Relearning How To Listen

Life is amazingly noisy.

You are surrounded by sound pretty much everywhere you go.

Some of it’s awesome.

Your favorite tunes spinning on the iPod.
The voice of someone you really dig.
Giggling like a gooney bird at something funny.

Some of it sucks.

Horns honking in rush hour traffic.
Roofers bang-bang-banging away right next door.
Someone screaming at their kid in the checkout line.

And some of it you don’t even really notice.

The constant-and-kind-of-creepy hum of fluorescent lights.
The electronic-ey buzz of the computer monitor.
The steady stream of cars whooshing by outside your window.

Constant. Frakking. Stimulation.

Kooky pook be gone!

So, yeah, good luck getting away from sound.

It’s always there. Like one aural poke after another. No matter where you are.

And it’s enough to drive you bat shit crazy.

But you don’t go crazy.

You find ways to cope. And by cope I mean shut down.

You kind of have to in order not to turn into a stark raving kooky pook.

Because it’s not natural or healthy or even a little bit awesome to be constantly pelted with sound from every direction.

So you shut down and tune out so you can function. And you do it without even knowing you’re doing it.

It’s all about survival

We’re talkin’ survival mechanisms here people.

And yay for survival mechanisms.

I mean, they’re seriously useful.

But they can also suck. Because what might be ton of help in one super specific situation can create a hot mess everywhere else.

And that’s totally what happens when you tune out the ohmygod-they’re-everywhere sound-ey bits.

Because tuning out isn’t exactly the most selective survival strategy ever. It’s not like it just tunes out one thing.


It eventually tunes out everything.


So instead of just ignoring the buzz-ey monitor or the I-swear-this-steals-your-soul sound of the fluorescent bulb over your bonce, you end up shutting down in all kinds of ways.

And pretty soon you’re just… kind of… numb.
Switched off. On autopilot.

Sure, you can’t hear the roofers banging away.

But you also can’t hear the rhythm of your own life.

That pulse that keeps things movin’ and groovin’ and makes sure that you’ve always got a Big Gulp of awesomesauce within arm’s reach.

And, yeah, the totally-not-afraid-to-make-a-scene-in-the-store parent thing starts to sound a whole lot like the teacher from Charlie Brown – wahwahwah, wahwahwah.

But so does your own inner voice.

You know, the thing that acts like a GPS for your life. And helps you to steer clear of the clutter. And keeps you totally rooted in your own gorgeousness.

When you tune out the craptastic din of life, the gorgeous bits get fuzzy too. So fuzzy that, sometimes, you totally forget they’re there.

I have good news and bad news

The whole shutting-down-so-you-don’t-go-nuts thing?

Yeah, that’s the bad news.

The good news is that shutting down is totally optional. And totally reversible.

And the alternative doesn’t have to be bat shit crazy.

Most survival mechanisms, including this one, kick in more-or-less unconsciously. So the fix isn’t to fling the doors wide open to every various and sundry sound that’s around.

Oy. That would so suck.

The fix is to develop a more conscious relationship with sound.

This means relearning how to listen.

Because when you’re more conscious about sound, you have way more control over what you hear and when you hear it and how it affects you.

Which means that the survival mechanism doesn’t have to grab the wheel in a fit of panic.

It also means that all of the gorgeousness that got lost during a fit of ah-ooooogah!-aaooooogah!-batten-down-the-hatches starts coming back.

So it becomes way easier to find your groove.

And to pay attention to your gut instinct. Because you can, you know, actually hear it.

And to just generally be more plugged in to yourself and your life in a way that doesn’t suck.


Like riding a bike

Even if you’ve been tuning out forever, the cool thing about listening is that it’s just like riding a bike.

You never really forget how to listen.

And since you’re working on making your relationship with sound more conscious, it pretty much means that you’ll be doing this stuff on purpose.

Which makes the whole relearning part even easier.


And you don’t have to spend an hour meditating. Or high tail it to a retreat in the woods. Or swear off reality TV.

In the morning, before your day blows up with busy, just spend 30 seconds paying attention to the sounds around you.

Close your eyes. And just listen.

What do you hear in the room you’re in?
What about in other rooms of your house?
Can you hear anything outside?

You don’t have to be anywhere special. Or do anything special. Just listen to what’s happening around you.

Do the same thing at night, before you hit the hay.

And if you remember, take a couple of just-checking-out-the-sounds breaks when you’re at work. Or standing in line. Or watching TV.

You can do this anywhere.

All you’re doing is listening to the sounds happening in the place where you’re hanging out.

Consciously interacting with what’s there.

And the more that happens, the more you get hip to what you’re hearing, how it affects you and how to take care of yourself while being plopped in the middle of an always noisy world.

