Finding a deeper silence – Meditation and Tinnitus

Happy New Year to one and all!

2018 has stopped me in my tracks- literally! I have been in bed sick with the flu for the last week. However, and thankfully, my wonderful colleague Alan Hughes has stepped up to the plate for me and has written this week’s challenge and blog post. Alan writes about practicing mindfulness with sound as a support- even while living with Tinnitus. I Have a read and if you feel up to it, why don’t you try using sound as your support this week!

-Jane

Finding a deeper silence – Meditation and Tinnitus

 Alan Hughes

When I first started on the path of mindfulness, one of the first meditations I was taught by Rob Nairn was to simply let the awareness of sound hold my attention in the present moment.  Many people on the course I was on reported feeling calm, focused and relaxed, and all the experiences we might expect when we meditate, but what I was most aware of was the humming noise in my head.  I’d known for a few years that this sound was there, and would notice it for example if I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was generally quiet enough that I could ignore it.  When I settled down to meditate, however, it seemed to grow louder and came to dominate my experience.  I also had a definite preference for the noise to not be there, despite the clearly wise suggestions of Rob to accept whatever sounds presented themselves.  Of course, this gave my inner self-critic plenty of ammunition to beat myself up with, and I soon came to the conclusion that I was probably just not cut out for this meditation malarkey.

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I soon learned that I had tinnitus, which is often referred to as an “inner ringing in the ears”, and when I started discussing it with other people I soon realised that I wasn’t alone in this.  Indeed, the NHS reckons that approximately 10% of the population have persistent tinnitus, although for most people, such as for myself, this is simply a minor irritation.  For other people, however, tinnitus can be more troublesome, and when it’s particularly bad it can lead to depression, insomnia and problems with concentration and emotional regulation.

There have now been a number of studies that have looked at the effects of mindfulness on tinnitus, and the good news is that there is emerging evidence that cultivating mindfulness can lead to long-term reduction in its severity.  While evidence about this is still emerging, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scans indicate altered connectivity in brain areas that appear to be involved in the maintenance of tinnitus, which may be modified by cultivating mindfulness.  Apart from directly influencing the causes of tinnitus, mindfulness also helps reduce the distress we might feel when we have this – as it does with other difficult experiences – by helping us to open up to whatever is present in that moment, even if it is unpleasant.  We can learn to develop a new relationship with the tinnitus based around acceptance, without embarking on an inner struggle of trying to avoidance or suppress it.  Unsurprisingly, several research studies have recommend mindfulness in the treatment of tinnitus.

Despite my initial struggle, over the years I have repeatedly returned to using sound as my meditation support, and this is something I now teach.  Of course – all things being equal – I’d rather not have tinnitus, but with time there has been a definite change in my attitude towards it.  I now enjoy using sound as my meditation support, as I find it has a different quality compared to, for example, watching my breath, as I find that resting with ambient sound tends to have a more expansive feeling.  When I do this, I simply use natural, ambient sound to gently hold my attention in the present moment, and don’t put on music to try to distract myself, or to drown out other noises.  Inevitably when I do this, I immediately become aware of my tinnitus, but now I find it quite fascinating to notice how the tone can vary from ear to ear, moment to moment and day to day.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s become an old friend, but I have come to accept that it is part of me that’s here to stay.

With sound meditation, we learn that there’s never really such as thing as complete silence, and indeed we don’t need this to settle our minds, or find an inner peace.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to notice the more subtle aspects of our experience, we may begin to notice sounds that we may not have been aware of before, such as traffic in the distance, or the creaks and groans of our home as it warms up or cools down.  Even if we don’t have tinnitus, we may start to notice more subtle noise within our bodies: the sounds of our breathing, our tummy rumbling, our heart beating, or even more subtle vibrations, such as the noise of the blood flowing through our ears.  We can then give ourselves permission to accept whatever is present in our experience at that moment, without having to judge or label whatever we become aware of, or preferring one sound over another.  This isn’t easy, but with time we can come to experience whatever sounds present themselves to you simply as sensory objects.  Whether it’s a humming in our head or the wind in the trees outside we’re not trying to block these sounds out, but as we deepen our practice we might occasionally find a place of deeper calm and tranquility; a deeper silence, which isn’t influenced by more ephemeral sounds.

[It is recommended that you should see your GP if you continually or regularly hear sounds such as buzzing, ringing or humming in your ears.  It is rarely a sign of a serious condition, but it is important to seek medical advice to see if an underlying cause can be found and treated.]

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