In the book The Joy of Living, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche provides several different, simple meditation techniques. One of my favorites is his meditation on sound (pages 151-152).
Come to rest in a comfortable seated position as for any meditation. Let your mind rest for a few moments in a relaxed state, and then gradually allow yourself to become aware of the sounds happening near you. Depending on your location, these could be sounds like cars driving past, airplanes overhead, the hum of the refrigerator, birds chirping, or just the sound of your own heartbeat and breath. You may want to play a recording of natural sounds or some soothing music, and that’s fine too. Listen to the sounds happening around you. Don’t try to identify each sound or focus on a specific sound – just be aware of the sounds you hear without assigning meaning or value to them. Be in the present moment, cultivating “a simple, bare awareness” of each sound as it comes to you.
You may only be able to focus on the sounds around you for a few moments before your mind wanders, and that’s okay. When you catch your mind wandering, just bring it back to a calm and relaxed state again for a few moments, and then bring your awareness back to the sounds. Alternate between resting your attention on sounds and letting your mind just rest in a relaxed state.
One of the things that I find challenging about this meditation is listening to the sounds without assigning meaning to them. For example, meditating after a rainstorm, I heard the sump pump kick on in my basement. Immediately I recognized it as the sump pump and realized that water must be coming in the basement, and the fact that the pump kicked on meant that my basement would stay dry. All of that meaning occurred to me when I heard the sound. I’ll also often hear my husband moving around upstairs, and when I hear his noises, I can’t help but smile since I do kind of like him a lot. But working with this meditation, we’re trying to open our minds and listen without generating the emotional response. Building that skill fosters in a small way the sort of non-attachment that is the goal of yoga and meditation.
The monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh also writes about sound in his book Peace is Every Step. He notes that a bell is sometimes used in meditation practice, as a call to stop the mind from wandering. The sound of the bell brings you back to your true Self. Hanh suggests that any sound, even an unpleasant sound, can have the same effect if we let it. Hearing a siren, or a barking dog, or the sump pump kicking on, we can think to ourselves, “Listen! Listen! This beautiful sound brings me back to my true Self.” I love this idea. We can separate the fear, annoyance, or frustration we usually feel when we hear an unpleasant sound and instead feel peaceful. “Listen! Listen! This beautiful sound brings me back to my true Self.” I want to think that all day long.