In part 1 of this series, I defined the term meditation object and discussed why we might choose a single object to practice meditation with. I suggest reading that post before this one if you haven’t read it already.
Breath is a very helpful mindfulness object, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Sound is also a lovely training object. Because we can usually do little to control sound in our environment, practicing awareness of sound helps us cultivate that all-important attitude of receptivity in mindfulness practice: just receiving what’s happening without judgment or interference. Sound, especially when practiced outside, can also connect us to the vast open space of awareness and wise view (AKA compassionate wisdom). There’s something about receiving the big, multi-textured, omni-directional world of sounds that can click us into a mental frame of relaxation, receptivity, interest and awe. We can also start to clearly see the difference between the sense activity (hearing the sound) and how our minds respond to sound—how it rushes to identify the source & location, has a liking it/disliking opinion about it. We might catch a glimpse of craving in the impulse to change or fix sounds that the mind finds unpleasant, and clinging in the subsequent planning to do something about it.
These flashes of clear seeing, recognizing how our minds respond to life, is the information we need to free ourselves from those habits of mind that are causing us unhappiness and stress. So you can see that practicing with a single object does so much more than simply train our attention. It is with our trained attention that we see clearly exactly how we create our mental suffering!
When to use sound instead of breath:
- If the breath is an uncomfortable object, either emotionally or physically
- If you find yourself habitually controlling/interfering with the breath
- When you feel contracted, to bring in more spaciousness
- Because you like practicing with sound; you’re interested in sound. Practicing with pleasant objects makes us want to practice more!
When not to use sound:
- When you’re already a bit too “spacious” – as in spacey, ungrounded, disembodied
- When you’re feeling strain (e.g., pressure in your head or eye area) from “trying too hard” or other forms of mental stress and strain. Better to relax and shift attention down into the body, on your breath or other sensations.
Try practicing with sound and see how it goes for you. You might mix it up during a single practice period: start with sound, and then as your body and mind relax, shift to the breath or other body sensations, or vice versa. You might begin with sound and then shift to choiceless awareness. Experiment, and have fun! The learning will take care of itself.
The next post in this series will discuss using body sensations as a meditation object.
I use sound as an object. Since I started with Vipassana and was told to start by following my breath, I did that … and after a retreat or two: sound started arising A LOT (and the basic Vipassana instruction is that if something arises that is more prominent than your breath, attend to it). I am one of those, and I believe many are, that can hear artifacts (perhaps blood flow near the ear) of their own heartbeat if they attend to it. So that is mostly what I meditate to. So far I’ve done over 100 days in retreats (mostly Mahasi style at a place in San Jose) and almost all of it was sound. They do still ask me to start with my breath when I’m there (or actually the sensation of the belly responding to breath). Anyway, Ajahn Amaro tuned me into this, and it is apparently the favored object of his senior Ajahn Sumedo (who publish a book entitled The Sound of Silence). I also heard a talk he gave we he bragged that he was less sensitive to the sound of leaf blowers than other monks who used different objects (as you said: ” practicing awareness of sound helps us cultivate that all-important attitude of receptivity in mindfulness practice”.
Paul, thanks for your helpful comment. I’m a fan of Amaro and Sumedho and highly recommend Sumedho’s book Sound of Silence. For him, it appears that sound is a doorway to resting in open awareness, or “presence” as some call it: the best vantage point from which to observe the goings-on of the mind, release clinging and uncover the heart of wisdom. Thank you for reading the post, and for sharing your thoughts!