Mindful Listening (to Holiday Music)

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The way we listen to music mimics the way we listen to the machine we call our mind. Be it the unrealistic expectations we might have of others (or ourselves) this time of year or the disruption of day-to-day routines that this season causes, the holidays can give way to mental ‘crescendos.’ During ‘crescendos’, the part of us that can step back and make observations about thoughts and emotions can get swept up in the music or carried away on an overly critical verbal journey. With practice, it is possible to recognize the individual sounds that our mind machine makes. The anxiety experienced by those with eating disorders is, in essence, a symphony of feelings, thoughts, urges, and sensations.

The following exercise, adapted from Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life (Hayes, 2005) can help you to think about this anxiety in a new way, and to further cultivate your ability to choose where to turn your attention this holiday season (i.e., where to “tune in”), to listen attentively without judgment and the reap the benefits of mindfulness.

Mindful Listening (to Holiday Music)

Pick a piece of holiday music that you love. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as you choose a piece that has a number of different instruments playing together (Classical renditions of holiday favorites may be an easier selection than others.).

Turn on the music and begin by listening as you normally would.

After you have warmed up to the music a bit, bring your attention to one particular sound or set of instruments. If it is a symphony, for example, you might start by listening to the string section. Focus on that part of the music. Can you distinguish between the sound of the cellos and the sound of the violins? What about the bass?

Now shift your attention to a different instrument or section of the orchestra. Can you hear the drums? What about the horns? How about woodwinds? And the vocals (if there are any)?

Try to name the different instruments as you listen to them. If you aren’t especially familiar with musical, simply note the different types of sounds. (“DRUMS.” “VOCALS.” “STRINGS.” “BELLS.”)

Do you notice anything happening as you alternate your attention back and forth between the different instruments? Do you start to focus on the sound of only one instrument or section? If you do that, where do the other sections go? Experiment with this by shifting your focus back and forth between the different sounds.

Now, try to hold two sets of sounds in your mind simultaneously. For example, you might try to track the strings and the percussion. Try not to get “wrapped up” in the music. Mindfully notice and label the sounds. You might further this experiment by trying to track other sets of instruments as well. Or you might watch the way your mind shifts back and forth between the sounds. At what point are you aware of only one sound? At what point are you aware of multiple sounds?

When you are done experimenting with hearing with single versus multiple sounds, attend to the entire piece of music. Focus on all of the instruments playing at once. Do you find yourself noticing certain sounds more than others? When you try to listen to all of the instruments playing simultaneously does the music change into a different, bigger sound?

Integrating Mindfulness into Everyday Life

The exercise described above is not easy. If you found it difficult to focus on one instrument at a time, or got distracted by thoughts about something else entirely, you are not alone. Mindfulness is a practice because, well, it’s all about practice. 

To make it more likely that you’ll practice:

  • You might simplify the exercise by picking a 2-minute excerpt of the piece of music next time.
  • Or, when you notice your mind machine making its own noise, you might label that “MIND” and gently redirect to the instrument section of your choice.
  • Give this exercise a try whether or not you are feeling particularly stressed — that way, it will be more available to you as an option in your moment of need.
  • Peg your practice to a daily routine that won’t be too impacted by your holiday plans (e.g., practice before bed, or after your shower each morning).

And remember, this is but one of a number of strategies that can help in your recovery (this season, and all others too!).

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