Sound Meditation and the Power of Music

In previous posts I have discussed the role of music as a pathway to mindfulness focussing on the features that music and meditation have in common such as inner harmony, patience and deep listening.  Alexandre Tannous has researched the role of music in therapy, in different cultures and philosophical perspectives.  In a recent presentation for The Being & Doing Summit, he emphasised the power of music to heal, express emotion and deepen our awareness.  He provides a range of sound meditations through his album, Sound Submersion – Volume 1, which incorporates musical instruments, such as the Tibetan Singing Bowl, that produce overtones.

Sound therapy

Sound therapy uses sonar frequencies to reignite and re-balance the energy frequency in the body.  It can lead to healing and deep calm by enabling people to use the body’s natural healing powers to promote health and inner harmony.  The applications of sound therapy are numerous, including its use with dementia and Alzheimer patients to stimulate memory recall.  A social worker, Dan Cohen, discovered the power of music, aligned to personal preference, to help Alzheimer patients to access memories that have been locked away and normally inaccessible to them.  The story of this amazing research was captured in the film, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.  Sound therapy has also been used very effectively with seriously wounded veterans who can recapture or learn the skill of playing a musical instrument and discover a way to express their thoughts and feelings through music.

As an ethnomusicologist, Alexandre has travelled to over 40 countries to study music in different cultural and social settings.  While he acknowledges that sound therapy has had a major resurgence in recent times, he maintains that it is an ancient practice, especially in Eastern philosophies.  Alexandre explains that sound therapy often involves overtones, sound freqencies over and above a fundamental frequency, that we rarely hear because we are unaware of them and because the fundamental frequency is so strong that it dominates our hearing.  Alexandre’s music compositions focus on “overtone-emitting” musical instruments such as the Thai Gong employed in Thai and Burmese temples.

Sound and mindfulness

Alexandra’s audio recordings provide the basis for sound meditations using different instruments. He identifies multiple benefits of sound meditation based on his extensive research over many years.  Among the benefits are the development of inner harmony and equanimity, “ability to access and release trauma“, capacity to break habituated behaviour patterns that are unproductive, enhancement of self-awareness, development of higher levels of consciousness and stimulation of empathy and compassionate action.  In the final analysis, sound therapy builds our awareness muscle through enhancing our concentration, listening and focusing skills.

As with other forms of meditation, there will always be intrusive thoughts. Alexandre suggests that we just let them pass, not entertain them and return to our focus on the music.  Sound is truly transformative and if we adopt a deep listening posture during our sound meditation, it can improve our mental health and overall well-being.

Reflection

We often overlook the power of sound to deepen our consciousness and heal our mind and body.  As we grow in mindfulness through sound meditation, we can enrich our lives in multiple ways, not the least of these is enhancing our self-awareness and awareness of others.  Through sound meditation, we can build the capacity to deal with the waves of life – the ups and downs of everyday existence.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Tuning Into Sound

Diana Winston provided a meditation podcast on the topic, Listening to Sound, as part of the weekly offering by MARC (Mindful Awareness Research Center, UCLA).  Diana’s main theme was that there are times when sound “intrudes” into our meditation practice and we have a choice in how we respond.  We can become agitated and irritated or we can use the sound as the focus of our meditation.  She suggested that in taking the latter path, we are building our capacity to deal with the sounds and other unpleasant experiences that ‘intrude” in our daily life.

I can relate to this situation as I was recently meditating when workmen began hammering and sawing in the house next to mine.  I found I was really annoyed and resented this intrusion into my quiet time and solitude.  It had taken some discipline that morning to undertake my meditation in the first place.  My reaction at the time was to abandon my meditation – my level of annoyance impeded my capacity to focus.  Often our negative response in these situations is exacerbated by the expectations that we bring to our meditation, such as the expectation of absolute quiet.

Diana makes the point, though, that mindfulness “is not about seclusion” – it is about being with what is in the moment, whatever we are faced with.  The sound intrusion could be traffic noise, house renovations or heavy earth moving equipment.   As Diana observes, there is an alternative response other than our habituated flight or fight response.  We can focus on the sound and make that the object of our meditation.  She offered a hearing meditation in her podcast to build this capacity to deal with intrusive sounds and other “intrusions” in our life – experiences that clash with our expectations.

