Close your eyes for a moment, and take stock of how much time per day you spend in silence. No radio, no TV, no music, no podcast, no conversations, no ambulance sirens. There’s a good chance it’s not very much time, and there’s a good chance all the background noise in your life in getting in your way of listening closely to yourself, and to those around you. When I did this exercise recently, and realized I was on listening overload.
I’d walk home from work listening to a podcast or an audio book, then get home and immediately turn on NPR. I was constantly taking in and processing information. When I wasn’t tuned into sound, I was online, glued to the news cycle, or being asked to take a quiz to discover what kind of ice cream I most resemble, or what city I actually belong in. Life felt really loud.
Over the last couple of years I’ve developed some tricks for turning down the volume in my head so I could let my own thoughts surface. Perhaps these will inspire you to develop some tricks of your own.
- I intentionally “forget” my headphones at home. Once in a while, I force myself to walk to work or run an errand while not listening to anything. I take in my surroundings, I notice my neighbors, the new buildings going up on my block, I soak in colors and smells and occasionally hear funny things people say on the streets. Often, I find myself thinking about things I read or heard. I’ve come to appreciate this time of processing rather than taking in more information.
- I moved to a quieter neighborhood. Clearly, this is more than a “trick,” it’s a major life change, and noise was just one of the reasons my husband and I decided to leave a busy Manhattan street for a quieter Brooklyn one. Yet I very quickly realized that I prefer waking up to the sound of birds than horns and sirens. When I go outside in my new neighborhood, noise is not the first thing I notice any more. Nowadays, when I go into Manhattan, I want to turn down the collective volume. I find that I’m calmer a lot of the time, breathing a little more deeply, less exasperated with FOMO (“fear of missing out” for the uninitiated), and I think that living in a quieter neighborhood has contributed to that. (If you live surrounded by noise and want to know how much is too much, then Dangerous Decibels might be a good resource for you.)
- I try to meditate. It’s really hard. The noise in my own head–the thoughts–are often really loud and unrelenting. I find that trying to relax my eyes helps to calm the stream of thoughts, and about 10% of the time I do find a meditative bliss. I keep a notepad in my meditation area so I can jot down the urgent thoughts. I’ve learned that asking myself to be silent for just about 10 minutes is often more effective than demanding it for a full 45-minute session. Baby steps. And I find that the more I meditate, the more present I am to myself and to others throughout the day. (Here is a beginner’s guide from the experts).
- I call close friends when I’m out walking, so I can’t multitask and I give them my full listening attention. It’s terrible but true: When I make a phone call from home, I typically multitask, no matter how important the person is to me. I’ll check Facebook, pay bills, and even answer emails while allegedly having a conversation with a dear friend. Until I can learn to stop multitasking, my trick is to get out of the house.
- I schedule listening time with the one person who matters the most to me, my husband. Most Sundays after lunch we make ourselves an espresso and sit at our kitchen table for our “Sunday Talk.” We each take a turn saying everything we didn’t have a chance to say during the week–things the other person might have been too busy to listen to, things we didn’t even know were percolating in our heads, subjects that need more time and attention than our busy weekday schedules permit. All technology gets ignored, and our full attention is on what the other person is saying. A close friend told me that her boss calls her into the office every Monday morning and says, “How did I successfully support you last week, and how could I have supported you better?” Wow. Talk about listening. (If listening doesn’t come naturally to you, or you want to further improve your listening skills, here is a resource from Psychology Today).
As the end of the year approaches, I would urge all of you to take stock of what kind of noise is filling your bandwidth. Consider making some New Year’s Resolutions to listen more carefully, to listen differently, to direct your attention to those noises that are most important to you.