Sounds All Around (Teaching Mindfulness to Youth Pt. 2)
January 26, 2010
“The obstacle is the path.” ~ Zen proverb
This well known old Zen riddle becomes sparklingly clear when teaching mindfulness to youth. Ask young people to sit still and pay attention to what is happening and they will tell you all kinds of reasons why their minds get distracted. “I was thinking about homework.” Or, “I could not pay attention because of the kids yelling outside.” In this case, what seem like distractions are exactly what we are looking for! What is your attention on? What is your mind engaged in? By simply noticing, we build our awareness. We become mindful of our own mental processes.
There are common misconceptions that meditation is about “shutting out” the world and “turning off” the mind. While it is true that dedicated practice can reveal a certain spaciousness and emptiness of mind, the beginning phases of meditation are all about becoming aware of what is happening in the mind, without interfering. One of my teachers, Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche III, instructs us to use distractions as a buffer for the mind. We can let our mind “bounce” off the distractions and come back to center. So, for instance, the sounds we hear while meditating can actually help us stay aware.
The following simple technique utilizes “distractions” to help youth learn to be mindful.
1. Find a comfortable position. Lying down or sitting cross-legged works fine. If lying down, find a symmetrical position on the back. Sitting against a wall works well, too. In the beginning, strive to be comfortable. A more formal sitting posture can be adopted as the practice develops.
2. Close the eyes or gaze forward with soft eyes. If practicing with open eyes, the gaze is mellow, not a tight focus on one object, but looking in a general direction without staring. Let the eyes settle without being too rigid. If the eyes tend to wander a lot, choose a smaller scope of view. Bring the gaze in closer, on the floor about a foot in front of the body.
3. Once the body position and focus are established, turn the attention to listening. Listen to the sounds happening outside of the room first. When you hear a sound, notice what it is and label the sound. If you hear the sound of a truck passing by, mentally note the sound as “truck.” Keep listening as the sound fades, then allow the mind to move to the next sound as it comes. Make mental notes of all the sounds you hear. Try this for 3-4 minutes.
4. Now, listen for sounds closer to you, in the room. If the ceiling creaks, mentally say “creak,” then allow the mind to hear other sounds. Listen in this way for about 3 minutes.
5. Finally, listen to the sounds within your own body. If you notice the sound of your stomach growling, mentally note “stomach” and then listen again. Listen to the whole body for a minute, then try listening to the breathe alone for a minute.
6. Now, come back to the sounds in the room. Enjoy 5 deep breathes as you bring your awareness back to the space around you.
*Throughout this exercise, if you notice that your mind has wandered into thoughts, simply bring your mind back to listening. If you notice your mind has wandered, that is great! You are being mindful of your awareness. Each time you guide your mind back to listening, you are training your mind to be, well, mindful.
*Another great teacher I’ve had the good fortune to study with, Sharon Salzberg, instructs us to “let the sounds wash through the body like a wind or storm passing through.” We don’t have to hold on to the sounds, we can simply hear them.
After practicing the exercise, ask youth to name the sounds they heard outside of the room, inside of the room, and within the body. They’ll get a kick out of how many sounds they heard in common and also find it interesting how many sounds they may have missed.
Try this exercise as a way to focus the mind before a test or homework session.