A hearing meditation – tuning into sound

The hearing meditation begins with the normal practice of becoming grounded and focused.   Diana then takes you through several steps that progressively build your awareness muscle:

  1. Focus your attention on the sounds in the room, the room tone, and include external sounds that may be penetrating your room space.  Here it is important to avoid pursuing what Diana calls “your story” about the sound – your interpretation of the nature of the sound, your emotional labelling of the sound as good or bad or your recollection of similar sounds in your prior experience.  The challenge is to just focus on the sound itself – tuning into it and the sensation of hearing it.
  2. Turn your focus now to some significant sensation in your body – it could be the groundedness of your feet on the floor or the energy and warmth flowing through your fingers or your feet.
  3. Your focus now switches to your breathing – to a part of the body where you can experience the act of breathing such as your abdomen, chest or nostrils.  Notice the “in” and “out” breath and the effect on your body with the rising or falling of your abdomen/chest or the flow of air through your nostrils.
  4. Finally, choose an anchor – the sound, the bodily sensation or the breath – to sustain the meditation over the remainder of your meditation session.  If you find the sound disturbing, take a few deep breaths and let out the sense of irritation – just let it be and return to your focus on your anchor.  Intruding thoughts and feelings are “part and parcel” of meditative practice, even for experienced meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices and hearing meditation, we can progressively build our capacity to deal with the intrusions in our daily life that challenge our expectations.  The hearing meditation itself strengthens our awareness muscle and builds our resilience in the face of setbacks. 

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Fearlessly Tackling Your Meaningful Work

In previous posts, I have explored the nature of procrastination, the need to bring the self-stories above the line and the importance of building the awareness muscle to be able to identify and challenge our self-defeating thoughts.  Leo Babauta takes this discussion a step further by arguing that we need to be fearless in the pursuit of our meaningful work – pursuing the work that is our life purpose despite our reservations, uncertainties and discomfort.  To fearlessly tackle our meaningful work takes bravery (facing pain without fear) and courage (facing pain despite the presence of fear).

Identifying your rationalisations

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, argues that to pursue your life purpose represented by meaningful work, you need to face up to the rationalizations that your brain dreams up (a Zen Habits blog post).  He maintains that these rationalizations are really lies that your fearful brain invents to discourage you from taking creative action that is breaking new ground, uncertain in outcome and potentially creating discomfort for you.  The discomfort can take the form of psychological pain (e.g. embarrassment, shame, self-doubt) or physical pain (e.g. headache, bodily tension).   In discussing the numerous rationalization that your mind could think up, Leo suggests potential counters to the mind’s arguments – all of which are enlightening in themselves as they challenge your core self-beliefs.  His blog post serves as a comprehensive checklist to explore your own rationalizations.

Dealing with rationalizations

In his blog post, Leo provides a range of strategies that you can use to deal with the rationalizations that get in the road of you pursuing your meaningful work:

  • Write down your rationalizations (you can use Leo’s checklist as a catalyst) and come up with contrary arguments based on the evidence of your past experiences
  • Treat the rationalization for what they are – invented lies driven by fear and designed to stave off pain and/or discomfort.  Stop believing that they are real and will inevitably eventuate.
  • Avoid your brain’s attempt to negotiate its way out of starting, e.g. putting off the starting time because it is inconvenient or too soon.
  • START– however small a step.  Movement in the right direction overcomes inertia and creates a momentum.  Leo suggests that you practice “moving towards [not away from] what you resist”
  • Become aware that as you practise, movement towards your goal becomes easier – you will experience less resistance and begin to overcome your rationalizations through evidence-based achievement, e.g. the new belief, “I can do this task!”  Leo maintains that there are unexpected rewards for dealing with uncertainty.
  • Remind yourself of your intention – why this meaningful work is important to you.

The self-harm in rationalizations

Disconnection from meaningful work has been identified by Johann Hari as a key factor in the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s western world.  Our brains, through rationalizations, are creating self-harm by keeping us from connecting with what is meaningful to us – what gives purpose to our lives.  Leo is so committed to helping us move beyond fear and rationalizations, that he has created a significant training program, Fearless Purpose: Training with the Uncertainty & Anxiety of Your Meaningful Work, to help people realise their meaningful work, whether that is writing a book, starting a community organisation, beginning a new, and purposeful career or undertaking any other creative endeavour that we may be fearful about.  The program is comprehensive and includes an e-book, meditations, videos and a support community.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of the rationalizations that our brain thinks up to stop us from pursuing what we know, deep down, to be our real, meaningful work – pursuits that help us to realise our life purpose.  Mindfulness can also help us to challenge these mental barriers and free ourselves to act with courage in the face of uncertainty.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness

In previous posts I have suggested that to sustain the practice of mindfulness you need to start small. Starting small can even involve as little as one mindful breath at a time. Chade-Meng Tan recommends that you start with less than you imagine is possible – so that you experience a sense of success early. I have also discussed the defences that we employ when trying to sustain self-compassion meditation.