The other ninjarific thing that happens is that by listening more consciously to the sounds around you, you also end up listening more consciously to yourself at so many different levels. Which is a thousand kinds of awesome.

How does the noisy world affect you?
How do you manage the constant noise?
Let me know.

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14 Responses to Relearning How To Listen
  1. Tami
    November 20, 2009 | 12:09 pm

    Hi Fabeku-

    I’m super-sensitive to noise, and I’m definitely a person that needs their quiet time! I come from a VERY loud family, so I cherish those quiet moments. You’re right though, we do tend to de-sensitize ourselves to the background chatter and clatter, but I never realized that we could be creating walls that block out the good stuff, too. Really interesting…..

    Fall is my favorite time of year, but the one thing I like about Winter is finding a quiet place to get away from all the craziness. I love to taking short night-hikes in the woods by my Mom’s house in Winter- no crickets, hardly a single sound. It is so beautiful, and quiet, and just STILL. There is a lack of movement that is just so peaceful, and instantly centering.

    Thanks for another awesome blog post, lots to think about! =)


  2. Gina
    November 20, 2009 | 12:27 pm

    Writing this as I’m blasting the Cocteau Twins, “Crushed”… there’s so much to this… about how sound affects us. About how we listen.

    It’s a matter of integration, I think, like when I’m trying to work, or get lost in my own thoughts, and noise is going on around me. But, like at home, it’s the quality of noise… no, it’s more like the intention.

    There’s always something going on here.. lots of music playing, video games, interaction. I’m used to that. But there are some people in my house, that, often unconsciously, are trying to get my attention, even though they’re not speaking to me directly. That kind of noise I have trouble with. For obvious reasons.

    So, the way I have to solve that one is just give up competing and try to fulfill whomever is needing my attention at that moment. Or just give up. 🙂

    I’m also fortunate to live in a rural area, so the predominance of sounds, other than immediately around me, is more natural… birds, cows, wind, shotguns… 🙂 And one of my favorite things is to wake up in the middle of the night and just… listen.
    .-= Gina´s last blog ..Where’s Your Valve? =-.

  3. kat magenfdie
    November 20, 2009 | 2:34 pm

    I lived in a noisy city for many years – when we moved here to a quiet cove on a mountain in the smokies, I was finally able to know what quiet is – yet, it’s an un-silent silence–because of the nature sounds of critters and the creek – every so often we cars or people and it sounds so alien . . .
    .-= kat magenfdie´s last blog ..I’m back – my laptop is healed =-.

  4. chris zydel
    November 20, 2009 | 2:45 pm

    Hey Fabeku,

    Fab post… as always! I am another one of those sensitive flower type folks and I need to have a lot of quiet in my life. Otherwise I get all kinds of loony tunes crazy.

    I love it when I’m sitting in my studio while my students are painting and all I can hear are the little sounds that go along with putting a brush on paper. It’s all kinds of meditative and relaxing. When I’m home my husband and I are often off in our own respective spaces doing something creative, him making music with the headphones on, and me either writing or painting or napping and the quiet is just so delicious!!

    One of the things that drives me crazy is when I go to visit some unnamed family members and they have televisions on in EVERY ROOM OF THE HOUSE and there’s no one even IN the rooms. Which means there’s no place to find the solace of silence anywhere in the house.

    And I think you’re right. Not allowing places in your life where you can have blocks of spacious soundlessness on the outside usually means that it’s really hard to give yourself the space to hear and listen to what is happening on the inside.

    Of course I also regularly turn up the music so loud (so I can dance my fool head off) that I sometimes fear my neighbors will call the cops on me. But it hasn’t happened yet!!
    .-= chris zydel´s last blog ..Art Every Day Month- Day 19: Toxic Comparison, Soul Sucking Creativity Demons and The Healing Power Of Napping =-.

  5. Sue
    November 20, 2009 | 2:55 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with you Fabeku, the practice of listening is awesomeness!

    Maybe we get annoyed by the noises around us because they compete with the sound of the thoughts running through our heads. We think we are comforted by our thoughts – especially the well-worn familiar ones that we hold dear as they play over and over. Some thoughts however, perhaps especially the mechanically repeating ones, can be leading us away from our hearts – can lead us to “senseless” actions.

    When we get back in touch with our senses (sound yes! but it can also be, smell, body sensation, sight, and taste), our thoughts quiet enough that we hear our other forms of intelligence sing. By getting in touch with our senses, we come to our senses – and act more sensibly. (Interesting how our language supports these ideas.) This is the basis of Vipassana meditation, reportedly handed down by Buddha.

    Thanks for your awesomeness!!!

  6. Victoria Brouhard
    November 20, 2009 | 3:15 pm

    I love this post – especially the concrete steps you shared to relearn how to listen.

    I don’t remember being sensitive to noise growing up, but it does seem like the older I get, the more it can really bother me.

    As for how I deal with it? Well, I haven’t applied the method of “conscious interaction” to it. Sometimes I catch myself getting really irritated if there are competing sounds (like someone talking to me with a TV going in the background).

    Looking forward to exploring this new angle of conscious interaction.
    .-= Victoria Brouhard´s last blog ..Quitting the Man: 20 Days Since Freedom =-.

  7. Hayden Tompkins
    November 20, 2009 | 3:34 pm

    I grew up in Miami and, you’re right, you reach a point where you don’t even notice noise. In fact, I prefer noise and usually keep a fan on while I’m trying to sleep.

    So I’ve thought about it, and if I could be surrounded by any kind of silence, it would be the gentle silence of a calm sea.
    .-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..The Power of Negativity =-.

  8. Wendy Cholbi
    November 20, 2009 | 5:02 pm

    Fabeku, I love the way you describe things so clearly. This 30-second-learning-to-listen exercise is a great example. I’d like to say I’ll try it soon — but I appear to be in full-shutdown mode (as evidenced by the number of times I’ve said “be quiet!” or “go away!” to my family in the past week). So I’ll bank it, for sure.

    I did get to thinking about the fact that other kinds of “noise,” like the energetic kind, can be just as bothersome, overwhelming and distracting as the regular sound-wave variety. Gina alluded to this in her comment, and I thought about that during Hiro’s discussion of Sovereignty this morning.

    For example, I feel that, at times, my kids’ energy just pervades the house, even if they’re being relatively quiet. And I realize that it also might be me mixing up their vibrant and large kid-energy with my mother-energy (which reaches out to watch over my children, even if they’re in other rooms) and losing my own energetic boundaries. Which is similar to the noise-deadened state you describe.

    Thanks for waking me up to these ideas with your thoughtful words.
    .-= Wendy Cholbi´s last blog ..Now you can get your WordPress installation with a cherry on top! =-.

  9. Katie Schroth
    November 20, 2009 | 5:06 pm

    I am one of those people that require quite a bit of quiet time in my life. I work in a fairly busy office with many outside visitors, so it can get hectic and noisy. As often as possible I walk in the local nature reserve at noon.

    Yet, in another way, the reserve has many outside sounds – the noon time walkers who are out for exercise. The even more enthusiastic joggers. And often during the summer young families are there – exploring the immense tree house or looking for larvae in the pond. The kids are bubbling with enthusiasm. The fall semester and late spring bring out the College of Natural Resource students studying the environment. Yet somehow the sounds within the reserve are transformed by the surrounding environment and whatever the sounds, they seem peaceful to me.

    I have noticed in the last couple of years that I am quite sensitive to sound in the early morning. Maybe that’s because I get up early to spend quiet time, so when my husband gets up and immediately turns on a radio, it seems jarring to me. Beginning tomorrow I will spend a few moments listening to the hidden sounds of the morning when I first awake. Thanks for sharing that great suggestion.

  10. Briana
    November 20, 2009 | 5:09 pm

    This is a lovely post. I need to read it at least five times. Your writing just works for me. Not to mention the message. Double whammy of awesome 🙂

  11. Molly Gordon
    November 20, 2009 | 5:14 pm

    Dear, dear Fabeku, After all these months on Twitter, I finally find you here at home. How sweet it is!

    I love the reminder to check in with what I am hearing in the hear and now. Years ago I caught the ferry on weekends to an early morning Improv class. I found I could nap without shutting down by first tuning in to the sounds around me. Somehow listening made it easier to separate myself from them so I could doze without requiring me to batten down the hatches.

    Lately I have found I need to turn off the iPod so I can hear myself not-think. That, too has been a learning–that the self-generated sound I turn to can be a barrier in its own way.

    Anway, I love, love, love that you are here.
    .-= Molly Gordon´s last blog ..Does your pricing strategy prevent customers from committing? =-.

  12. Amy Crook
    November 20, 2009 | 5:19 pm

    I already practice this accidentally, at least in the mornings — I’m reluctant to open my eyes (and blind without my glasses anyway), so I always lay there and suss out my surroundings with my ears for a few moments. I love the sound of cars whooshy-splishing past on rainy streets, even if it means I’ll be house-band for most of the day, for instance. And the rustle of cats in their packing paper playground is always a noise I listen for, just to try to place the furballs if they haven’t placed themselves as sleeping lumps beside me. Tomorrow when I do this, I’ll try to do it more consciously, not that I have much consciousness going in the first hour or so of my day. 😉

    I know I’m sensitive to noise otherwise, though, and that I have to tune things out throughout my day — especially the heater now that it’s cold, a whoosh that adds a huge helping of white noise to my day at unpredictable intervals.

  13. Josiane
    November 20, 2009 | 11:58 pm

    Ah, how I wish the tuning out could be selective! There are so many noises in my house that I’d like to be able to tune out (the water heater, the evil furnace and its fan, the unidentified electrical buzz that drives me crazy), and I sometimes do tune them out, at least to a degree. But I think you’re right, it means that what I’d like to hear gets fuzzy too. When I try to interact with my stuff (à la Havi), sometimes I wonder where my inner voice hides, and why it wouldn’t answer my questions, or why I can’t hear anything coming from it. I realize it may very well be yelling at the top of its lungs, and I can’t hear it. I want and *need* to hear it though, so I’ll definitely work on establishing a more conscious relationship to sounds, both of the surrounding and of the inner varieties. Thank you for suggesting a simple exercise that can help with that.
    .-= Josiane´s last blog ..Noticing – the dragonfly edition =-.

  14. Fabeku
    November 23, 2009 | 8:23 pm

    @Tami – The link between the constantly-surrounded-by-noise thing and the good-stuff-going-quiet thing is so interesting to me. And really important. And I love what you said about winter. There really is a kind of awesome quiet that happens in the winter. I love that too.

    @Gina – Big ups for the nod to the Cocteau Twins. Love them! And you’re totally right. The types of sound we’re hearing can definitely play a big part in how this stuff lands with us. And how we position ourselves in response. And waking up in the middle of the night just to listen…. absolutely delicious! I always try to get up really early at least one or two days a week, just to soak up in the silence.

    @Kat – An un-silent silence… I totally get that. I lived in a rural area for a minute, right next to 100+ acres of forest. And it was so rad. Sound was totally different there. Not absent, just different. And way easier for me to roll with than you’re-so-in-the-city kind of noise.

    @Chris – Ooh great point! The sounds of creativity-in-action is kind of like listening to magic. It’s all Zen-like and yummy. And I’m with you on the going-loony-tunes-without-quiet. Even for a big sound geek like me, quiet time is absolutely essential. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, I love cranking up the Ramones until my speakers are about to explode.

    @Sue – I think the constant sound can get annoying because it makes it hard to think. And, at a deeper level, I think it bugs us because it makes it so much harder to hear the stuff happening in our heart and soul – the other forms of intelligence that you so gorgeously mentioned. Shutting off the sound helps us to turn the volume up on those bits. Which, of course, totally rocks.

    @Victoria – You gave another great example of competing sounds. It makes sense that this kind of thing drives so many of us, myself included, totally kooky. Way too much stimulation there. I’d love to hear how the listening-on-purpose stuff shakes out for you.

    @Hayden – Isn’t it weird how we can be totally surrounded by noise – weird, nutty, unnatural noise – and not even notice it? And how easy it is to kind of go through life that way? Those survival instincts are no joke. And the sound of the sea? Right on. That’s like soul food for me.

    @Wendy – Sorry to here about the shut down stuff. That can be so so so hard. And frustrating too. You’re totally right on about energetic noise. And your example is perfect too. It can make losing our own boundaries super easy. Or, sometimes, we head in the opposite direction and clamp down so tight as we try to tune out totally just to get a second or two of peace. Ack.

    @Katie – You touched on so many awesomesauce things here. The way nature can change the sounds that are happening in it. And the bit about hidden sounds is so right on. That’s one of the cool things about a listening practice. It helps us to get hip to the fact that these hidden sounds exist. And then it makes it possible for us to hear them. Woohoo!

    @Briana – Double whammy of awesome. That is seriously nice of you to say. Thank you. I’m glad you dug the post. And I appreciate you saying so too.

    @Molly – Hey hey! I’m so glad you found me here. Your experience on the ferry and being able to nap by tuning in rocks. It’s totally consistent with my experience too. It’s like when we tune in we can get our bearings. And, like you said, separate ourselves and define our space. So all the acktastic tug-of-war stuff lets up. And gorgeousness ensues! And what you said about turning off your iPod so you can hear yourself not think? I love that x 100!

    @Amy – I think your morning practice is fabulous! It sounds like you’re already rocking this. And as someone who also can’t see a thing without his glasses, I have totally noticed how much easier it is for me to listen with my glasses off or my eyes closed. I always close my eyes when I’m doing sound sessions or recording in the studio. And I also spend much of my winter going back and forth with the sound of the furnace.

    @Josiane – Being sensitive to sound can be rough, can’t it? Especially when sound is everywhere. I can relate to pretty much everything you said. The noises that drive you nuts? Same here. And the effect on the hearing the delicious inner bits? Totally familiar. This consciously-listening-to-the-sounds-around-me stuff has helped me a ton. Not just to deal with elusive electrical buzzes, but to hear the inner stuff too. Let me know how it goes if you get a chance to play around with it.

    Thank you all for the coolness that you all posted. I love this dialog a ton. And I appreciate you all for hanging out and saying hey.

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