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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Mindful Listening in a Noisy World

The following is a guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking.

What happens to your thinking when you feel surrounded by noise? This is a particularly relevant question in schools today. The noise can be external—car horns, fire engines, people screaming in the halls outside your classroom. It can be your own internal voice, dictating what to do, or passing judgment on your character. It can be a combination of the two, as when you spend hours on social media or listening to news where there’s more yelling and attacking going on than listening and understanding. 

When you hear noise, you are not just hearing a sound you find unpleasant. You are hearing a sound with baggage. You are hearing dislike, resistance, or a threat.  It’s difficult to think when there’s noise because noise is a signal that your thinking is impeded or you feel under attack. And what’s attacking you is not necessarily someone external to you, but internal. Something is demanding attention, but it’s not simply the sound.

The same can happen when you meditate or practice mindfulness or simply want to focus on whatever you are doing. A noise can break your concentration. So, what can you do or help your students do? 

Before teaching mindfulness to students, always practice on your own. Be honest about what you know and don’t know. If you don’t feel comfortable with the practice, the students won’t feel comfortable practicing it with you.

When the World Is Too Noisy, What Can You Do?

*Think about what happens when you lose your concentration. Do you start yelling inside? Do you yell at whatever or whoever is making the sounds? Do you yell at yourself for not being better able to focus? 
*Instead of trying to focus harder or shut out the sound, simply take a breath and listen to whatever is there. Allow yourself to be listening, to be curious and open, even compassionate. 
*Listen less to the sound and more to your own response to the sound. By simply studying your response without any internal commentary or self-judgment, you give precedence to being present, moment-by-moment, in your life. Your mind quiets.

There are some sounds you are biologically attuned to be wary of, or pay attention to, loud sounds like a gunshot, or the cry of a baby. These can cause what biologists call a startle response, where your heart beats faster and you flinch or shut your eyes. Nevertheless, noise is not simply a quality of sound, but more a quality of response to a sound.  

The Buddhist monk and PhD in Biology, Mathieu Ricard, was the subject of several experiments to determine how meditation can change your brain and your response to the world. While meditating, experimenters set off a 115-decibel sound, the equivalent of a gun being shot in the room. Instead of the normal startle response, Ricard barely showed any response at all. He heard it, but it did not disturb him. The research showed that in order to maintain concentration when there are disturbing sounds, an open presence style of meditation (e. g. letting your mind be open, fluid, resting in the moment) worked better than one with a fixed-point (e. g. focusing on counting breaths or on an object like a stone or mountain).

When you practice mindfulness, try to find a quiet place. But if you hear a noise, take it as an opportunity. This is your chance to learn how to understand and let go of what distracts you. 

Practicing Awareness of Sounds and Silence

Simply sit up and close your eyes partly or fully. Place your attention on your awareness itself. Notice the quality of your awareness, if it’s clear or cloudy, steady or intermittent. 

If you hear a sound, notice if there is a rhythm to it and how you respond. Does your body tense or relax when the sound arises? Does it settle down when the noise settles?

If there’s tension, where is it? Around your forehead or mouth? Shoulders or stomach? Do any thoughts arise? Thoughts are mind being mind; sensations are a body being a body. If your mind drifts, notice that, too. Because you notice, you can learn. Simply allow the thoughts or sensations to arise and pass, and return your attention to awareness itself. Let whatever occurs be a song the moment sings for you. 

Is there a time when the sound is there, but not the noise? Or a moment of silence between the sounds? What do you feel when there is silence? Take a moment to appreciate how the sound highlights the silence, and the silence highlights the sound.

When you practice in this way, your mind shifts from fighting the sound to being open—from being jumpy or angry, to being calm, even joyful.

Mindful Listening Throughout the Day

You can also do this in your daily life, when something disturbs or distracts you from what you would rather be doing. Instead of getting lost in worry or anger:

Close your eyes for a moment, take two long breaths, and notice what is there, or whatever comes along with the sound. 

Simply breathe in and notice how you are responding to whatever is there for you. Notice any thoughts or patterns of thought passing through your mind. Notice if your breathing is getting faster or slower or if there is a silence between the breaths. 

Take a last, deep breath and return your attention to the world around you. Notice how you feel now.

Use this practice at home, when talking with your children or spouse or parents, or at school, with students or your principal. 


When you focus on your moment-by-moment response to whatever arises for you, you understand better how your mind works. Your ability to think is enhanced. You are better able to determine the meaning of whatever you hear. What before was a noise you could barely stand, is now a sound you can hear and evaluate. Instead of being angry at the world, you are more comfortable in it. 

When you openly study your own mind, openness becomes the quality of your thinking, and the world reveals itself with more clarity and depth.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

About the Author 

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner.  While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching


related posts: 

The Importance of 'Deep Listening' to Young People

Mindful Cell Phone Use, For Students and Teachers

Mindful Listening: Only If You Listen Can You Hear

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning