“The quality of your life is directly proportional to the quality of your attention.”

My teacher, Silvia Nakkach, said this to us on several occasions throughout the past year at CIIS, during our journey of spiritual transformation through sound voice and music. It wasn’t until very recently that I started to appreciate the meaning behind these words, and how they applied not only to my life, but to every human being.

Have your ever stopped to consider, “What are you listening to?”

Today, two different coaching practice partners (yes, on the same day!) described to me their experience with noticing what they were listening to. I had sent a new tool several weeks ago to the first buddy – my Daily Sound Journal. The exercise was to choose a day in which you would decide to notice the sounds you hear, and to note your bodily reactions as well as thoughts that arise in response to the sounds.

I hadn’t gotten feedback from her until today, when she told me that as she consciously listened to the sounds she was hearing throughout a given day, she began to notice that there was very little silence in her days, and that she had very little choice over the sounds that she was listening to. This prompted her to make some immediate changes in her life that involved creating specific times of silence in each day, and being more proactive about choosing music to download for herself rather than accepting whatever was playing on the radio, for example.

My second coaching buddy (I seem to be surrounded by supportive people now that I’ve started taking steps in the direction of joy, freedom, love, and beauty for myself! Amazing!) told me that for the first time in a long time, she sat back and “just listened” to a recording of my interview with Susanna Liller. She didn’t allow herself to multi-task while she listened. She simply got in a comfortable reclining position and focused her attention on the sound of the interview, taking it all in. And it felt different for her! She said it made her realize that there was so much that she was missing by trying to “get stuff done” all the time.

Boy do I know that feeling!

If there’s one thing I’m finally learning about attention, it’s that we are practicing it all the time. We either practice “multi-tasking” – that is, not paying particular attention to any one thing at a time, but rather staying diffusely involved in many things – or we practice a particular dance between “focal attention” and “global attention”. It’s difficult to completely tune out the world and focus on just one thing. We can do it for short periods of time and when we are able to focus on things that truly interest us. It’s very useful to cultivate some ability to be completely focused. I believe it’s the origin of what many happiness experts have called “flow” or “joy”.

But global attention – the ability to be inclusively aware of all sensations in an environment and to allow yourself to feel into the overall energy of a situation – is equally important and useful. I believe that the ability to cultivate globally attention is what trains us to become connected to our intuition or inner wisdom or nature.

Doing the dance between focal and global attention is actually what happens with every person who makes music. There is no music in the absence of both focal and global attention and listening. The making of a sound calls us to pay attention to that sound, and to all other sounds.

In a world filled with many types of sounds – mechanical, repetitive, loud, or annoying – that bathe us without our choosing them, we may find ourselves gradually narrowing our attention in order to survive. Or so we believe. In the process of “tuning out” the world (notice the number of people who go through daily life with iPod ear buds on all the time?), we may be protecting ourselves from what we consider harmful or undesirable sounds, but in the process we may also be excluding sources of joy, truth, or beauty.

For myself, I’ve noticed how narrowly I had been trained to listen to music. I aspired to a very specific sound, and repetitively listened to models of that sound, excluding all other forms of expression in the process. I learned to listen “critically”, which meant identifying what was wrong or could be improved about any particular performance. I refused to listen to the “noise” of rock and roll or other “loud” music.

So naturally, my new band suggested that we play a song by Metallica! I had literally never heard an entire piece of music by this group before. But apparently “Fade to Black” is the quintessential Metallica song for anyone who knows anything about that band.

Since there are a couple of “epic” electric guitar solos in the song that are very recognizable to those who are “in the know”, we got the sheet music. All of a sudden I was back in the land of trying to get things right, and play things the way someone else intended them to be. I noticed that putting a music stand in front of me totally changed my way of listening. I was no longer just feeling the music but rather my attention was now divided between interpreting the written notes on the page and playing the right notes.

I intend to get away from that after I memorize the thing. There’s so much more quality to the experience of paying attention to the sound and the feeling evoked!

Here’s our first run at playing the song together last night at an open mic. For those of you who enjoy Metallica, I hope I did it some level of justice (and apologies to those whom I offend with this version!):

Hope you’ll spend at least part of today paying attention to your attention.