Practice Mindfulness With Everyday Sounds

Susan Gillis Chapman helps us appreciate the music of everyday life.

illustration by Mariko Jesse/ Photo © A2SATS/OCEAN/CORBIS

The most common instruction for mindfulness meditation is to pay attention to your breath. But the breath is not the only thing you can notice when you sit down to meditate. Whether you use a small gong or an app on your phone, ringing a bell is a good way to start and end a meditation session. The sound is not just a timer. It reminds us that mindfulness is about creating space for silence and for listening. By letting go of our usual distractions, we make room to appreciate the sounds around us.

Here are three types of sounds to appreciate as you sit in “silence.”

1. Background sounds

One of the first things you will notice once the sound of the opening bell fades away is background sounds: traffic noise, the whirring of a ceiling fan, murmuring voices in the hallway. As you notice each one, let go of the habit of naming and judging it and dive into the pure sensation of hearing. In this way, everything you hear is treated as equal—beyond being pleasant or unpleasant.

2. Melodic sounds

Sounds that form a melody tend to arouse emotions, which is what we love about music. When we sit quietly, we will inevitably notice melodic sounds. A chorus of birds greets the dawn. A siren wails in the distance. A pitter-patter of rain softly taps the windowpane. Listening to the rise and fall of these sounds can arouse feelings that don’t need to be named or clung to. Melodies can make us feel sadness, joy, or both. Try to find the dividing line between the sound and your emotional response. It’s challenging, but listen loosely. If something melodious moves you, stay with it and notice how it affects your body.

3. Abrupt sounds

Sudden, shocking sounds that interrupt us can also bring us back to awareness. Someone sneezes—achoo!—and we’re back to the now. The sudden arising of a sound can wake you up to the present moment when you’ve been lulled into habitual thought patterns. When sitting quietly, we’re not trying to fall into a trance. Relaxed awareness is the thing, like a deer on the alert for something new.

When the closing bell rings at the end of your session, let the sound relax you. Rest in it for a moment. As the reverberation fades away, let it help you transition into everyday activity. Every moment there are sounds inviting us to listen. Being open to them is just another way to appreciate the world around us and appreciate one another. All the conversations in our life begin here.

Read an excerpt from Susan Gillis Chapman’s book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.

This article also appeared in the August 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.