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How Does the Room Sound Right Now?

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Thousands of books have been written attempting to point people to the difference between mindfulness and “paying attention” as we normally do. I’ve read a lot of these books, and even written a few.

There are simpler ways to get at the concept though.

If you want to grasp what is usually meant by the word mindfulness*, all you need to do is to find the answer to a simple question: how does the room sound right now?

By “the room” I really just mean wherever you are. You could be in a room, or outside, or in a stadium, in a cave, scuba diving among coral reefs, whatever. The point is there’s always something to hear, wherever you are.

If you wanted to know how the room sounds, how would you get the answer to that question?

Well, you’d listen to it.

Try it now. Find out how the room sounds. Take a good twenty seconds to inquire, by listening.

. . .

So how does it sound?

You might say, “Well I hear the laptop fan whirring, I hear a large vehicle rumbling around out there, maybe a garbage truck. There are some distant voices, and also some pigeons warbling out on the eavestrough. I can even hear my breath escaping my nose at times.”

That’s not really the answer to the question though. It’s a description of the answer. The answer was how the room sounded — what you heard when you listened. A description like this doesn’t convey any real knowledge of how the room sounds, just as a description of a sunset will never transfix a crowd of people, and a description of your housekey doesn’t let you into the house.

Artist’s depiction of sound

The answer to the question of how the room sounds can be always be found, immediately — and only — by listening. The room begins telling you how it sounds the moment you inquire.

As soon as you stop listening and start doing something else — putting descriptive words to your experience of listening, picturing garbage trucks, pondering the amount of birdshit on your shingles — you’re no longer inquiring into the “how it sounds” question. Instead you’re doing tangential tasks (interpreting, describing, etc) which do not deliver the answer.

This is not some Mister Miyagi spiritual mumbo jumbo. I am pointing you to a simple distinction here, between (a) how a room sounds, and (b) how you might describe or interpret those sounds.

Mindfulness is our innate capacity to inquire into question (a), and similar questions about direct experience.

You can access this ability at any moment of your life by finding the answer to “How does the room sound right now?”

“Sometimes what heart know, head forget” ~Mr. Miyagi

Of course, you can apply this same sort of inquiry with the other senses, using different questions.

How does it look when I close my eyes right now?

How does my body feel right now?

What do I taste right now?

Again, complete answers are available just by inquiring. You already have the capacity. You don’t even need to verbalize the questions after a while, you can just start inquiring about the answer.

Note that whatever experiences you witness this way do not contain any words. You don’t taste the words “oak” or “dark fruit” in the wine. Direct experience comes in the form of ineffable sense phenomena, not verbal data. You can come up with some words later and refer to your experience with them — “the strawberry was tart and a bit fibrous,” but the taste itself is devoid of words.

By the time you’re mucking about with words you’re no longer inquiring. In that case, all you need to do is go back to inquiring.

Contains no preservatives, or adjectives

You can inquire this way with any experience, great or small. You can get quite specific with your inquiry:

“How does it feel to rest my hand on my knee?”

“How does that droning noise in the background sound?”

Or you can get more general:

“What am I experiencing right now?”

Detail reveals itself gradually as you sustain your inquiry. What you might have regarded initially as “total darkness” behind your closed eyes, might come to seem more like “a field of shimmering pixely things making dark, mottled patterns.” Of course, this description isn’t the answer, the answer is the ineffable field of pixels itself.

As far as I can tell, everything is infinitely detailed like this. Look long enough, and even something simple like “darkness” is more complex than you thought. Sounds contain subtle waverings and oscillations, layers and undertones. The taste of chocolate contains, surprisingly, both pleasant and unpleasant qualities. Pain is not as solid or objectionable as you thought.

Complex and moody

If you play around with this sort of direct inquiry, you’ll quickly notice that the answer to question (a), whichever one you ask, is never quite what you expect. You sort of know how the office is going to sound when you listen, but it never quite matches your expectations when you do. There’s always some surprising element.

So if mindfulness is this simple thing we can all do already, why do people meditate for hours and weeks and years?

The short answer is that you can stabilize and refine this ability to inquire to profound degrees, and that takes a lot of inquiring time. You can get very good at staying with the direct experience of a thing (i.e. the answer to question (a)) and get less distracted by your natural reflex to dive into question (b) in its many forms. You can learn all sorts of tricks for inquiring into experiences you didn’t even notice you were having.

Site of industrial-strength inquiry

If you do a lot of inquiry, there are also a lot of downstream implications to sort through, from all the extra detail that’s revealed. For example, you notice sooner or later that there’s really nothing that cannot be inquired into in this way. In other words, there’s nothing you can detect about yourself aside from your experiences. So who’s doing the inquiring, anyway?

Also, what is this experience of wanting a thing? How does it actually feel? What do you notice about the moment when a given instance of “wanting” appears? When you get the thing you want, what happens to the wanting?

What about when something feels really bad — what happens when you inquire into the the “badness” itself? What would happen you got more interested in what that bad feeling is like than in making it go away?

Upon examination: throbs but does not actually glow

You can untangle a lot of personal problems through inquiry, by looking right at the experiences that make them up. Oh — embarrassment is just this passing gross feeling in my chest that makes me want to indulge in rehashing other embarrassing moments? Maybe I don’t need to avoid it like death.

Fascinating stuff, for some people. If this stuff sounds esoteric or boring to you, don’t worry about it. Just try asking and answering the basic (a) question, starting with how the room sounds. Then try it for other things. How does it feel to hold this cup? How does this coffee taste?

Inquire into the real answers to those questions, for ten or twenty seconds here and there throughout the day. You will definitely discover something unexpected.


*See top comment below for footnote.

Photos by Kris Atomic, Jonathan Cooper, pmv chamara, Jason Leung, Xuyu Chi, and Julien Tromeur.

David Cain May 29, 2023 at 8:36 pm

Footnote for third paragraph:

*I say “usually meant” because there’s always a lurking Buddhist purist who will insist that the English word “mindfulness” somehow always and only refers to a canonical translation of the Pali word sati. Contemporary usage of the word mindfulness does not always precisely correspond to sati, even in books and talks by Buddhist teachers.

Gene McCreary May 31, 2023 at 11:33 am

Fine essay. You are explaining the old Zen poem: When you speak it is silent. When you are silent, it speaks.
But not in WORDS.

Michael May 30, 2023 at 5:25 am


A side note: Is the time stamp on postings CST time?


David Cain May 30, 2023 at 8:35 am

I think so

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 9:25 am

Confirmed yes

Ashley Kung May 30, 2023 at 5:55 am

When I investigate thoughts and emotions in meditation, it helps me to remember that a thought is just a thought, I don’t have to believe it. An emotion is just an emotion, I don’t have to react to it.

Everything, including thoughts and emotions, breaks down into just simple sensory experiences. I agree, you can uncover some unexpected, fascinating things.

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 8:42 am

What really helped me work with thought and emotion was Shinzen Young’s system.
-A thought is either visual or auditory.
-All thoughts tend to be fleeting and vague — they disappear almost as soon as they appear, but they are noticable sensory phenomena like anything else.
-Visual thoughts appear in your field of vision, as though you’re seeing them with your eyes. Eyes may be open or closed.
-Auditory thoughts seem to occur around the ears.
-Emotions are experienced as body sensations (although sometimes they impact thoughts and vice-versa)

It all does break down to sensory experience of some sort or another. Some experiences are more subtle and fleeting than others though, so you have to practice observing them.

Lee Ann May 30, 2023 at 6:42 am

I have naturally done this since I was a child-mindfulness. But only lately have I stopped in my tracks to examine and question a strong emotion or reaction. This blog is awesome for allowing me to see what was once in the dark!

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 8:49 am

Examining reactions is one of the most practical applications of mindfulness. Feelings like indignation or embarrassment have a strong physical component, and if you focus on getting curious what that experience actually feels like (rather than the story in your mind about it), it will pass pretty quickly. Normally, we launch into the story around it, which tends to make it worse.

Paulo Roberto May 30, 2023 at 6:59 am

Hi there. Very nice posto, I loved it! May I suggest you write something about mindfulness and stoicism? I sense some fundamental blending between these worlds.

