A Mindful Practice of Active Listening

Noise is both comfort and terror.  I am a quite person by nature, preferring to hear the world around me rather than interact with it.  When I am placed in positions of discussion often my mind is a jumbled mess of “what should I say?” with my stomach in knots and heart pounding out of my chest.  When I finally get words out I spend the next 10 minutes thinking “that was dumb!” “I should have said …. Instead” or “next time keep that mouth shut”! 

Am I ever comfortable?  Sure but it is usually when I am talking at people rather than with; as is the case in teaching.  So how do I translate that comfort to every day discussion?  Practice!  Corny yes but it works…or…we’ll see.  I have been putting myself out there more.  Making a point to have a discussion daily with strangers and those regular people in my life that make me nervous (there are many!).

Because of this I am finding myself on the edge of panic more hours of the day than not.  So I have come back to my meditation practice; not that I ever really left it.  Now I am making a point of sitting with contemplation rather than stillness.  Stillness is easy, quite is comfort, sound is another thing entirely.

Mindful Meditation on Sound

A common misconception is that a quiet place is the best location for meditation.  Sure if you are a complete beginner that has trouble staying in any kind of focus.  However I prefer to get newer meditators to challenge themselves.  What is the point of doing if not to learn and better the self.  Any person can find focus in a blackened room with zero interruptions but that is not life!  Life is messy, loud and full of disruption.  The first time I experienced complete stillness paired with acute perception was during a meditation on a New York City subway car. 

That’s right!  You read it correctly!  I sat in stillness while observing the fantasticness (there was no real word to describe) that is an NYC subway ride.  I was able to find a level of calm perception that I had never experienced before nor yet again.  The sights, sounds, smells, feelings of being a part of the vibrancy filled me such calm because it brought the realization that we truly are all one.  That every single one of you has had the same feelings of pain, love, loss, excitement, fear… that I have.

A Mindfulness Challenge

Today I challenge you to be mindful of sound.  Instead of tuning out it’s time to tune in.  To listen to the world with full commitment and compassion.  For an introvert like myself this can very challenging because the act of active listening means you have to, eventually, interact.  Mindful listening means you pick up on communication cues that you may not have noticed before due to that critical voice within.  Active listening means tuning the critical self out while tuning the world in. 

If you on the other hand are the person that does all the talking because you hate silence.  I challenge you sit in the world observing sans interaction.  Fight the urge to vocalize and become a part of the noise, while actively listening to your environment.

The Exercise

Go out into the world, to a location where you need not interact but you will be surrounded by sound.  This can be a city park, public transit, maybe even your own front yard!

Find a comfortable seated position, downcast the eyes to avoid over stimulation, take 3-5 deep breaths right from the base of the abdomen.  Slow and steady, in and out through the nose.  Each breath slower than the last. 

Now open your ears.  Begin with the self, hear the sound of your breath, the beat of your heart. Now begin to expand your circle of sound to include a few feet in diameter around you.  What do you hear?  Label each new sound with a single word, the first one that comes to your mind: bird, dog, car, children, excitement, laughter

There is no right or wrong, my word may be different than yours.  This is not the time to analyze choice.  As sounds begin to repeat once more expand your listening circle.  Continuing to simply label each sound.

After a few minutes of sitting in stillness begin to invite perception in.  Each sound that arises give a short 1-3 word description.  Happy children, argumentative discussion, disturbed birds…

Observe the sound for what it is; not what it appears to be.  Do not add in feelings but rather listen as if viewing a photograph.  Imagine that you could photograph sound.  If you show a picture to stranger of a happy moment in your life you view the picture with a smile and a warm feeling often filled with memories of that time.  The stranger sees the setting, the looks on faces, the lighting… they draw a conclusion about the event or they pick out a familiar object such the place but they will not have the same warm feelings or memories as you. 

This is to be how you are to “view” the sounds arising around you.  As an impartial observer registering the activities of the day without placing your own stories on the circumstances. 

Sit in observation for 15 to 30 minutes.

Journal Exercise

Now contemplate your reaction to the mindfulness exercise.  Was it easy?  Was it difficult?  What aspect of mindful listening did you enjoy most? Enjoy least?  Were you able to tame the inner critic or silence the need to interact?  Write down your feelings, thoughts and observations.

I come back to this mediation practice time and again because it helps me tame the inner voices so that I can be more compassionate when communicating with both loved ones and strangers. It helps me find my voice so that I can be heard by another active listener.   

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