Selective hearing

‘Old pond

Frog jumps in-

Splash’

Basho

We all know people who seem to have selective hearing – who hear only what they want to hear. At times these people can drive us to distraction, and yet in fact we all have selective hearing. Most of the time, we pay little attention to the sounds around us. This is adaptive, because if we listened to every sound with our full attention, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else in our lives.

Yet the practice of mindful listening can greatly enrich our lives. We can do this during meditation, and also at other times. Mindful listening simply involves opening ourselves to the soundscape around us, and hearing each sound as individual, unique, without attaching some meaning, judgment or storyline to it. As a trained musician, I’m used to making continual judgments about the sounds which I and the other musicians produce. In the context of musical training and performance, this has its place, but it’s liberating for me to open myself up to the sounds around me, without a running commentary of good sound, bad sound, want more of this sound, want less of that. Where I live, I can hear both bird song and also traffic sounds, including trucks. It’s quite a challenge to be just as open to the traffic noises as to the birds. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to practise non-judgmental awareness, which is one of the core attributes of mindfulness.

Sound is waves travelling through the air and hitting our ear drums. The range of sounds we can hear is quite extraordinary (though limited compared to many animals), and each sound has unique properties. We also tend to become quite habituated to ongoing sounds, taking less and less notice of them. This gives us an opportunity to practise another core attribute of mindfulness – beginner’s mind. We can be open and fresh to each sound – the low humming of the fridge as well as a sudden arpeggio of bird song outside our window. This gives us a wonderful sense of resting in the present moment, of being right here, right now.

We can underestimate the effect which sounds have on our bodies and our psyches. Sound is used to torture people, and also to sing a crying baby to sleep. Supermarkets use certain music to slow you down and have you lingering in the aisles so you end up buying more than you need. One train station near me plays classical music over the loud speakers to discourage teenagers from hanging out there. To me that’s a rather sad use of classical music (and I used to love getting off the train and hearing the Mozart oboe concerto in all its joy and glory), but apparently it’s very effective!

Mindfulness of sound can open us up to the present moment, and it can also allow us to be more in tune with how the sounds around us affect us. It’s a simple but powerful practice we can easily incorporate into our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten minutes, and sit with your eyes closed, allowing yourself to hear as many different sounds as possible, without judging them or getting caught up in story-lines about them. Open your eyes again, and notice how you feel.

Anja Tanhane