Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favourite as it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realise this – deep in your heart – then a great many of your troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.
Because it is such a powerful meditation, I feel that it should be shared with anyone who thinks they can benefit from it. Feel free to download it and begin using it as part of your daily practice. So far we’ve given away the Three Minute Breathing Space, which serves as a wonderful ‘de-stresser’, and the Body and Breath Meditation, which forms the core of Week One of the Mindfulness course. Over the coming weeks we’ll be giving away as many of the meditations from our book, Mindfulness, as possible. All of the meditations are from the core Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme co-developed by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. As you know, I wrote Mindfulness with Mark. MBCT has been proven by countless clinical trials to treat and prevent anxiety, stress, depression, unhappiness and exhaustion. For these reasons, we want to make as much of our Mindfulness course as accessible as possible. If you find the meditations useful, please let all of your friends and family know where they can get them (and feel free to Tweet or blog about them and our book too).
Why meditate on Sounds and Thoughts?
We are immersed in a soundscape of enormous depth and variety. Just take a moment to listen. What can you hear? At first you might sense a general pulsating, all-encompassing hubbub of noise. You might be able to pick out individual sounds. You might recognise a friendly voice, a radio elsewhere in the building, a door slamming, cars hissing past, a siren in the distance, the hum of air conditioning, an aircraft overhead, tinkling music. The list is endless. Even when you’re in a quiet room, you can still pick up muffled sounds. It might be your breath as it moves through your nostrils, or the creaking of the floor or a heating system. Even silence contains sounds.
This constantly fluxing soundscape is just like your thought stream.
It’s never still or silent. Our environment fluxes constantly like the waves on the sea and the wind in the trees.
The Sounds and Thoughts meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere. Both can seem random and we have no control over their arising. Both are enormously potent and carry immense momentum. They trigger powerful emotions that can easily run away with us.
Thoughts come as if from nowhere. Just as the ear is the organ that receives sounds, the mind is the organ that receives thoughts. Just as it is difficult to hear the raw sounds without activating a corresponding concept in the mind, such as ‘car’, ‘voice’ or ‘central heating’, so the flicker of any thought activates a network of associations. Before we know it, the mind has leaped and bound into a past that we had long since forgotten or a future that’s been entirely dreamed up and has little basis in reality. We might start to feel angry, sad, anxious, stressed or bitter – just because a thought triggered an avalanche of associations.
The Sounds and Thoughts meditation helps you to discover this for yourself. It also helps you to discover – at the deepest of levels – that you can relate to unsettling thoughts in the same way that you relate to sounds. Your thoughts can be likened to a radio that’s been left on in the background. You can listen – or rather observe – but you need not elaborate on what you receive or act on what you feel. You don’t usually feel the need to think or behave in a way that a voice on a radio tells you to, so why should you blindly assume that your thoughts portray an unerringly accurate picture of the world? Your thoughts are thoughts. They are your servants. No matter how loud they shout, they are not your master, giving orders that have to be obeyed. This realisation gives you immense freedom; it takes you off a hair trigger and gives you the space to take more skilful decisions – decisions that can be made with your mind when it’s in full awareness.
There are two key elements to the Sounds and Thoughts meditation – they are receiving and noticing.
We receive sounds as they come and go. We see the body as if it were a living microphone that indiscriminately receives sounds as vibrations in the air. We tune in to the raw sensations of each sound with its own volume, tone, pitch, pattern and duration. In the same way, we move from receiving sounds to ‘receiving’ thoughts and any associated emotions they carry – seeing the very moment they appear, seeing how long they hang around and the moment when they dissolve.
We notice the layers of meaning that we add to the experience of sounds. We may find that we habitually label them, pursuing those we like or rejecting those we dislike. We see if we can notice this as soon as we become aware that we are doing it and then return to simply receiving the sounds. In the same way, we notice thoughts and feelings and remain fully alive to the way in which they create associations and stories, and how easily we get sucked into their drama.
Sounds and Thoughts Meditation
Although it’s best to follow the guidance on the downloadable track while actually carrying out the meditation, you’ll find that reading through the details of the following meditation will help enormously. Please try and remember to not get hung up on the specifics; as we’ve said, the spirit is more important than the detail.
