It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the sound of silence. I’m not sure I even remember what it’s like at this point. It wasn’t always bad, but 5 years ago, a diagnosis of a rare inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease made it a lot worse. It’s strange to think I might never hear the sound of silence ever again.
To the uninitiated, tinnitus is a strange phenomenon in which a person hears sounds where there are none. Think “phantom sounds,” usually occurring as ringing, buzzing, clicking, or a wide variety of other annoying noises. The constant cacophony in your ears can drive you crazy. It’s not generally as debilitating as vertigo, but it’s usually there even if you get your other symptoms under control.
Unfortunately, there has been not nearly enough research conducted in recent years to explore potential treatments for tinnitus. This is extremely surprising considering recent studies have estimated that tinnitus affects nearly 50 million Americans. The true number might be much higher.
Currently there are no medications available for treating tinnitus. Most treatment involves either managing your psychological response or attempting to mask the sound with background noise; a white noise machine for example. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling, is well known for reducing the stress caused by tinnitus. Personally, I find meditation to be quite helpful as well. Learning to quiet my thoughts has helped me to ignore my tinnitus. That seems to be the common thread among the widely accepted treatment strategies, learning to ignore it.
However, a while back, I had an interesting idea. Knowing that everyone tries to ignore it, I thought, what if I did the opposite? I had a feeling that people are bothered by tinnitus the most when they are actively trying to ignore it, but can’t. So instead of trying to block it out, I wondered, why not face it head on? To consciously and intentionally focus on the sound. I was surprised to find that this is actually quite difficult. As soon as I would try to sit and focus on the noise, my mind would wander, quickly forgetting about the high pitched whine in my ears. I immediately realized something profound. If meditation typically involves concentrating your awareness onto a single point of focus, such as a repeated mantra, why not try focusing on the ringing instead? And by extension, if I learned to focus on the sound by choice, maybe it would bother me less when I chose not to.
Much to my delight, I found that by choosing to focus intensely on the ringing, it was indeed much easier to ignore. It seemed to steadily lose its power to bother me. It seems counterintuitive but it’s helped me a great deal. Stress, especially physiological stress (muscle tension), can make your tinnitus worse. So any practice that combines meditation as well as directly managing tinnitus is a winning combination in my book. My strategy slowly evolved into a meditation technique I refer to as “The Tinnitus Meditation.” It’s easy to learn, but like all meditation, will require practice and effort. Here’s how it works:
The Tinnitus Meditation Technique:
You don’t need to know how to meditate to learn and practice this technique. It will help both beginners and experts alike. It can be done sitting or lying down. First, get comfortable and make sure you will have no distractions. If you have never meditated before I suggest setting a timer for 5-10 minutes. If you are an experienced meditator, you can do this for as long as you’d like, but set a timer. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths into your diaphragm (lower abdomen). Consciously relax your whole body, starting with your feet, working your way up to your head.
Focus your entire attention on the sound of your tinnitus. For the first several minutes, just maintain this focus. If you find your mind drifting, gently bring it back to the sound. Hopefully, you will slowly find yourself deeply relaxed into a meditative state. See if you can find variations in the sound. If you listen carefully, you may find there are multiple tones or noises. Explore this with a mindset of genuine curiosity.
Next, while still focusing on the sound, imagine that there is a large volume knob in front of you that controls the volume of the sound. Imagine yourself playing with the volume knob, turning it up and down. You may be as surprised as I was to find, that the volume of the sound can be affected. Sometimes I imagine a large on/off switch as well and mentally flip it up and down. Now imagine that there is a second knob right next to the volume that controls the tone of the sound. Imagine yourself turning this knob as well. I was amazed to find that I can temporarily lower and raise the frequency of the tones of my tinnitus by doing this. Continue to focus on the sound until your timer goes off.
I noticed while practicing this, that if I catch my mind drifting, for that brief bit of time my tinnitus wasn’t bothering me at all. This gave me hope initially and I’ve now found that after practicing this technique for a while, my tinnitus seems to barely ever bother me. Remember though, like all meditation techniques though, it will take practice. I hope this approach can help you as much as it has helped me!