Sound is an inescapable part of life; our eardrums are constantly being bombarded with vibrations that we interpret as sound everyday, some of them we find pleasant, others we don’t. Sounds that we find pleasant make us feel relaxed and can lull us to sleep, sounds we find unpleasant keep us on edge and can stop us from sleeping.
Sounds can be interpreted differently; a sound that I find pleasant may be painful to you and visa versa. If we are next door neighbours and I am playing your favourite music then it will make you feel good, you will probably sing along, even though it is loud you may still be able to fall asleep. On the other hand if you dislike the music then when I continuously play it you may start to get irritated and find it hard to fall asleep. Sound is interesting like this, if we dislike it, the longer it goes on the louder and more irritating it will seem to become, it becomes magnified.
Why is this?
Because of concentration.
Concentration is not just something that is developed during meditation; we concentrate on many things during our everyday lives. If we like something and really want it our mind / attention sits on that object continuously, even when it is no longer around, it continues cycling in our thoughts. It can take over our whole thought process eventually influencing us to act on that thought pattern to for fill it, regardless if it is for our benefit or not. This is concentration; we are reapplying our attention again and again and sustaining it on an object. This same process can also be applied to things we don’t like, if something upsets us we may apply our attention to it again and again, it becomes magnified in our mind through the building up of concentration and eventually overwhelms us. It becomes the only thing we can see.
The difference between concentration in everyday life and concentration during meditation is the quality of the awareness that accompanies it. The difference is that when we are meditating we know that we are concentrating; we know that we are absorbing into an object; in normal life we generally haven’t got a clue, that’s why it can control us. This factor of knowing or mindfulness is really important in breaking our relationship with sound.
There are many other questions we could ask about sound.
Why do people like so many different types of music, some people love opera and others rock?
Why do we find some music more pleasant then others and why is this different for everyone?
What other sounds do we find pleasant or unpleasant?
Other pleasant sounds may be our loved ones voice, the sound of rain, running water, the ocean, laughing. Unpleasant sounds may be our love ones voice when we have had a disagreement with them, the sound of rain, running water, the ocean and yes for some people other people laughing.
The pleasant and unpleasant sounds are the same but in each case our relationship to them is different, its this relationship that alters the quality of the sound.
The interesting thing is that any sound can be pleasant or unpleasant; any sound can transform from enchantment to noise and visa versa. This is where it gets interesting because when we really look at it the sound is never the problem, it’s our relationship to it. From person to person what we enjoy and what we don’t is varied, the sound that we are hearing isn’t different, but the way we are interpreting it when we hear it is.
As human beings what we hear is rarely as simple as just being a sound, once the vibration hits our eardrum it is rapidly interpreted by our brains, a process is rapidly triggered off, for eg:
We hear a dog barking. Instantly tacked onto this is a story, a story based on our past experience, if we identify it as our pet dog we my interpret it as “Johnny has just brought Spot back from his walk in the park, I can’t wait to see Spot again, he is always happy to see me, I had better tell Johnny to give him some food….” etc. This thinking pattern that arose from the initial contact of sound will then make us feel good, we may get a pleasant feeling and have happy emotions come up. It may make us feel so good that we want to tell our friends the next time we see them.
Another scenario may be this: We hear a dog barking. Instantly tacked onto this is a story, a story based on our past experience, if we identify it as our neighbours dog we my interpret it as “Doesn’t that dog ever shut up, how am I supposed to concentrate with that dog barking all the time, I will have to go over and give Tim a piece of my mind….” etc. This thinking pattern that arose from the initial contact of sound will then make us feel bad, we may get an unpleasant feeling and have painful emotions come up. It may make us feel so irritated that we want to tell our friends the next time we see them. All about how irritating our neighbours’ dog is and that we wish they would move.
It is our relationship to the sound that we hear and the story we fabricate around it that gives it a quality we will either like or dislike. Regardless of whether we like the particular sound or not our relationship to it creates an enchanting quality that makes us mentally stick to it. We can mentally stick to what we dislike as easily as we can to what we like, this quality of enchantment attracts our attention, draws it towards the sound. Once our attention is placed on the sound and held there the energy from our attention then magnifies it, concentration builds. Sound is such an easy object to give our attention to, it just naturally goes towards it.
An example is when we are trying to fall asleep and our neighbour has a party that is going quite late into the night. Before we go to bed the music and noise may seem loud, but it is nothing compared to how loud it gets when we want to fall asleep. The more we try to get to sleep the louder the party seems until it starts to drive us crazy. This magnification of the sound has come from our attention, from our mind absorbing into the sound, building our concentration up on it. It then becomes our main object of attention and can seem overwhelming.
The magnification and power it has over us comes from the quality of our attention and from this we can come to understand how to break this attraction and take away the ability of sound to effect us.
