It’s common to meditate while listening to beautiful music, but I’ve found that meditating to ambient sounds—whatever sounds are present at this very moment—is not only a wonderful meditation, it provides a deep insight into where we can find joy in our lives.
I lead weekly meditations at the Humanist Community at Harvard, and one of our mainstays is the ambient sound meditation. I first learned it myself when I attended a workshop by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. The idea is to pay attention to all the sounds around you with a friendly welcoming spirit. This includes the sounds of trucks and buses going by, sirens, coughing, rustling and other sounds that we typically label as “noise.”
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what is going on in the present moment with a nonjudgmental spirit. When we describe a sound as “noise” we’re applying a judgment. In a mindfulness of sound meditation, there is no such thing as noise—only sound. The amazing thing is that when we welcome “noise,” our perception of it changes into something stimulating and absorbing.
Find a comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. Take a deep breath or two and relax. After that, there’s no need to follow your breath.
Now, start paying attention to sounds. If meditating indoors, you may hear creaks, rustling, and sounds from electrical appliances. If you’re outside, you’ll probably hear a cornucopia of sounds — wind, birds, traffic. For as long as this meditation lasts, there are no bad sounds.
When you hear a sound, don’t merely note it and shift your attention away. Try to follow the sound for its entire duration. Notice the hiss, rumble, whine, screech, and whoosh. When you focus on sounds with nonjudgmental attention, what could be irritating becomes enlivening.
Try to focus on the bare sound itself without attaching a narrative to it. So if you hear a siren, notice how the sound rises in volume and pitch as it approaches and falls as it grows distant. Try not to elaborate on your perception of sound with thoughts like “I hope no one’s house is on fire.” If you notice that you are attaching a narrative to a sound, gently let that go and pay attention to any new sounds that may appear.
The sound of an overheard conversation is perhaps the most difficult to let go. If you overhear people talking, focus on the speakers’ vocal qualities rather than on the content of their speech. Listen to individual words and let them go without trying to assemble them all into a meaningful sentence.
In a lull during which there are no sounds, you can shift your attention to your breath — perhaps to the sound of your breathing. But if other sounds do arise, turn your attention back to them.
The joy one experiences when being mindful of stereotypically unpleasant sounds demonstrates the principle that nothing is disagreeable until we judge it so. The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “What disturbs people’s minds is not events but their judgments on events.” Similarly, Buddhist philosophy holds that suffering originates in our aversion to what we experience in the present moment. When we engage with the present moment mindfully and without aversion, the sense of suffering fades.
This may seem counterintuitive, but this principle is consistent with what neuroscientists have learned about the brain’s salience network — the network of brain regions that monitor how we’re doing compared to our goals. The feeling of suffering is in essence a feedback signal warning us that a gap has opened up between our desires and reality. If your goal is to study for a test, the sound of a siren outside conflicts with your desire and is therefore unpleasant. But if you are doing an ambient sound meditation, the very same siren helps you toward your goal and you may perceive it as pleasant or even enthralling.
This insight extends well beyond the realm of sound. Just as we can transform “noise” into something positive, through mindfulness, we can bring a sense of friendliness and acceptance to any difficult circumstance. There are, of course, cases of injustice that ought to be resisted rather than accepted. Present moment acceptance is not a panacea but a tool to be applied wisely. But, as we go about our day, we may encounter moments of minor irritation that are best treated as the noise of daily life. Through mindfulness, we can transform our reaction to them and experience that moment as something wonderful.
Based on the book Secular Meditation. Copyright © 2015 by Rick Heller. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
Rick Heller leads meditations at the Humanist Community at Harvard. A freelance journalist, he has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, Tikkun, and Wise Brain Bulletin. He received a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SecularMeditate. His web site is http://www.rickheller.com.