[This notebook entry speaks of folks who can perceive the world by hearing. In some folks the capacity for hearing is diminished, impaired or non-existent. With that said, most folks can and are effected by the aspects described below of being startled or alarmed whether it be by sound or otherwise.]
Noise, variance in the rhythms of the day (or night), beeps and blips, horns and storms…whether or not we are consciously aware of it, sound influences our physiology in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ever unfolding ways, day in and day out. For the many of us, sound is taken into the body, often as the amalgamation of various noises while living in an industrialized place: microwaves, gas stove clicking to ignite, fans, airplanes, crosswalk signals, radio announcers, highways abuzz with cars on their way to somewhere, the beep of cash registers and possibly breathing machines, the screech of a braking truck, buildings being built, food being prepped, baseball on bat, the subtle electric hum of televisions and transmission towers, and chainsaws on trees. These are the noises we do not make with our own intonation, but the noises that abound around and ultimately into us.
It has often struck me that an alarming or surprising sound is one that zings its way across almost the whole of my body. It often starts as a slight or full body bracing followed by sensation near the heart immediately zipping its way along neural pathways, with a slow but always retracting rebound back to where it came from, in my case usually my heart, sometimes my neck and back. When paying particular attention and being really perceptive to this flow, I feel it as a rhythm, as a pulsing whoosh that marks a pathway of preference. And, it is not just surprise or alarm that elicits this very interesting event in the body, it is any and all sound altogether and at all times. Surprise and alarm, however, are two highly visceral examples you might be able to easily identify with, whereas other more subtle sounds are increasingly challenging to identify, especially as we have grown accustomed to them over time.
At different stages in life, our perception of sound may be closer-in or further-out. As babies, undoubtedly our sense of sound is extremely close-in as we look for safety in the form of what is familiar: heart beat, respiration, gentle intonation. As we age and gain a broader understanding of the world, our attention to sound becomes integrated with that which is further away from the center of our immediate surroundings. One practice of mindfulness then is the exercise of bringing yourself back to your breath, back to your inner knowing, back to your core amidst the ongoings of the outter world.
But even this is a complex venture, sometimes requiring us to reframe the sound altogether.
Over long periods of time, exposure to the subtle everyday sounds we have become accustom to still impact our physiology. Repeated exposure to alarming or startling sounds, can have a tightening effect all over the body–muscles, fascia, connective tissue, etc., making it more challenging to effectively relax and allow neural networks to operate robustly, efficiently, and optimally, even among a strong mindfulness practice. Yes mind over matter, and also: reality. The planes that fly overhead are not going away, nor is the highway down the street.
Environment makes a great deal of difference, and learning how to navigate through our body’s physiologic interpretations of sound can be challenging at best: they do not exist in a vacuum. If I perceive the sound of rain and wind as relaxing to my overall being, then when surrounded by rain and wind, my neurosignals have the capacity to unfold and travel in a manner that tend toward repair rather than harm in my body. If however I perceive the sound of rain and wind as startling, alarming, or generally unpleasant, my body braces (subtly or greatly) and the capacity for a neuropathway response to be rooted in repair is greatly diminished. Over time, if I continue to have this unpleasant connection with rain and wind, this pathway becomes more and more engraved into the way my body responds to this stimuli. Working to change the response is tricky, and it is the reason some folks will trick their nervous system into believing the sound of the nearby highway is infact the gentle waves of the ocean rolling in and out all day long.
It is highly suspected that when we die, hearing is the last sense of the body to release. Given all the above, it makes sense to wonder how sound effects the death and dying process. When my aunt was in her dying process, she had her own room in the home where she transitioned. One-by-one we would come in and visit her, taking our turns to cry with her, share stories, sit in silence while holding hands, and sing songs. One day, as she and I visited, the door was ajar. The home was filled with family and friends of all ages. Kiddos scampered around, laughing and playing as kids do. The echo of adults conversing poured in. The noise was a hodgepodge of everyday life. In this moment, my aunt looked at me and said, “You know, I love the sound of everybody out there, makin’ noise, doin’ their thang. It is calming. Yeah, I really like that. It reminds me that it all–you all–will go on, that there is still so much joy. I love that laughter of the little ones. It is so sweet incredibly sweet.”
Over the days that followed, she became less and less coherent until communication by word was no longer possible. It became apparent that the closer she came to death, the more and more folks around her began to regard her as already gone–mostly by way of speaking about her in the third person right in front of her. One of the greatest wishes my aunt had for her dying process was to die at home, and specifically not to die in hospital. For her, one part of this consideration was sound. She did not want to be surrounded by machine noises, too many unfamiliar voices, and the many day-to-day conversations that nurses, doctors and families have to engage in that can be dry at best and disappointing at worst. Of course there were other considerations, but sound was one. Being surrounded by family, and the noise that we bring along with us was her safe place. She above all wanted her passing to be: peaceful.
And even still, I wonder if in her final days, knowing that hearing is the last to go, if her wish was failed as folks began to speak of her in the third-person and as if she was no longer alive. That will always remain a mystery. In this final time together, I was resolved to continue communicating with her through eye-contact, simplifying my language, and referring to her by name. I continued to hold her hand and remind her how much she is greatly loved by all of us, and what a grand instrument of nurturance she gifted our family with. I continued to sing to her, be silent with her, tell her stories, and remind her of my promise to meet her in the stars one day. This final time together gave me the confidence to believe that even if we did not get it exactly right for her as a whole, hopefully the continual reminders of our love as a family helped ease her into a transition that had just the right sound quality she desired to help her feel resolved, relaxed, and powerful during her final days.
So, sound. It has immense capacity to heal as well as harm. And, we as individuals have immense capacity to interpret the exact same noise in different ways, playing out uniquely in each and every one of our bodies. Experiment time! Try taking a sound that is so distressing to you it makes your skin crawl–or rather makes your nervous system cringe– and see if you can find a way to reframe it as a noise that is agreeable to you as a whole. You do not have to do this forever, but give it a shot and see how easy or challenging it is for you to make a reframe. The practice of reframing is a practice of mindfulness. And while it might not always be the right thing for you to do, it is still a great tool to have in your toolbox of Get This Body Rested In A Ever Stimulating World! Yes!
Who knows, maybe those dogs that always seem to be barking in the house down the street are actually two very jolly men laughing all day long. Maybe cars revving past along the highway is an ocean ebbing and flowing through the day, just outside your window. Maybe the sound of a plane high above is actually the sound of a giant reassuring wind moving through–or a strange and transient waterfall that visits ever so often. Have fun with your reframes…it does not always have to be a literal and realistic reframe. Find what works for you, and whatever you do, don’t give up! We need sound to have all the things we love (like cars to take us to the mountains, and garbage trucks to take our trash away) and we also need ways of interacting with sound that is healthy on the whole in this incredibly loud and ever busy world. We cannot all live in the woods, so for those of us in loud city life, this just might be our best foot forward toward getting our bodies into a state that knows how to sink into discomfort and make the best of what surrounds us.