Sound Mapping with WOLF School

One of the first times I sat down with intention was when I was working as an outdoor school naturalist with WOLF School in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

A part of the curriculum was to highlight heightened senses that different animals possess. Many animals have very good sense of hearing, so I had my students sit down alone for 10 minutes, close their eyes and listen to the different sounds around them. This activity was called sound mapping. Sometimes we would hear bugs, a stream in the distance, birds or footsteps. The instructions were not to look for what was making the sound, but try to decipher where the sound was coming from in relationship to them.

Previously, when I had gone on hikes, I had listened to nature as a whole entity. The birds, the wind, bugs humming past, the crunching of leaves or sticks under my feet were all the “sounds of nature”, not singular sounds or experiences. Creating a sound map allowed me to view each animal, even plants as singular beings, all with their own energies and purposes.

Sitting for these 10 minutes was really was the first time I sat and had been mindful. Bringing attention to a sound and then coming back to your body was the first time I truly played with the concept of awareness. To bring your full attention to where the sound was coming from until it completely dissipated into the surrounding forest felt powerful. When the sound had gone, the only place to bring your attention was back to yourself, to your breathing, or your seat upon the ground. Every detail that was felt or heard felt amplified, including emotions.

For some children this activity was accompanied by fear. I did sound mapping a lot during our night hikes. I would have them sit along the trail at least 15ft apart. Of course this could be frightening for a child who has not spent evenings in the forest. Before we set off on our dark journey, (if they were scared) I would ask them to question why they were afraid. Or if they found sitting boring, why did they find it boring. If they could not put their energy into listening, then at least they could use this time to ask themselves larger questions; for example, their roles as humans in nature, or how they interact with things like TV and electronics back at home. Having them explore their relationship (or lack of a relationship) with nature was important to me.

This is a great practice to do while out on a hike, or even during a normal sitting practice. Acknowledgement of sounds is something that is inevitable during a meditation practice, it brings you to the here and now. One of the special things about this activity is that it reminds you that we are magnificent individual beings—and so are the animals and plants that surround us. Together we are all connected in a large web of life, interdependent on each other and the different communities we are a part of.