Notice if you find yourself trying to identify or label the sounds and instead focus on hearing the bare sounds themselves.

·       Be aware that sounds arise and fade away, and notice if there are any spaces between sounds.

·       When your mind wanders or fixates on a particular sound, gently return your attention to the flow of sounds occurring in the present moment.

·       When you are finished, shift your attention back to your breathing and gradually open your eyes.

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