Updated: Nov 8, 2022
Mindfulness is a kind of non-judgmental awareness we bring into every moment. We can pin our attention on just about anything. I enjoy simply listening. To live more mindfully, consider keeping your awareness trained on the sounds you hear throughout the day. Attention will wander, but when the mind is quiet, we become sensitive to an extraordinary range of sounds from the thudding of the heart to the distant honking of geese passing overhead.
Deep listening can be an entryway to peace. Listen to the sounds that come into your awareness as if you were listening to music, without trying to identify or judge the sounds you are hearing. Simply allow them in and let them go. Remain open. Listen without discrimination, without craving "pleasant" sounds, without aversion toward "unpleasant" sounds. Listen without the filters of judging, identifying, or conceptualizing.
As we sit and listen, wonders unfold. Sound waves travel through the medium of air and enter the outer ear. These waves travel through the ear canal to the eardrum. The eardrum vibrates and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear: the malleus, incus, and stapes. For all the disturbance of molecules in the air and the drumming of the ossicles in the ear, listening occurs effortlessly for most of us.
As you read, sounds travel through the air to your ears. As I write, the keys click clack. These paragraphs take minutes to write, but the complex process I celebrate unfolds in milliseconds. As I type, the air conditioner hums. The bones in the middle ear amplify, or increase, the sound vibrations and send them to the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid, in the inner ear. Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane, an elastic partition that runs from the beginning to the end of the cochlea. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave. Hair cells near the wide end of the snail-shaped cochlea detect higher-pitched sounds, such as a sparrow chirping outside my window. Those closer to the center detect lower-pitched sounds, like the kick of a bass drum thumping out of the speakers of a car passing by. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that sit on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend, causing pore-like channels at the tips of the stereocilia to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal. The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain. Sounds are time stamped. "Different sounds are responded to with different neural populations," explains Laura Gwilliams, an NYU researcher. "And, each sound is time-stamped with how much time has gone by since it entered the ear. This allows the listener to know both the order and the identity of the sounds that someone is saying to correctly figure out what words the person is saying.”
The brain analyzes auditory inputs. Auditory signals are relayed to multiple regions within the brain. As signals travel "bottom-up" from the ear to the auditory centers, a "top-down" movement also occurs: the brain sends down signals to instruct the hearing faculties as to which inputs to focus on, which sounds to ignore, etc. As I immerse myself in writing, the sound of the air conditioner fades into the background. Other sounds come and go as I write. The higher regions can tell whether these sounds are new or familiar, threatening or neutral, and whether they deserve attention or not.
In this practice, we loosen that hold and take in sound as sound.
As a musician, I love this practice and can get easily absorbed in it. Listening to sound as sound challenges the evaluations we often make between musical and non-musical, melodic and cacophonous, or pleasant and unpleasant sounds.
Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) was one of the first noise artists. His 1913 manifesto, L'Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noise), celebrated this capacity to appreciate the complexity of sounds that often play in the background.
When I practice just listening, I listen with this refined appreciation for the soundscape, the possibilities within it, and the spaces between sounds- knowing these ambient sounds can be alchemized into music.
Simply listening, I marvel at simply listening. There is a three dimensionality to sound. I can localize sounds as distant or nearby. Where there are multiple signals, the brain can focus attention on a particular sound while filtering out other sounds. The brain can segregate different sounds into different channels and decide which streams are worthy of attention.
As we listen and focus on this or that sound, the left hemisphere of the superior temporal gyrus in the auditory cortex, the frontal gyrus, superior parietal sulcus and intraparietal sulcus process the sounds. This ability to shift and control attention allows us to simultaneously attend to selective sounds and filter out the rest as noise. Both the target stream (the more important information being attended to) and competing/interfering streams are processed in the same pathway within the left hemisphere, but target streams are treated with more attention than competing streams (Evans, et al, 2015).
It is all so elegant and beautiful. Neurons in the auditory cortex alert us when something doesn't sound right- whether a car door not properly closed, a misplaced note in music, or the whine of an engine. The brain registers whether a sound matches or deviates from expectations. The brain is able to make precise predictions about when a sound is supposed to happen and what it should sound like. Neurons respond vigorously when what is heard violates expectations. In one study, researchers found that if they omitted a sound altogether—e.g. not shutting a door hard enough—they observed a select group of neurons become active at the time the sound should have happened.
“Because these were some of the same neurons that would have been active if the sound had actually been played, it was as if the brain was recalling a memory of the sound that it thought it was going to hear,” notes one of the lead authors (Schneider et al., 2022).
Then there is internal chatter. With awareness, you will notice how the mind secretes thought after thought moment by moment. The incessant clamor of thought can be deafening… and deadening. The noise can be so persistent, we my remain aware of little else but of the din we call thinking. As you hear thoughts arise in the mind, simply listen to them as part of the general noise, too.
When internal dialogues arise spontaneously, parts of the brain that process auditory information activate as if we were actually hearing the words. When we engage in fictional arguments, the brain also engages in perspective taking.
Whatever arises, we listen to our own thoughts as sound. By learning to listen without engaging thoughts, without censoring, rejecting, or being carried away by them, we can maintain balance of mind. We can also cultivate deeper insight into conditioned habits of mind as many thoughts may be recurring. There may be dedicated channels for negative self-talk, for fantasy, for judgment, etc. that play uninterrupted for stretches at a time.
Listening in this way, we cultivate curiosity, openness, and compassion toward ourselves. If a negative and conditioned thought arises, for example, we can observe it, its valence (whether positive, negative, or neutral), feel its emotional charge, and the concomitant sensations that may arise within the body. To observe without engaging or reacting to the sound we call thought is the practice.
Listening in this way, we cultivate curiosity, openness, and compassion toward others. To listen deeply and without judgment is a beautiful gift we can give another. In this practice, the speaker is the focus of our attention. We maintain presence, enjoying how they speak- how they gesture, the timbre of the voice, the inflection, the pauses, how the eyes move. We listen like the poet Whitman who tells his beloved: "loose the stop from your throat, not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, only the hum I like, the hum of your valved voice." We listen with empathy and sojourn with them wherever it is they wish to go- even if it is to a hellish realm of darkness, ignorance, fear, or anger. With practice, we learn to hold the light and can shine this light on the darkest recesses of their minds.
We listen without judgment, no matter how unskillfully they may be communicating. We hold the light, remaining curious. With practice, we can help them identify the need behind the words. He says he feels criticized, for example. Is he feeling anxious, frustrated, angry? Is he needing understanding, acknowledgment, recognition? She says no one is listening. Is she feeling hurt, lonely, sad? Is she needing connection, a felt sense of belonging, inclusion? This is a love practice.
We can take our practice even deeper. Meditators often speak of shutting down the sense doors. With practice, we can dial down brain activity. When we are awake and alert, auditory-induced alpha-beta waves (10-30Hz) allow us to process sounds and create meaning, predictions, and evaluations that are accessible to the conscious mind. But, when auditory induced alpha-beta activity decreases and we "drop into stillness" neural feedback also drops. This feedback signaling is key to conscious sensory processing (Hayat, 2022). When we "shut the sense doors," then, we still receive the auditory signals, but the conscious self is not there to create meaning. The high order regions are mostly attenuated and auditory processing is disrupted. Experientially, it feels like the sense doors are closed and there is no "I," no "ego" to do the processing.
Try sitting with bare attention to the soundscape for the next 3 to 5 minutes.
Originally published May 12, 2020
Updated July 15, 2022