Breath practice is a listening practice. We live in a visual culture, but we are part of a sonic community. You can close your eyes, but never your ears: hearing is just too precious for survival. There are animals who live and listen deep in the sea or underground with no need for eyes. Observe any one of them and it is sound that alerts them to danger. This is why the sense of hearing is linked to the sense of safety. You can hear when you have taken in all of the information and you are safe.
Open your ears and listen to the world. Listen holistically. Practice having an open ear and letting it all come in without evaluating or attempting to selectively focus. When only one piece is focused on, other aspects are suppressed. Know that we evolved as part of nature and our senses are perfectly attuned to it: we love the song of the birds because their melodies fall right within our auditory range. Acoustic ecologists have suggested that birdsong is the primary indicator of habitats supportive of human flourishing. The birds are not singing for our benefit but we hear it as musical. What gives life is pleasurable, harmonic: we can hear that it is safe.
“Quiet” is presence. It is not the absence of sound, but the absence of noise. The difference between sound and noise is a personal evaluation. You have some choice in how your perception of sonic vibrations translate into narrative.
Life is very loud and often erratic, especially for those of us participating in urban living. Consequently, we have developed techniques to turn down our innate listening abilities and have learned to selectively listen for specifics instead of listening to the whole orchestra that surrounds. There is a profound value to listening to another person. In order to show up for this aspect of communal living, we first need to learn to listen to ourselves, attune to our own sounds. By being alert to the presence of our own instrument, we can cultivate a sense of quiet that can hold sound, that can resonate.
At first, practice by attending to the feeling of breath while noticing the other vibrations that are occurring all around in the form of sounds. There is an orchestra always playing in a living environment. Nothing biological is silent. Listen to the fabric of sounds happening outside, and slowly train yourself to begin listening to the more intimate sounds, the personal orchestra that announces your presence: the private instruments strum the melody of the breath, pound the beating of the heart, and hum the harmony of the thoughts. Eventually, learn to stay with the symphony happening inside of you while encountering an other. This other has their own orchestra, and your contact may yield concertos when each person listens to the music of the other.
Headshot by James Giles