Doorway to the present
There are lots of things to love about spring and summer—the long hours of daylight, the invitation to shed layers of clothing, and the opportunity to spend more time outdoors, for example. One thing I personally love about the warmer weather is the opportunity to open windows in my house and flush out the stale winter air.
This applies to my yoga studio, Mindful Yoga Collective, as well. Especially on cool summer mornings, we open the front and back doors to let fresh air circulate through the space. The fresh air brings with it a rich palette of sound. When we open the doors, we hear birdsong, human chatter, street traffic, lawnmowers and the occasional siren. This gives us an opportunity to practice one of my favorite forms of mindfulness practice: hearing meditation.
I first discovered the power of hearing meditation on a 30-day silent meditation retreat in the ’90s. One day as I was practicing walking meditation outdoors, my mind was even more agitated and talky than usual. As frustration grew, I finally just stopped. I stood still and opened my awareness, partly with the intention of escaping the chaos in my mind, but partly just to regroup.
As I stood, I tuned into my surroundings. I felt the breeze on my skin, the warmth of the sun and the solidity of the earth under my feet. And I began to let sound in. As I stood and let the sounds of the environment wash over me, I became anchored in the ever-changing moment. The sense of struggle dropped away.
As I allowed sounds to come and go, I realized that the constantly changing flow of environmental sound was really no different from the obsessive thinking that had been a source of struggle just minutes before. I didn’t ask for the thoughts, anymore than I asked for the sounds that were flowing through.
If I didn’t react to them, thoughts would simply come and go. I realized I had a choice. I could react to them by losing myself in the stories they were telling or by trying to push them out of consciousness. Or I could choose to let them come and go without a struggle, just like the sounds.
How to practice hearing meditation
You can practice hearing meditation in any of the traditional meditation positions: sitting, standing, walking or lying down. If the weather is cooperative, practicing outdoors is ideal. Here are some suggestions:
- If you plan to sit, make sure you have some sort of support under your hips (a folded blanket, meditation cushion or bench, or a chair) so that your body can relax. If you are struggling with your sitting position, you will not be able to be as receptive to sound moving through you.
- Begin by opening your sense of hearing. Notice if you have a tendency to reach out for the sound. Let go of trying to hear. The sound is coming to you anyway. You don’t need to add the extra effort of reaching for it.
- Play with the idea of hearing with your whole body, not just your ears. Sound is vibration. It resonates on a cellular level. Feel the sound throughout your body. This is why it’s important to make sure your position is comfortable and receptive. If your body is tense, it can’t be receptive.
- Some sounds will register as pleasant, while others will register as unpleasant. Still others will feel neutral. Notice if your mind has preferences, such as birdsong= good, traffic=bad. You don’t need to try to change these impulses. Simply notice how your mind is categorizing sound and the physical sensations that may or may not accompany those evaluations.
Hearing meditation can be a powerful gateway into the present moment. As a lifelong musician, I experience hearing as an especially resonant gateway. I find it helpful to begin my daily practice with a few minutes of hearing meditation. It helps me settle into my body’s moment-to-moment experience. From there, I can expand awareness to include the flow of sensation through the other sense doors as well.
You can practice anywhere—while walking in nature or even while waiting for a bus on a busy city street. No matter how you choose to practice, hearing meditation can help you settle into the ever-changing present.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com