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 8:56 am

I will think about that. They definitely share some insights.

Off the top of my head, the main similarity I see is the emphasis on experiencing what is happening willingly. In both mindfulness practice and Stoic practice, you’re supposed to train yourself to completely accept what is currently happening without succumbing to the impulse to escape unpleasant experiences or prolong pleasant experiences.

The main difference I can see is that in the mindfulness tradition, the entire focus is on in-the-moment direct experience, and in fact they maintain that there is really nothing else you can concern yourself with. In Stoicism, as far as I know they don’t seem to recognize this, but they end up doing the same thing.

Ton Bil June 1, 2023 at 2:07 pm

The similarities are certainly there. What I understand about Stoicism is that it is philosophy, reasoning, or how shall we call it that leads one on the path of “I don’t need to be disturbed by this, that or the other”.
Whereas in Buddhism, there is the vipasana practice (or other methods of sati meditation) and then the insights will just get clarified and experienced on the go.
This is why I would almost tell Stoicists: stop thinking, start experiencing. The experience will include the worries, the anxieties, etc. and that is OK.

Stacey LaRoy May 30, 2023 at 7:20 am

“If this stuff sounds esoteric or boring to you, don’t worry about it.”
I can’t even fathom this, but thank you for the acceptance of huge differences!

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 8:59 am

Out of curiosity, at what point in this post does it start to seem esoteric/unfathomable?

Rocky May 30, 2023 at 7:27 am

Listening has always been a very helpful focal point in my meditation practice. I remember years ago, you said something about how it was possible to keep track of several sounds at the same time. When I do this, it becomes easier not to get lost in thought. My heart knows this….
My head sometimes forgets.
Thanks David !

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 9:01 am

Yeah, there is a way to sort of “zoom out” when you’re listening — the equivalent of letting your eyes go unfocused — and just let the sounds come to you, so to speak, instead of trying to zero in on one of them.

It does make it easier not to get lost in thought for some reason. I think it’s because there’s no pressure to focus on one thing to the exclusion of others. You’re just receiving what comes to you, which is a lower-pressure way to listen.

Paul May 31, 2023 at 12:49 am

Thank you, David and Rocky. This seems really useful.
Would it be right to interpret this technique as essentially ‘letting yourself hear’ rather than ‘trying to listen’?

David Cain May 31, 2023 at 8:28 am

Basically. I think of it as “let sound come to you.” You don’t have to go out and find anything. Let the sounds tell you they’re there.

Je May 30, 2023 at 9:21 am

This reminds me very much of a book I’m currently reading about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There is significant overlap in the techniques used. Your post is timely.

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 9:33 am

Mindfulness is an explicit part of ACT if I recall correctly.

Bruno May 30, 2023 at 9:22 am

This remembers me a quote from Stephen king: “words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out”

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 10:37 am

Right, words are a reduction of an infinitely detailed thing into a concept. Concepts are necessary for communication, but they are in no way substitutes for experience.

Stewart Smith May 30, 2023 at 9:44 am

David, I have lived and worked in my small town most of my adult life. I always commuted by bike. Anxiety being a rather familiar companion, I found that, on my return to work, I could ‘turn on’ my ears and listen specifically for natural sounds, bird calls, the sigh of the breeze in a pine or the distant rumble of thunder. There was always something to hear, and I could find this hugely calming. On more rare occasions in town, a scent might intrude with even more effect: passing under a pine on a hot day, or near a lilac in May can erase every anxious notion and bring on a smile unrelated to any thought.

It’s easy to ‘know’ that our lives are basically a conversation with ourselves about what we remember, what might happen and speculation around what others are thinking, but it’s lovely to arrive in the moment and just be a temporary entity with all others. I find that opening up to nature quite helpful in at least landing in the neighbourhood of ‘now’.

Thanks again, David, for your many fine thoughts.


David Cain May 30, 2023 at 10:43 am

That’s great. Here’s a thing to try, if you’re interested — what if you applied that same kind of inquiry (receiving sounds and scents as the experiences arrive at your senses) to the anxiety and mental activity too? It too is just passing experience, and can be attended to with the same sort of inclusion and letting go. It takes a kind of adventurousness to do this, but it can be really worth it, because it reduces the proportion of experience that seems wrong/bad/unbearable.