Strategies for sustaining mindfulness practice

Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers additional strategies for maintaining your practice of mindfulness:

  • Practice daily – however short the time you have available. This establishes a momentum and develops a habit.
  • Find somewhere conducive to meditation or other mindfulness practice. Noise and activity in the background can be very distracting and makes silence and focus very difficult. Make it easier for yourself by finding a quiet place and time for your practice.
  • Be conscious of your posture – ensure you begin in a relaxed position that you can revisit daily. This enables your mind to capture the positive bodily sensations associated with your practice.
  • Avoid self-judgment – do not criticise yourself if your mind wanders or if you are unable to sustain lengthy mindfulness practice. The process of bringing your attention back to your focus following a distraction actually builds your “awareness muscle“.
  • Engage your body – bringing your attention to your body and the tensions within can help to ground you and clear away your thoughts. If bodily tension is regularly impacting your ability to sustain your practice, a full body scan can be helpful.
  • Use an anchor to enable you to drop into the present moment easily. The anchor can be anything that enables you to capture the positive sensation of your mindfulness practice. I use the process of joining my fingertips from one hand to those on my other hand. This tends to generate energy and a tingling feeling in my hands. It is something I can access anywhere at any time during the day – whether sitting at my desk, standing, travelling in the train or attending a meeting. Tara offers a list of useful anchors that you can explore for your own use.
  • Persistence is critical – do not give up because the positive gains are often just around the corner. Practice becomes easier over time if you persist and the gains grow exponentially.
  • Deepen your ability to be present in the moment. Tara suggests that a key question to ask is, “What is happening inside me now – can I treat this with acceptance?”. As a general principle, supplementing your standard, daily mindfulness practice with other forms of mindfulness throughout the day can add to the benefits you experience and serve to reinforce your daily practice. For example, in an earlier post I discussed some ways to be more mindful at work. Practice at home, supplemented by mindful practices at work, can be mutually reinforcing.
  • Employ the power of positive emotions – you can practice loving-kindness meditation or gratitude meditation to help you deal with difficult emotions experienced during your practice of mindfulness.

As we grow in mindfulness through sustained, daily practice we can enhance our inner awareness and increase the benefits that accrue from being in the present moment in a positive, constructive and peaceful way.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Hasty Judgments

Daniel Kahneman highlighted the tendency to develop hasty judgements in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel, Nobel prize winner in economics, explains that most often we make hasty, automatic and intuitive judgments that are helpful in crisis times but can rupture relationships. He describes this “fast thinking” as System 1 thinking. In contrast, “slow thinking” (System 2 thinking) is more considered, reflective, deliberative and analytical. Fast thinking is resource efficient for the brain, taking less time and brain power. However, as neuroscientist Gina Rippon points out, these “pervasive shortcuts” are riddled with stereotypical thinking, half-truths, myths and untruths.

Overcoming hasty judgments

Mindfulness coach, Brian Shiers, highlights the fact that one of the problems with System 1 thinking is that we tend to have blind faith in our perception, however ill-informed or inadequate it is. We do not subject it to scrutiny or challenge because such activity would be time consuming in our time-poor world. The increasing pace of life and our heightened reactivity make it more likely that we will resort to the time efficient System 1 thinking. We end up seeing the world and individuals through the veil of our biases and prejudices.

Brian Shiers suggests that we can overcome this tendency to make hasty judgments, by developing “meta-attention” – an outcome of mindfulness which heightens the depth and “granularity” of our inner awareness. He suggests that to truly understand other people we first need to get in touch with our System 1 thinking which hastily boxes them into one of more of our easy-to-use stereotypes. He offers a meditation to look inside our self to observe our thinking and how it shapes our judgments about individuals.

Developing “meta attention”

In a MARC guided meditation podcast, Brian leads us in a meditation designed to increase our attention and power of concentration. The meditation is grounded in our body through a focus on the breath. He suggests that it is important during this meditation to avoid a tendency to perfectionism and to ensure that we engage in observation of our “thought stream”, rather than analysis.

The guided meditation involves extended focus on our breathing, without trying to control our breath. As thoughts about another person appear during the meditation, we notice them and observe what they are saying about the individual – staying in observation mode, not reverting to analysis. As we capture these thoughts, we return to the focus on the breath.

Brain’s guided meditation builds inner awareness – helping us to get to know our self better and understand what thoughts are passing through our mind in relation to another person. At the mid-point, he suggests that we get in touch, too, with what is happening in our body – noticing any points of tension such as tightness in our fingers, arms, shoulders or legs.

As we increase our awareness of our thought processes, we begin to notice the accompanying feelings which Brian suggests we treat with “acceptance, curiosity and friendliness”. As the meditation comes to an end, we are invited to take some deep breaths and, on exhaling, let the thoughts and feelings pass through us into the open.

In one sense, this guided meditation is another form of building our “awareness muscle” but the approach here is to focus purely on being-with-our-breathing, not controlling it – unlike the fifty conscious breaths described in my previous post as a way to use the “Awareness-Focus Loop” to overcome procrastination.

As we grow in mindfulness by engaging in meditations designed to develop meta-attention, we can become more conscious of our thought stream and the automatic thoughts that shape our hasty judgments about people. Through this process, we can gain better control over our thoughts about others and adopt a more considered, understanding position while maintaining self-compassion.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.