Monday, February 09, 2009

MPOW #3 - Listening Meditation

Welcome back for the third Mindfulness Practice of the Week. One of my very favorite awakening practices is to simply sit and pay attention to sounds, to let everything quiet down and gently focus on what I hear. My mind can focus on the sounds in the building, outside of the building, the vibrations of my head, and the voice talking within my head. There is so much to listen to and just notice for what it is.

Note: I suspect that this works equally as well for the deaf or poor of hearing. Rather than focusing on sounds without, focus on vibration or sounds within. Please pardon my ignorance, because I am not certain if that is viable or not. If not, I apologize for my assumptions, and would appreciate being informed if it works or does not.

Scientists have a theory to support this. If you are really concentrating on your ears and sounds, listening behind, up and down, in front, all around, then the sequential processing part of your brain (L-directed thinking, L=left) needs to shut off (less activation) to allow the more creative, pattern matching side of your brain to just witness what is going on (R-directed thinking, R=right) and process the patterns. When you tap into the creative, pattern-matching side of your brain, you are able to be more present. Studies indicate that happiness/joy/flow/spirituality and right-hemisphere activity are correlated.

This is an amazing practice for dealing with noise pollution, such as on an airplane. Listen to the chorus of sounds around you. Celebrate in the music of the engine. You make notice the changes in pitch or how your breathing relates to it, perhaps harmoniously, perhaps not. You would be amazed at how serene you can become on a long flight once you allow your mind to calm down enough to enjoy this. (William Wittman shares his experience.)

Similar exercises work equally as well for buses, car rides (if you're not driving -- the obvious mindfulness practice is to pay attention to the road there), terminals, or waiting for a ride at a stop.

Inspirational Story

There's a zen buddhist story of a monk and his master walking through the woods on a long hike. They both stop to rest and enjoy the serenity of the forest.

The young monk beseeches, "Master, how do I enter zen?"

The master closes his eyes and travels to a deeply calm, connected place, in moments he opens his eyes and mouth to guide his disciple, "Do you hear the brook gurgling in the distance?"

His follower calms himself and enters his ears, studying the sounds of the forest. After some time, he does hear the brook and says so.

The master replies with a slight smile, "Enter zen through that."

This clicks for the young monk who immediately enters a state of tranquil understanding. Some time passes and the young monk asks the master, "What would you have said if I did not hear the water gurgling?"

"Then I would have said, 'Enter zen through that.'"

One Such Experience I Have Had

Once, while sitting in a house situated in a beautiful natural environment, I joined a close friend of mine in meditation.

I began with a focus on the sounds around me: the air running through the ventilation system, a
patrolling cat, the flutter and songs of birds. Eventually, the sounds inside of my head quiesced enough to stop drowning these out; I could hear more and more detail.

As these nuances emerged, the labels on them disappeared, it was the music of the systems, but without the recognition of what the systems were. In time, I migrated to hearing the sounds of vibration in my head. I paid attention to the tone and location of these sounds. I allowed my curious mind to question where they came from, what they meant. They may have been the beating of my heart, the sound of my calm breath, the blood pumping through my skull. Without labeling, I attended to each of these sounds in turn and together in symphony. I marveled at the ability to hear so much loudly and clearly within myself.

I vowed to return to this state often and share what I learned with others.

The Meditation: Listen

Sit in a comfortable meditative position of your choosing, but be certain that you are able to stay alert and not fall asleep in it. If you regularly fall asleep during meditation, you are training yourself to sleep, rather than to rise to a level of serene alertness above sleep.

In the meditative position, close your eyes or allow them to remain partially open and unfocused or softly focused. Shift your attention to the sounds that dominate your hearing. If you yourself labeling these sounds or determining their origins, recognize the label as a sounds within your head. Don't try to stop the labeling, just notice it as another sound, and bring your attention gently back to the sounds that you were hearing. Allow the sounds to take you on a journey wherever that may be. Your journey may be similar to the one I share above, or it may be completely different.

Comments Requested
Please share how your journey proceeds.
What have you learned about yourself? About this meditation?
Any other ideas or stories to share?


  1. Hey there, Ed! It was a nice surprise to find you here.

    This post reminded me of my favorite Zen aphorism:

    Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
    After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

    I only understood this once I realized that enlightenment is simply a shift in perspective. You still wash dishes, sweep the floor and pay bills. The difference is that to someone who is "enlightened," these are acts of love, fulfilling and valuable in and of themselves; not chores, but simply another way to love yourself. It really is as simple as that.

    BTW, nice use of "quiesced." :)

  2. I love your blog, Viceman. I hope to find you picking up the writing again.

    What excellent timing on sharing that aphorism, at the commencement of the year of the ox. My tai chi teacher shares that as well.

    I'm always looking for an opportunity to evangelize the word "quiesce."