Silence The song of the cicadas Penetrates the rocks (Matsuo Basho)
Tuning Out, Tuning In - Finding Peace in a Noisy World
In modern times it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find quiet spaces devoid of human noise, and studies now suggest that natural silence is one of the most endangered resources on our planet today.
Most of us couldn’t miss the peace and stillness that fell upon the earth during the first lockdown in March 2020. The simple joy we experienced as we took a deep breath and relaxed into the uninterrupted sounds of the birds chirping, the flow of the river and the rustle of leaves amongst the trees, making most of us realize actually how noisy our lives have become.
A combination of growing population numbers, together with many having become accustomed to a constant level of noise accompanying their day through mobile phones, music, televisions, use of transport and the hum of electrical and mechanical appliances, it can be hard to tune out the hubbub and rest into the peace of a quiet natural space.
But noise isn’t only annoying, it can increase our blood pressure, interfere with our concentration and affect our sleep, all leading to unnecessary stress and a host of health problems. Researchers at Brighton & Sussex Medical School investigated the connection between the brain, body and background noises, to see what happened in peoples brains when they were exposed to a variety of sounds, both natural and manmade. Results showed that when listening to natural sounds, cognitive test results improved, their attention focused outwards rather than in, the functioning of the body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) decreased, and their parasympathetic system (rest and recover) increased, indicating overall better mental clarity and relaxation in a natural soundscape, compared to that of a manmade one.
If there was a natural sound that you could preserve forever, what might it be?
Natural sounds provide an important link to our environment and ourselves. Taking ourselves into a woodland or forest, we can begin to learn again to listen to the landscape we are naturally built to hear.
Tuning out the incessant chatter and thoughts in our heads can be hard, and it’s often when we are still and quiet that the internal noises ramp up, making it difficult to quieten them down and tune in to the sounds around you.
The following meditation is a simple practice for tuning into the sounds around you:
Find a quiet spot in nature either close to home or in your garden . Sit or stand depending on your preference, and then gently close your eyes to help you hear more intensely.
Allow yourself sometime to relax, notice and soften any tension you may be holding in your body by doing a short body scan.
Focus on your breath and concentrate on breathing deeply. If unwanted thoughts creep in, just try to allow these to float away with each out breath, gently letting go.
Begin to listen in all directions as the chatter in your head quietens down, focus your attention outwards to the noises you can hear around you.
Immerse yourself in the soundscape, notice the various sounds surrounding you without judgement or too much thought, just listen, relax and enjoy.
Below is a short audio guide to the above meditation which you are welcome to download
After your meditation, you may like to reflect on the following:
Which sounds particularly drew your attention?
How many manmade sounds could still be heard?
Which sounds do you find most relaxing?
Were you able to decipher layers of sound, from gentle breezes through to noisy birds for example?
Mid-winter peonies And a distant plover singing, Did I hear a cuckoo In the snow? (Matsuo Basho)
With the ongoing loss of quiet natural spaces, a project to record and archive hundreds of natural sounds was introduced in Japan, one of the noisiest recorded countries in modern times. ‘The Soundscape Project’ developed by the Japanese Ministry of Environment, found that of all the sounds collated through the project, the forest environment was one of the most peaceful and meditative soundscapes to be found anywhere in the world. From the rustle of wind passing through trees to the gentle trickle of streams or crunch of leaf litter on the ground, when you are free from human noise, you have the perfect opportunity to tune into the sounds around you that only nature can provide.
Japanese culture reflects a deep relationship to the natural world from house and garden design to annual festivals and the use of language. In this respect, the Japanese use many onomatopoeic words for the sounds found in nature, some of which I’ve included below:
saku saku – the crunching of snow underfoot goro goro – the rumble of thunder gasa gasa – rustling of branches swaying in the wind za za – sound of heavy rain shito shito – sound of light rain kasa kasa – the light sound of leaves underfoot
Why not create your own onomatopoeic words for what you hear whilst out in nature?
What you’ll need: Journal or notebook, pen, pencils or crayons
This simple activity fits nicely alongside Jess’s ‘Mapping your Soundscape’ from last months wellbeing activities.
Take yourself out on a walk to somewhere in nature (or use your garden if you prefer), and following the above meditation bring yourself into the space, tuning into your breath and then the subsequent sounds around you.
Once relaxed, begin to single out particular sounds permeating your soundscape.
Without too much thought, see what sounds fall from your mouth in response to what you hear, and jot the letters/words down in your notebook.
Add to your sounds with visuals too as in Jess’s activity, how might they translate visually in terms of their movement and flow, get as creative as you can and really feel into the sounds around you.
- Why not try exploring soundscapes during different parts of the day, how do early morning sounds compare to the evening?
- How are sounds affected by the seasons, what do you notice differently from a winter soundscape to a summer one?
- Why not venture out in different weathers too, is a windy day less relaxing to listen to than a rainy one, and how is the sound of the landscape affected on a hot day in comparison to a cold day? - Listen to your footsteps navigating different landscapes, from a woodland floor, to muddy puddles or frosted grass, what sounds do your feet create?
Below I've recorded some of the soundscapes around me when out on my daily walks. Can you isolate the different sounds within these and identify what they might be? Notice how your mind responds to these, and perhaps reflect on how sounds may affect your thought stream and subsequently your feelings and emotions...
Do the sounds make you smile, feel happy, feel puzzled or inquisitive?