In this practice, we’ll first direct our attention to the sounds around us – like the breath, sounds can serve as a neutral focus to anchor our attention.
The goal is to notice the qualities of sounds: pitch, volume, texture (such as, scratching, droning, chirping, buzzing, humming and so on) as we directly “hear” and “experience” sounds rather than “thinking about” them.
We’ll next direct our attention to thoughts. Mindfulness of thoughts is different from being immersed in thinking. We’ll observe thoughts as mental events, or “sensations of the mind,” noticing the natural ebb and flow of thoughts, rather than analyzing or jumping on a train of thought. We may notice that thoughts arise and pass on their own time, like sounds.
As with our previous meditation practices – the breath and the body scan – this is a portable practice. At any point in the day, you could pause and notice the qualities of sounds, moment by moment. Or you could pause and notice thoughts as “just thoughts,” arising and passing on their own time.
NOTICING WITHOUT ENGAGING
By practicing mindfulness of sounds, we can learn to distinguish between our direct experience and our thoughts and reactions to that experience. For instance, you’ll likely notice what the mind adds onto sounds, such as:
- Liking or disliking a sound
- Assuming the source of a sound
- Imagining a story around the sound (where it’s going, what will happen next)
It’s a natural tendency of our minds to interpret and try to make sense of everything we perceive around us. Our interpretations may or may not be accurate or helpful. We may find that they are overly quick, causing us to miss aspects of our experience. In this practice, we’ll work on stepping back from thoughts and reactions to our experience, and stepping into our senses.
With mindfulness of thoughts, you might also notice your interpretations and reactions, such as:
- Liking or disliking a thought
- Jumping on a train of thought
- Analyzing thoughts (thoughts about thoughts)
By observing our thoughts without judgement, we learn to recognize them as mental events, rather than truths, thus developing a more objective perspective. As we practice noticing thoughts without identifying with them, we strengthen our ability to disengage from negative thinking patterns and rumination, which tend to fuel depression.
Attending to thoughts like sounds helps to reinforce that we don’t always have control over what we think, nor do we have to engage with every thought we have.
Follow along with the steps below as we guide you through a simple five to ten-minute mindfulness of sounds and thoughts practice.
Before you start
- As with previous practices, set up in a stable, comfortable posture with your eyes closed or gaze softly lowered.
- Notice the sensations of sitting to help ground yourself.
- Focus on sensations of your breath at the nostrils, chest or belly.
STEP 1: NOTICE SURROUNDING SOUNDS
- When ready, release attention from your breath and shift it to your ears. Notice any sounds that may be nearby, within the body, the area around you, or far away.
- Note the qualities of sound: high- or low-pitched, loud or soft, scraping or humming, steady or intermittent.
- Notice any spaces of silence between sounds.
- Allow sounds and silence to rise and fall on their own time.
STEP 2: STEP BACK FROM REACTIONS
- Notice if your mind is trying to recognize the sound (“dog barking”), judging (liking, disliking), or telling a story (“can’t my neighbour keep his dog quiet?”). This is something the mind does naturally and spontaneously.
- As best you can, simply recognize the sounds and move on, focusing only on the basic qualities of sound, from moment to moment, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
STEP 3: REFOCUS WHENEVER YOU NEED TO
- Each time you recognize that your attention has been drawn away – maybe by a thought or physical sensation – gently guide your attention back to the sounds around you.
STEP 4: TRANSITION TO NOTICING THOUGHTS
- Now release attention from sounds, and direct attention toward your thoughts. Try to observe them as mental events or sensations of the mind.
- As best you can, disengage from the content of the thought. If you find yourself getting caught up in or identifying with a thought, possibly say a polite “thanks, but no thanks”.
STEP 5: NOTE THEN DISENGAGE
- Step back to acknowledge the thought as “just a thought,” learning to see thoughts for what they are: mental events that spontaneously arise and pass, like sounds.
- You may want to try seeing your thoughts as words or images running across a screen or a ticker tape.
- Or you could view them as clouds in the sky. These thought-clouds may be heavy and slow, or light and quick as they move through awareness.
- If helpful, you can also try silently naming thoughts – perhaps as “planning”, “ruminating”, “fantasizing,” or “worrying”. Not needing to analyse the thought, but simply observing, “Ah, a planning thought”.
STEP 6: OBSERVE WITHOUT JUDGMENT
- Notice what happens when you recognize that you’ve been caught up in thinking. See if it’s possible to notice this experience without judgement, then step back to observe the arising and passing of thoughts.
- If you encounter difficulty disengaging from thoughts – if there’s a sense of being lost or overwhelmed by thoughts
- You might first notice and name this experience.
- Then, you could make a conscious choice: to continue observing thoughts, or to turn attention to a stable anchor – such as the breath or sensations of the feet on the floor.
- Then, when you’re ready, guide attention back to observing thoughts.
STEP 7: WIND DOWN
- When the practice ends, slowly open your eyes and observe the present state of your body and mind – perhaps there’s contentment, frustration, doubt, trust – knowing there’s no one way you’re supposed to feel (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).
The next page includes a Workbench Exercise that gives us the opportunity to reflect on this practice.