This post builds on my post, Our Fear of Silence, that was published on PsychCentral. It originally appeared in January.
With all of the focus on keeping one’s attention on the breath, mindfulness meditation begins to sound like an internal experience. But if the goal is full awareness of the present moment, we must not shut out the external world while placing our attention on the breath. For this reason, I often find it effective to remain present by focusing on the sounds around me.
Living in the city, the white noise that makes up the aural background is very assertive. Traffic, sirens, planes, and pedestrians are always present, and often quite loud. But as I drift from awareness of the present moment off into thoughts that distract, even this rich wall of sound fades into a hum, and then fades out of my awareness entirely. As happens so often, I miss the world around me. But by working with these sounds during meditation I can often quiet my mind and remain in the present moment. Instead of only focusing on my breath, I let my attention expand to take in the world around me by carefully listening to the sounds I hear. As with thoughts that intrude, I label each sound and let it go.
Still, my mind wanders. The sounds that keep me centered and present can also take me away. I’ll hear the bus and wonder if it’s the 9 or the 21. Then I’m off to a stop in another neighborhood, thinking of a store I need to go to. Then I’m in the store choosing an item, and off my mind spins. Returning my focus to my breath brings me back, and when I settle again I let my attention expand to take in the sounds around me once more.
The point, as always, is to maintain present moment awareness. Sounds are a big part of the present moment, and can help keep our attention trained on our current experience. But the breath remains the anchor. If working with sounds becomes too much, or if the sounds lead to thoughts that distract you from the present moment, come back to the breath. Stay there until you are able to expand your attention again, if you choose to. You may not, you may want to just work with the breath for the remainder of your meditation period. Whatever keeps you focused on the present moment without judgment should be practiced. Like the bus that runs past my window, our attention is always being carried off. Bringing it back to the present can help us quiet the chatter that distracts and often leaves us dissatisfied, anxious, or suffering.