Silence Lets Your Mind Just Be Free to Run Around

"I think that the reason they want to have music in a funeral home is that the silence lets our mind just be free to run around with whatever thoughts that we have. And if somebody's in a funeral home, they're very likely to be having sad thoughts."

~ David Young, from "It's The Perfect Music For A Funeral," by Brent Baughman, All Things Considered, Sep. 9, 2012

This observation from the arranger of funeral home music provides an excellent insight into the relationship between listening to external and internal sounds. It's related to one significant reason why so many people struggle with establishing a formal meditation practice. 

The verbal aspect of the thinking process is intimately related to hearing sounds in the immediate environment. Our attentional budget is small. We can only allocate a small amount of attention at any particular moment. When we are spending it on one sensory component, there's little left over to spend on others.

Experiment with this notion. Take a few seconds to selectively notice the sounds around you right now. You will discover some combination of sounds and silence.

Now turn this same investigation inward to see if you can detect that mental voice that helps you craft to do lists, compose email messages, and plan out your next contribution to a conversation.

Every few seconds, let your attention switch between these two aspects of listening.

At the beginning of each interval of noticing, try to be as clear as possible regarding whether your attention in focused out or in.

During each interval, try to listen without intentionally trying to influence or understand it's meaning or source. The meaning and the source are likely to come through, but see what happens when you let that information remain in the background -- secondary to the pure listening itself. 

Explore the relationship between these two modes of listening:

  • Can you detect any similarity?
  • Can you detect any differences?
  • What is the experience like when there is only silence present?
  • What happens to the internal activity of sound when your attention is drawn outward?
  • What happens to the external activity of sound when you attention is drawn inward
  • What happens when you try to listen both outwardly and inwardly at the same time?  

It's natural to assume that a relatively silent environment will foster peace and relaxation. In reality, however, external silence can open a door for verbal thinking to come inside and play. The challenge is complicated when there are unpleasant emotional flavors (anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment) in the body that are influencing the mind to respond with verbal and visual thinking.

What makes this situation a problem? 

Expecting the mind not to play when the conditions are perfect for playing.

What makes this situation a potentially beneficial? 

Considering it to be an opportunity for becoming more intimately familiar with the thinking process. Being curious about how the mind works, how it responds to the external environment, and how it reacts to emotional messages being internally expressed by the body's emotional and protective instincts. Pay attention to it without needing it to behave differently

How can we better incorporate the reality of verbal thinking into our attentional fitness routine? 

By being as clear as possible about the components of sensory experience that you are exploring and by allowing sensory activities that fall outside of this emphasis to operate in the background of your awareness without direct interference.

If you're specifically working with external sound activity, then do your best to let internal sound activity, external sight, internal sight, physical sensations, and emotional sensations play out in the background. 

There is no need to insist that they not be there. When you realize that they have moved from the background into the foreground of your attention during the period of practice, gently bring your attention back to listening to the sounds around you. Each return to the selected component is a repetition of effort that strengthens your general ability to concentrate. Realizing that you're attending to something you've temporarily defined as a distraction means you are exercising effectively. It does not mean you are a failure. It means you are human and you have a nervous system. It also means you are developing the ability to recognize when your attention wanders off from its current path. Bringing it back on track gently is critical because you will need to redirect it in this way millions of times.   

Is there an analogy for this from the world of physical fitness? 

When performing a bench press, your hand position matters depending on the muscle groups you are trying to strengthen. A wide position will work the chest while a more narrow position will work the shoulders. Which one is better? It depends on which muscles you are hoping to target during a specific period of practice.

Why does any of this matter?

Many people abandon a mindfulness practice because they are convinced they are doing it incorrectly. They say, "I just can't turn off my thoughts." They take the natural activities of the mind and body as evidence that they lack the needed capacity for developing concentration, clarity, and equanimity.

Imagine people giving up on physical exercise when they notice the heart beating faster, the lungs working harder, the muscles begining to burn or fatigue, and the skin producing sweat in response to their efforts.  

Strengthening the skills of attention and developing a direct awareness of the thinking process requires a lot of consistent practice, but the results can be profound. The nervous system can develop a typically untapped capacity for attentional fitness. The mind and body can come to feel more at home with noise, silence, and confusion. We can learn to untangle the strands of sadness that we hope to drown out with easy listening arrangements. And by allowing ourselves to experience our unpleasant thoughts and feelings we become better able to experience the pleasant ones as well.