Listening meditation offers another way to be aware and to work with attention. Beyond finding a relatively quiet place to sit or walk, I have almost no control over the sounds that I hear. They arrive. Sometimes from the outside, a bird, a car on the street, a phone ringing. Sometimes from the inside, the whirrrrring in my ears that I might otherwise ignore, a rumble in my gut, or a crack in my joints.
When you listen to sound with awareness, you are just practicing being aware. There’s no need for anything extra. Limiting myself to awareness, along with attention drift, is the hardest part for me. A science podcast once informed me that the brain (mind) processes sounds much more rapidly than it does visual information. Sound is one of our most fundamental and efficient “alarm” systems for protecting ourselves. And once I direct my awareness to my sound environment, I often find myself naming, and sometimes, even looking around for the source of, the sounds that I hear.
There’s no need to do any of that in listening meditation. Just be aware. If you find yourself naming a sound, smiling at a bird’s song, or flinching at a text message alarm, give yourself a pass. Reacting is not what you intended, but it isn’t a mistake either. A silent “thank you” might be just the right soft, kind touch that will let you notice your reaction, which is part of living, and center yourself back in simple awareness.
Here’s a partial set of the instructions for listening meditation that long-time meditation teacher and author, Martine Bachelor offers in her Fall 2010 Tricycle magazine article, “Instructions for listening meditation”. I’ve included only the lines that emphasize awareness, but you can find the missing bits, the “…”, by going to the original article. And if you would like to read more of my posts relating to listening and sounds, click on “sound” in the tag cloud located in the right side bar.
Try to sit stable like a mountain and vast like the ocean.– Martine Bachelor, “Instructions for Listening Meditation”, Tricycle, Fall 2010 (abridged)
Listen to the sounds as they occur … just listen with wide-open awareness.
Let the sounds come to you and touch your eardrums.
Go inside the sounds and notice their fluid nature.
If there are no sounds, listen, and rest in this moment of silence.
Just be aware of sounds as they arise and pass away. Open yourself to the music of the world in this moment, in this place.
See if you can learn to move freely between being in silence and with sounds.
Hours later, the same day that I posted this, I went for a walk with the intention of “just listening”. Before I knew it, I was straining to hear every last sound. Noticing the effort, the strain, I said, “thank you” and relaxed.
As the instructions say, “Let the sound come …” (no straining is needed) … “Move freely between being in silence and with sounds” (whatever is heard, or is not heard, can be attended to; to ‘move freely’ is to release the strain I had imposed on myself). -Alan
(I received the following note from a long-time zen friend, Larry C. -Alan)
Wonderful brother. Hearing is often “over looked” in the meditation world but a wonderful practice. And like you say, requires no effort. I know I must have shared this with you several times but it’s maybe my favorite teaching by the Buddha:
“In the seeing let there be just the seeing.
In the hearing let there be just the hearing.
In the feeling (body) let there be just the feeling.
In the thinking let there be just the thinking.
Then, there will be no ‘you’ in terms of that.
When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there.
Then, you will be neither here nor there, nor in between.
This, just this, is the end of suffering.” Buddha (Bahiya Sutra)
(After reading Larry’s note, my curiosity about this wonderful teaching drove me to look up the full Bahiya Sutra to see where and to whom this teaching was given. Here’s a link to a translation by Thanissaro Bikkhu., http://buddhasutra.com/files/bahiya_sutta.htm)