Together at last: sound and meditation

A podcast producer blends mindfulness meditation with her love for sound, to create a new process called “Soundwalking”

mindfulGUEST COLUMN: VICTORIA FENNER — A few years ago I took the time to deliberately slow down.   Part of this process involved taking a course on “Mindfulness Meditation” based on the writings and theories of Jon Kabat-Zinn. His books: Wherever You Go, There You AreFull Catastrophe Living; and Coming to Your Senses, (among many others) explain how to apply mindfulness in traditional medical settings for pain management, depression and even relief from psoriasis.

I’ve always liked the idea of meditating, but I have trouble staying still for any length of time.  Shutting down my senses, in particular my hearing, is not easy for me, as I make my living as a radio and podcast producer.   There’s just too much to experience out in the big, wide world. And I like to be on the move. As I came to discover, mindful mediation is a practice I can combine with a process I call “soundwalking” to increase my ability to relax and be immersed in the moment.

Mindfulness is about learning to be totally present, living in the now, and experiencing without judging.  My first session was puzzling. We spent the first ten minutes looking at a box of raisins:  First we looked at the box. . .then we opened it, looked at one raisin, and tasted one raisin.  We did this all very slowly, taking in the full experience.  It took ten minutes to eat one raisin (okay, I’ll admit — I ate two)!

listeningI eventually made the link between mindfulness meditation and  “soundwalking,” a practice in which I record what I hear in my surroundings. My documentaries and sound art all use environmental and ‘found’ sound, just as much as words. Mindfulness meditation helped me realize that soundwalking could be used as a meditation, not just as a sound gathering exercise.  I can meditate while listening and collecting the sounds for my art. I don’t even have to sit still!

As Kabat-Zinn states in his book, Coming to Our Senses, “I cease thinking any thoughts about sources and give myself over to hearing.” He continues, “It is very much a bathing in sound, a sensuous luxuriating in pure sound and the spaces between them, in layer upon layer of sound.” And a soundwalk is another way of doing this.  I had been doing a type of mindfulness meditation all along.

A soundwalk is simply a walking meditation.

Six steps to start your soundwalk

1.    Start with earplugs. Put them in for just a couple of minutes. Listen to what silence sounds like. This will help you “clear” your hearing and begin with a fresh perspective. Your hearing will be sharper once you’ve taken them out because the sounds you will be hearing will be new.

2.    Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a couple of minutes. Be present in the environment you are in. Calm down the excess chatter going on in your head, reminding yourself that the goal is to listen to the external, rather than your internal soundscape.

3.    Listen to the sound of your breath as an overlay on the soundscape. Play with your breath and listen to it in relation to the other sounds you are hearing. For example, focus on the sound of an approaching car. Pattern your breath on the sound of the car. Begin to inhale softly when you hear the car in the distance. Inhale louder as it approaches and passes, then exhale, first quickly then softly falling away as the car retreats. Working with your breath will do two things: it will help clear your mind of the excess clutter and help you be fully present to the sound as you listen to your breath and the sound together.

4.    Focus on one sound that you especially like. Go into the sound. Feel how the sound acts with your body — does it calm you, energize you, or make you feel frantic? Be with it for a couple of minutes. Don’t intellectualize.

5.    Gradually expand your awareness to the other sounds. Imagine an orchestra tuning up — one sound after another becoming sharper and clearer until you can hear all the sounds in tune with each other.

6.    Breathe a couple more times. Now you’re ready to walk.

Walk the walk

feetwalking1The first thing you’ll hear is the sound of your own footsteps.   Listen for approaching sounds. Imagine yourself walking into the sound and back out of it again. Stay conscious of your breath as you walk. Breath in a steady pace, walk in a steady pace.  Listen for changes in the sound. Is the acoustic space the same as when you began? When you hear a change in the environment, stop and explore what makes it different.

I like to listen to the sounds as a musical composition. I think of the pitch and rhythms of the sounds. What is the highest sound? Lowest? Are there any interesting rhythms.  I count the sounds. How many different types are there? Is there a lot of variety in this soundscape, or are the sounds all similar (i.e. all natural sound, all machine generated)?

As you can probably tell, I am still analytically and rather earth-bound in my listening; my over-active brain is constantly chattering.  It’s quieter than it used to be because I now remind myself that mindfulness, like any kind of meditation, is also an experience of radical acceptance.  We must be aware of whatever mind state exists without getting frustrated that we are not doing it “perfectly.”  It’s not a performance — it’s an exercise in slowing down and being present in the world.

But being present to the sounds is only the first level, and I aspire to proceed to the next one as described by Jon Kabat-Zinn: ”In this giving myself over to the hearing, pure and simple, in these moments there is only hearing.  The soundscape is everything.  It is no longer in the world.  It is the world.”

vicVictoria Fenner is a radio producer/podcaster and composer of environmental sound.

Her artwork can be heard at www.magneticspirits.com and her podcast about soundwalking can be found at the Rabble Podcast Network.

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3 Responses to “Together at last: sound and meditation”

  1. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness include practices on “hearing only what is to be heard.”

    Mindful walking in the various Buddhist traditions are derived from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In practice, I’ve learned how little I used to “hear” only what is to be heard.

    Instead I would add thoughts, concepts, likes & dislikes, labels, distractions, etc., etc. It is a pleasure and joy to experience a different consciousness of the sense perceptions and then to realize how many barriers baffle the energies of the flow around us.

  2. I liked this very much. I practice my own version of this and and “seeing” to hearing where I just experience the visual “play” as I am driving or walking. And I notice thoughts and responses to both sound and sight and practice just noticing.
    One example Sunday that was very interesting. We use a large Chinese bowl to generate a tone after each lesson and the sermon at my church. We are now worshiping at the interfaith chapel in San Francisco’s Presidio. This Sunday the fog horns were going. The bowl happened to be an exact major third (plus an octive making it a major 10th) above the main fog horn. The harmony was amazing. The two other fog horns were in a minor key to the Bowl. It was a wonderful dialogue of harmony for the minute or so it would last.

  3. A wonderful way to not become irritated by the cacophony that bombards us sometimes. By focusing on single sounds in the mix at a time, the noise becomes “symphonic”. My overly-noisy brain thanks you….