Settling with breath and body
Find a sitting position, in which the spine can be self-supporting, with your back straight but not stiff.
1. Sit as described and with your shoulders relaxed, head and neck balanced and chin tucked slightly in.
2. Bring your attention to the movements of the breath in the body for a few minutes, until you feel reasonably settled. Then expand your attention to take in the body as a whole, as if the whole body were breathing, helping you to be aware of all the sensations in the interior landscape of the body.
3. Spend a few minutes practising mindfulness of the breath and body in this way, remembering that in the practice that follows you can always come back to the breath and body to anchor yourself if your mind becomes too distracted or over-whelmed.
4. Now, when you are ready, allow the focus of your attention to shift from sensations in the body to hearing – open to sounds as they arise.
5. There is no need to go searching for sounds or listening out for particular sounds. Instead, as best you can, simply remain open, so that you are receptive to awareness of sounds from all directions as they arise – sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below. In this way, you are opening to the whole space of sound around you: the ‘soundscape’. Perhaps notice how the obvious sounds can easily crowd out the more subtle ones; noticing any spaces between sounds – moments of relative quiet.
6. As best you can, be aware of sounds simply as sounds, as raw sensations. Notice the tendency we all have to label sounds as soon as they are received (car, train, voice, air conditioning, radio), and see if it is possible simply to notice this labelling and then refocus, beyond and below the label, on the raw sensations of the sounds themselves (including the sounds within sounds).
7. You may find that you are thinking about the sounds. See if it is possible to reconnect with direct awareness of their sensory qualities (patterns of pitch, timbre, loudness and duration), rather than their meanings, implications or stories about them.
8. Whenever you notice that your awareness is no longer focused on sounds, gently acknowledge where the mind has moved to and then retune the attention back to sounds as they arise and pass away from moment to moment.
9.Then, after you have been focusing on sounds for four or five minutes, let go of your awareness of sounds.
10. Now shift your focus of attention so that your thoughts are centre-stage in awareness – seeing them, as best you can, as events in the mind.
11. Just as with sounds, where you were noticing their arising, lingering and passing away, so now, as best you can, attend to thoughts that arise in the mind, noticing when they arise, seeing as they linger in the space of the mind (like clouds moving across the sky of the mind). Eventually, see if you can detect the moment when they dissolve.
12. There is no need to try to make thoughts come or go. In the same way that you related to the arising and passing away of sounds, just let thoughts come and go on their own.
13. Just as clouds moving across a vast spacious sky are sometimes dark and stormy, sometimes light and fluffy, so thoughts take different forms. Sometimes clouds fill the entire sky. Sometimes they clear out completely, leaving the sky cloudless.
14. Alternatively, you could pay attention to thoughts in the mind in the same way that you would if the thoughts were projected on the screen at the cinema – you sit, watching, waiting for a thought or image to arise. When it does, you attend to it, so long as it is there ‘on the screen’, and then you let it go as it passes away. Notice when you get drawn into the drama, finding yourself up there on the screen. When you become aware of this, congratulate yourself for noticing, then return to your seat and wait patiently for the next sequence of thoughts to arise, as they surely will.
15. If any thoughts bring with them intense feelings or emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, as best you can, note their ‘emotional charge’ and intensity and let them be as they already are.
16. Remember, that if at any time you feel that your mind has become unfocused and scattered, or it keeps getting repeatedly drawn into the story created by your thinking, see if it is possible to come back to the breath and a sense of the body as a whole, sitting and breathing, and use this focus to anchor and stabilise your awareness back in the present moment.
If you find the Sounds and Thoughts meditation useful, then please tell your family and friends where they can download it from. Feel free to blog or Tweet about it too. It’s a powerful meditation tailor made for our frantic world and we want as many people as possible to benefit from it.
If you’ve found it especially useful, or are feeling anxious, stressed, exhausted, unhappy or depressed, then it might be worth doing the full eight week course detailed in the book Mindfulness. This book is now the recommended text for the Oxford University Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Course. And remember that Mindfulness is also a great ‘vaccination’ to many of the stresses and strains of our increasingly frantic world.