Practice Circle: Mindfulness of Sound

ID-100276763Stop what you’re doing right now, and just listen.

Were you surprised by all you heard? Before you stopped to listen, you may have been completely unaware of all of the sounds going on. As soon as you directed your attention to them, there they were, loud and soft, far and near, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Perhaps you heard sounds arising within your own body; if, like me, you experience the ringing sound of tinnitus, you might even have heard sounds that exist nowhere but your own awareness.

In the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), the text that presents the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Gotama mentions sound only in passing, as one of the sensory objects of mindfulness included in the framework of dhammas, typically translated in this context as “mental qualities” or “mental objects.” As with the other five senses, we are instructed to be aware of both the experience of sound and the “fetter” that arises with it.

As Buddhism evolved, however, many practices were developed specifically using sound as an object of meditative absorption. Chanting of scriptures and mantras; all of the various bells, bowls and gongs; the shakuhachi and other wind instruments; Tibetan kargyraa singing, and many other sources of sound to accompany or focus contemplation. Today, meditation on sound is one of the mindfulness practices taught to MBSR students.

Here are Jon Kabat-Zinn’s instructions for mindfulness of sound from his book Full Catastrophe Living:

  1. If you feel like it, try just listening to sound when you meditate. This does not mean listening for sounds, rather just hearing what is here to be heard, moment by moment, without judging or thinking about them. Just hearing them as pure sound. And hearing the silences between sounds as well.

  2. You can practice this with music, too, hearing each note as it comes and the spaces between notes. Try breathing the sounds into your body and letting them flow out again on the outbreath. Imagine that your body is transparent to sounds; that they can move in and out of your body through the pores of your skin.

I think there are a number of aspects of sound that make it a uniquely useful object of mindfulness. First of course, it’s always there, at least for those of us whose sense of hearing is functional. Even in a sensory deprivation chamber, we can hear the sound of our breathing and the blood rushing in our veins.

The perception of sound promotes insights into the nature of experience. Sounds clearly arise by themselves without any exertion on our part; all we need to do is receive them effortlessly. We notice that they arise, last for a while, and disappear. If we pay careful attention, we can observe that sound is an ultimately unfixable experience. Listen to the bird singing. Where is the sound? In the bird? In the air? In your ear or your mind? It is in all these places, and in no place. Try as we might, we can’t cling to a sound. To listen is to receive and let go.

Sound has a powerful resonance with the body and its emotions. The lap of waves relaxes us; the screech of tires tightens us with a shot of adrenaline. We can readily observe all kinds of emotions arise with sound, and then recognize that the emotions are not the sound. Can we allow the loud music across the street or the roar of the muffler-less car just be sounds, and let the irritation go?

Sound can also coax the mind to quiet and concentrate itself. The resonance of a singing bowl can seem like a still pool that invites awareness to rest in it. The mysterious minor pentatonic melodies of the shakuhachi seem to perfectly evoke the poignancy of mindful absorption. The gutteral growl of Zen chanting joins us with our fellow chanters in one deep, physical vibration. And as we observe the way sound resonates physically and mentally, that observation helps break down the illusion of our isolation from the world.

When we notice these qualities of listening, we can then try to bring the same sense of open receptiveness, non-striving and non-clinging to our other forms of mindfulness meditation, and to our mindful interaction with the world.

This Sunday, October 8, 2017, at 8 pm Central, Practice Circle will gather to share a meditation of sound. To join our video conference group, simply follow this link: