Just sit comfortably, with your eyes closed, and breathe. As you relax, become aware of the sounds around you. Listen for the furthest sound you can hear and tune into it. What is it? Traffic on the road? A plane in the sky? Distant voices on the streets outside? Birdsong? Just let yourself hear it. Don’t judge it. Don’t create a story around it. Just notice it. Bring your focus nearer. What’s the next sound you can hear? Your neighbour’s key in the lock? The gurgle of water in pipes? A drip, a creak? Don’t analyse it. Don’t make a story. Just focus your attention on it and then let it go. Now, can you hear the sounds of your own body? Your breathing? The gurgle of water in your pipes, a creak, a swallow, a beat? Just notice it. Just listen.
This is the first meditation exercise I ever learned and it took me a long time to be able to do it. I still struggle more often than not. Part of the point of it is to slow down and to be present in the moment, but it also teaches to just let the world be, as it is, without loading it with the narrative of our personal drama. Eventually, the aim is to be able to apply the same light, non-judgmental attention to troublesome thoughts and feelings: they will arise, just like the sound of a bus travelling down the A6 or the chatter of magpies in the trees outside, but like those things we can just notice them, let them be and let them go. We don’t have to load them with significance. We don’t have to storify them.
Writing Train, too yesterday reminded me of this exercise. Just noticing and logging the things I saw on the train was difficult. I was aware of fighting hard against the urge to create stories around what I was seeing. It wasn’t enough to tell you there was a teenager on the train. I wanted to tell you that he was sweet and shy and that he sprayed aftershave all over himself before getting off at the last stop, that the businesswoman slurped loudly on some noodles and tried not to splash her fancy sleeves and that the baby didn’t look very well. There was so much more description, dramatization and speculation I wanted to indulge and that’s why it was a frustrating exercise, but also why it was useful. It reminded me not only that stories are everywhere, but that the urge to create them is so hard-wired in us that it’s as natural, as instinctual, as breathing. It’s more difficult not to make stories. And maybe a good way to discover this is to just stop sometimes. And breathe. And notice.