Using sound to increase your concentration and sense of well-being
One effective approach to mindfully meditating is to seek out a quiet, comfortable spot in which to sit in silence and enjoy the calm for awhile. Strangely, an equally effective approach to meditation is to find peace among the very noises that surround you. Sometimes it’s even good to seek out some noise to help you focus on your meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing oneself completely into the present moment, accepting what is by simply noticing it and letting it be (please see my previous article What Meditation can do for You - Part I for a more complete discussion). When being mindful, we do not label or judge what is happening (“That baby’s crying is so annoying, and those parents are so rude for bringing him here”), nor do we dwell on thoughts of past or future events. Instead, we focus non-judgmentally on whatever is happening in the present. When our mind inevitably drifts toward a thought, we bring it back to our chosen focal point.
We can effectively use ambient sounds as a good focal point. Even mostly quiet places like parks or an out-of-the-way room in the house often have some form of background noise in them, such as the distant voices of children, a chirping bird, or (less pleasantly) the sound of traffic with the periodic blaring ambulance siren. Instead of labeling these thoughts as irritations and letting them disrupt our meditation, here is how we can use them as part of our overall practice:
1. We start out by settling into our chair (or bench, rock, etc.). We close our eyes and focus on the breath, feeling each inhalation and exhalation, focusing all our attention on each breath. We focus on the breath initially so as to arrive in the present moment, to center ourselves where we are at and give our mind something in the present to focus on. For more on how to do a breathing meditation, please see article What Meditation can do for You - Part I.
2. After a few minutes worth of several good in and out breaths, we start feeling more settled and meditative. We can either stay with this simple breathing meditation, or we can use ambient sounds as our new focus. Continue breathing mindfully, but now notice what sounds are around you. Do you hear the wind rustling leaves? Children at play? Cars driving in the distance? An air conditioner humming in the background?
3. Now, focus your attention on one sound and stay with it for as long as you can. Try your best to notice the sound without somehow judging it as good or bad. Bring yourself back to your chosen sound whenever you become aware that your mind is wandering elsewhere. As one meditation teacher of mine says, “mindfulness is just as much about staying with something as it is about constantly bringing yourself back to it.”
4. Try and stay with each sound for at least several minutes. Meditation is about non-judgment and focusing on one thing at a time, so it’s important that we don’t simply drift from sound to sound because we find one sound to be too boring, too annoying ,etc. Practicing by staying with one sound (or any other focal point for that matter) is one way by which we practice calming our mind and conditioning it to accept what is.
It’s best if you use ambient sounds to focus your meditation rather than artificially-introduced sounds like music. Even relaxing audio tracks (think piano music with a backdrop of ocean waves) can hinder your ability to focus because the sounds change too often. Essentially, the music is so relaxing, so beautiful, so constantly changing, or so emotionally appealing that it becomes easy to be swept away by it and lose sight of the present moment. We might start thinking about relaxing beaches or seeing such-and-such in concert last year rather than focusing on the present moment. There is nothing wrong with a little daydreaming sometimes, but this sort of fantasizing (even if it’s pleasant) causes us to lose sight of the present moment and focus our thoughts on the future. Accordingly, it runs counter to the goal of mindfulness meditation: to accept the present moment as is and make peace with it on its own terms.
If you really want to use some sort of audio track to meditate, there are several tracks available for purchase that can enhance your practice. I have used Holothink’s Deep Zen meditation tracks and have found them to be very effective. Essentially, they provide you with ready-made “white noise” (one track I have sounds like rainfall, another like chimes) that is consistent, relaxing, and engineered to be easy to focus on. Audio tracks like these are specifically geared toward enhancing your meditation practice and can be used as a way to add variety to your practice.
Practiced regularly, meditation can improve your focus in other areas of your life. You will find yourself more able to stay with and enjoy doing one task at a time rather than counterproductively multitasking or seeking out more stimulating activities to avoid the boredom, stress, etc. of whatever you are doing. This will have immense benefits in making you more productive at work and enhancing the quality of the time spent with loved ones.