Meditation is not free from sound as a distraction; unless we go deep into a cave there is always the chance of some noise interrupting our meditation, even then we still have our noisy minds. Meditating in cities and suburbia brings its own problems, there is always noise of one type or another and it is hard to find a hall or home that has no disturbance during our meditation practice.
Does this mean that we therefore can’t meditate in this environment, can’t build up any skilful concentration?
For concentration meditation practices this is true, it is very hard to build up deep one pointed concentration in a noisy environment, this is because every moment that our attention goes out to a sound is a moment that we are not absorbing into the object of meditation. This is not to say it cannot be done, it can, but it is really dependant on our relationship to the sound and to the strength of our ability to concentrate on one object. Even when our concentration has built up and we can anchor our attention on the breath, fixing it at one point and ignoring the sound, the sound will still be there.
This is because the ear door is one of the last doors to completely shut down, in that we will continue to hear sound, even if we have no interest in it. Since we hear it, it means that our mind is still in contact with the sound, bouncing between our primary object and the ear door. These two events can seem to coincide with each other, the reality is that the mind can only sit on one object at a time, it is just happening so fast that it is hard to perceive, but it can be observed in deep meditation when everything slows down.
During awareness / mindfulness meditation practice sound does not need to be a distraction, in fact it can boost our awareness by providing such a clear object. This is because unlike concentration meditation, awareness meditation is dependant on change, it loves distraction. So if our attention is pulled away from our primary object the skill is to maintain the continuity of the awareness, of knowing what is happening in each moment, what is happening now. This is called momentary concentration and it does not rely on having a specific object, anything can be the object, what it relies on is the continuity and clarity of the attention.
When we are distracted by a sound during concentration meditation all we can do is ignore it and go back to our primary object, in this way we will start to build some concentration but it is more then likely it will not become deep because the sound acts like an anchor to the outside world.
During awareness / mindfulness practice it is another matter, as long as we become aware of the pull of the sound and allow our attention to be pulled towards it whilst maintaining awareness of this movement of the mind, there will be a smooth transition between objects and the momentum of the build up of awareness will be maintained.
Once our attention is on the sound it is important to look at our relationship with it. We should ignore the content of the sound and observe any proliferation of a story, look at the stickiness, attraction to it, be aware of any liking or disliking.
In the earlier example when we heard a barking sound, we were not actually hearing a dog; we were hearing the barking as a vibration in our eardrum. The signal from this vibration was then sent along nerves to our brain which then interpreted it as a dog barking. The dog barking is a perception of these signals, it is a trained perception, and we are taught it from when we are young children, this identification comes about as an agreement, as a means of language so that we can communicate with each other. So that we can survive as a group, the dog barking is added extra, it is an overlay, the content; it is not the sound itself.
To use sound as our meditation object we need to be aware of the experience of the sound, what does it feel like?
Concentrating on the feeling separates us from the perception, stops the sound from becoming something. When we experience it in its purity we can then sit with that feeling and be aware of our relationship to it. This will then give us a strong object for our awareness to build up on; as it builds up we will notice the pull of it more clearly and in doing this its ability to attract our attention starts to fade. Once this has happened it is easier to turn our attention back to our primary object of meditation and the sound will no longer disturb us. If once again we feel that it is pulling our attention we can go with it and start the process again.
If the sound persists and our attention is always moving towards it then we just switch to it as our primary object of meditation. All other objects then are secondary, if they pull our attention we go to them, then once the pull is broken we go back to our primary object again. During awareness / mindfulness meditation sound will only be a problem if we don’t want it to be there, it is best to accept it and use it to our advantage.
In our daily lives we often can find ourself in a situation where there is noise in the background and it interferes with our ability to concentrate or worse, sleep. Sensitivity to noise can create a lot of suffering especially in built up areas because noise is something we are all subject to and have little control over.
The same skills that we learn during formal awareness / mindfulness practice can be applied during our everyday life. We can use the same system of observation as was mentioned earlier, making sure we don’t get caught up in the content of the sound or the story associated with it. Not thinking of anyone making the sound but instead focusing on the experience of the sound itself.
We should pay careful attention to our relationship to it, to the mental stickiness, being aware of our dislike. We also should be aware of the feeling of attraction towards the sound and the feeling of our mind trying to push it away. Every time we breathe out we should allow ourself to sink mentally, relaxing into it, at the same time closely watching the sound, following its flow, and polishing our awareness on it. Using the awareness of our body is a great anchor for this, just placing our attention on the point where our body is touching the ground, chair or bed. Being aware the feeling of the touch point and the sensations within it.
If we do this our mind will quieten down, the sound will lose its pull, and we will no longer hear a sound but instead just experience it as a flow. We will find that it is no longer pulls our attention and that we can turn our attention to the feeling of our body, of its heaviness and the sensations within; the noise will be there but will no longer be able to disturb us.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you