Selective hearing

‘Old pond

Frog jumps in-



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

The greenhouse

One of the most common questions people ask when they are first introduced to mindfulness is ‘can I practice mindfulness without having to do a formal practice, such as sitting meditation?’ The answer is, ‘yes, you can’, and ‘no, you can’t’. It depends on why someone became interested in mindfulness in the first place. Some of the mindfulness practices, like eating a meal in silence and tasting every mouthful, or walking down the street and feeling the contact between the soles of the feet and the ground, or pausing every now and then and tuning into the different senses, are easy to do, and they do have a positive cumulative impact over time. Even just slowing our life down by 10 percent, or learning to take deeper breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow ones from the chest, will improve our wellbeing.

Just taken by themselves, however, these practices aren’t really what mindfulness is about. If we think of mindfulness as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, we can see that simply noticing that the birds are singing as we walk to the station isn’t going to help us develop this non-judgmental attitude. In fact, we might get caught up in the idea that only the birds should be singing, and that the car noises and lawn mower have no place in our walk to the station. We might get precious about our ‘mindful lunch’, and become annoyed when someone interrupts us. Simply stopping to smell the roses isn’t going to help us develop some of the core attributes of mindfulness such as non-judging, non-striving, letting go, patience, trust, and so on.

In order to develop these qualities, we need the protective setting of a formal mindfulness practice such as sitting meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or the body scan. The formal meditation practice is like a greenhouse where the tender young shoots of these qualities can be nurtured and protected before being exposed to the more challenging weather conditions of our everyday lives.

Because of how we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains don’t just naturally become more mindful simply because we’d like them to be so. Trying to be mindful in the midst of a crisis without having done a regular practice is like facing championship point at Wimbeldon as an amateur tennis player. It’s only the years of hitting forehands and backhands in training which give a tennis player any chance of hitting a winning return under that pressure.

A greenhouse is an artificial environment, just as sitting still in the meditation posture for half an hour is a purposefully-created space. The encouraging aspect is that it doesn’t take long for meditation students to notice the benefits of protecting and nurturing the mindfulness qualities in the greenhouse setting of formal practice.

Weekly practice idea:

If you already have a formal meditation practice, take a few moments to appreciate the protective nurturing this offers you. If not, make a commitment to spend at least twenty minutes this week in a formal mindfulness activity such as meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.

Anja Tanhane


Stone in creek

‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

  1. By the time!
  2. Surely man is in loss,
  3. Except those who believe and do good, and      exhort one another to Truth, and exhort one another to patience.’

This beautiful line, from the Quran (103, Surah Al-‘Asr), really struck a chord with me when I heard it presented by one of the Muslim ladies at an interfaith friendship meeting. To consciously encourage each other to be patient – we have become such an impatient society. Patience used to be more highly regarded – remember the saying ‘patience is a virtue’ – but now it’s often seen as being old-fashioned, an obstacle perhaps to instant and magnificent success. If we are patient, we might miss out on something! People might take advantage, and walk all over us! We might only get through 98% of our to-do list today instead of all of it plus a bit extra!

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