Being mindful means coming to our senses. In other words, being aware and able to attend to what is already happening in the world around us through our sense of sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound. The traditional five senses are attributed to Aristotle. Recent scientific research now points to at least nine human senses, including the sense of knowing where parts of our body are (Proprioception), as well as the sense of balance, acceleration, and changes in direction (Equilibrioception).
Encased in the skull, the human brain is completely isolated and knows nothing directly about the world, apart from what comes through the senses. Everything we know and experience is shaped and constructed in the brain as we perceive the world through our senses.
Hearing is an interesting sense as it’s always on. Our ears are like microphones, picking up sounds indiscriminately, whether we want them or not. We can close our eyes, but we can’t normally close our ears.
The actual construction of the human ear is an amazing evolutionary development. From the outer ear, the eardrum, the tiny bones of the middle ear that started their evolutionary journey as part of the jawbones of a fish, to the cochlea of the inner ear that has thousands of hair-like filaments called stereocilia that pick out the sound signals and pass them to the brain. Most of the time our hearing works amazingly well, from the smallest whisper to a crack of thunder. As we age the stereocilia wear out and are not replaced. Also, they evolved in a relatively quiet world and are not designed to withstand some of the high noise levels we experience today.
Different sounds affect different parts of the brain. For instance, your alarm clock may trigger a brief fight-or-flight response; music can stimulate emotions or body movement. Restful rhythms, like the sound of ocean waves, have a calming effect, as they’re similar to the pace of our breath during sleep. Birdsong is also calming; as we evolved we learned that hearing birdsong means there’s no immediate danger.
Although there’s always sound in the world around us, when it’s unwanted, we call it noise. Those of us living in towns and cities are probably experiencing more noise than at any other time in human history; for instance, the background noise of traffic that hardly stops. When was the last time you were somewhere without the hum of traffic in the distance?
We can use sound and our sense of hearing in several ways in mindfulness practice. Bringing our attention to our hearing connects us with the present moment; even if we’re listening to a recording from the past, the sound is only ever playing now.
We can also use our sense of hearing to expand our awareness, away from the mind-made limitations, to a spacious awareness that extends right out to the limit of the soundscape around us. This is a useful way of opening our background awareness. We tend to get caught up in the foreground content and forget that most of it is temporary; like sounds, thoughts and feelings that come and go. Building the ability to rest in broader, open awareness provides access to greater inner resources and allows us to work more skilfully with present-moment experience. A bit like adding more memory to a laptop or smartphone, with more space, we’re able to see more options and have greater choice and flexibility in how we respond to whatever arises.
Sound is a useful resource for practising mindfulness. There is always some sound to turn our attention to, which helps us connect with the present. Even if we’re inside a building, connecting with the broad open soundscape allows us to access an expanded sense of who we are, which helps to break through the limitations we habitually impose on ourselves. And by resting in the silence between sounds, we can access the calm and stillness that is the stable foundation for the day.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps
- Then play the second audio to explore and experience your sense of hearing and sounds
Suggested weekly practices
- Appreciating your sense of hearing; the subtle detail in birdsong and wind in the trees on the walk, the sound of people’s voices and how amazing it is that sounds have meaning.
- Pausing to explore the soundscape of particular moments during the day. The sounds that arise, play out and release, as well as the relative silence that they return to. Extend your hearing out to experience the spaciousness of the soundscape and rest there.
- See if you can notice the difference between raw sound just as it is, and how you perceive sound, the thoughts, meanings, likes and dislikes that overlay what you hear.
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