Gibraltar May 30, 2023 at 11:25 am

Excellent writing as always, David. This type of inquiring does add tangible depth for day-to-day life, without adding words and labels for context.

I am intrigued by inquiring into “wanting” – do you have any tips or references that can guide one towards better impulse control via inquiring into these sensations?

Thank you.

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 3:11 pm

Wanting is a relatively difficult experience to be aware of if you don’t have a solid baseline of mindfulness practice. Generally people start practicing with obvious sense experience like bodily sensations or sound, just to get a taste for what it’s like to watch an experience emerge, change, and cease. Once you know how to do that, you simply bring the same kind of detached inquiry to wanting when you notice it. This would be easiest to do in a situation where you know wanting/desire is almost definitely going to occur (such as entering a bakery, for example).

Sophia May 30, 2023 at 1:08 pm

It makes me think of the art of drawing, a new hobby for me — the key to drawing well (at least, representational/realistic drawing) is to see the subject as a bunch of shapes, rather than concepts. If I’m drawing a shoe, I can’t just draw a shoe from my mind, or even just laces or a buckle from my mind. I have to squint and actually see the way the buckle looks like a rhombus from this angle, and the strap is curved away from me so there’s some darker coloring on the right side, etc etc. Feels parallel to what you’re saying about not thinking about garbage trucks, or describing the sounds, but rather really hearing them,

David Cain May 30, 2023 at 3:15 pm

Yes, exactly, that’s a great analogy. When you draw you have to keep referring to exactly how you are experiencing the object — what it really looks like rather than what you think it looks like. In my experience, how it really looks is always surprising.

There’s a famous book about this called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Andreas May 31, 2023 at 2:29 am

I think this should be Nr. 66 on
the 65 most usefull posts on
Raptitude list.

For me it clarifies the concept of labelling your thougts.

Richard Kerr May 31, 2023 at 3:47 am

Davids’s unparalleled ability to simplify and clarify elusive concepts into an easy-to-use practical tool strikes again! Genius. Thank you!

Dren June 1, 2023 at 8:52 am

After reading this blog post, I’ve realized that practicing mindfulness through simple exercises like actively listening to my surroundings can be a powerful tool for managing stress and improving my mental health. It’s a reminder to stay present and connected with the world around me.

JeffP June 1, 2023 at 9:47 am

Upon reading, I was skeptical of this practice, but it came to mind as I walked my dog this morning. I noticed the birds chirping and flying all over the place. I wondered what they were “talking” about. Were they planning their day, like I was? Could they be discussing me?

Lorraine June 5, 2023 at 1:22 pm

Well, that was so interesting. When I “listened” to the room, then read what you said again, the experience completely changed. The second time, I noticed that, although every sound had a source, the room itself was completely silent.

Ah, that exercise then felt like a meditation. When the busy thoughts mercifully recede, or the sounds are identified as “out there, not here”, the silence emerges. Niiiiice! Thank you!

David June 5, 2023 at 2:41 pm


The world is remarkably silent. It’s our mental talk that makes it seem chaotic and crazy. When we listen, we can’t carry on with the talk, so we just hear what’s always there — sounds coming and going in a background of silence.

H B June 18, 2023 at 5:15 am

First – thank you for writing. I appreciate the clarity you bring to sophisticated concepts; your descriptions are very accessible, where gurus can be intimidating. (They are kind too, but they made the “second cost” seem too high; you are a gentle on-ramp.)

I find a connecting thread through much of your work is the concept of “deep roots” – paying more attention to the intrinsic. In this case, one’s own senses / experience, but it could just as well apply to one’s own taste / virtue. The world keeps inviting us to be broad and shallow, to dip our toes in a thousand things, to expand our circle. (Your circle of concern, as per the Stoics? Peter Singer’s circle of care? Both.) But there’s little value to being a tumbleweed. You invite us to put down roots, to BE somebody in the purest sense. And so, tat tvam asi :)

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