How Mindfulness Turned Down the Noise in My Head | + Guided Meditation

Constant ringing and noise in his ears from tinnitus brought crushing anxiety, despair and sleepless nights. No doctor could help. On the verge of professional collapse and personal breakdown, Jonathan stumbled upon an unlikely antidote – mindfulness meditation. What began as a last resort therapy to cope with the daily torment evolved into a profound life practice for creativity, clarity and calm.

Learn how mindfulness helped Jonathan find peace despite the unrelenting symptoms, trained his brain to let go of fixating on the noises, and transformed his life in unexpected ways. You’ll also be led through a soothing guided lovingkindness meditation designed to ground you in the present. Discover how saying yes to a mindfulness practice could fundamentally alter how you experience and navigate even the most difficult circumstances.

The guided meditation starts around 22:40 into the episode.

Episode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

Jonathan Fields: [00:00:02] So what if you had the ability to feel peaceful, at ease, grounded, focused, and calm no matter what was happening around you, no matter how calamitous or virtuous, loud or quiet things were? And what if that power also came with the ability to notice when your mind had dropped into a spin cycle of self-destructive, overthinking, chatter, doom, looping, fear and overwhelm and then literally just let it all go? Even if the circumstances were still there, it would give you this proverbial off switch and guide you back to peace and ease. Today, I want to share a deeply personal journey with you, one that, in a sense, builds on the conversation that we began last week around attention, and also probably explains to you my long-standing fascination with and commitment to meditation, and why I believe it is the single most powerful and accessible meta-skill in your quest to live a good life, no matter what comes your way, because it gives you agency over your attention. And as you will hear me share even more than circumstance where your attention goes, so goes your life. This will also be the final bonus episode. As regular listeners know, for many years we’ve produced two episodes a week, but starting in December of last year, we added a third bonus episode first to help guide you through a special year-end review process. And for the first few weeks in January, to support our month-long January Jumpstart series with a clear framework for achievement.


Jonathan Fields: [00:01:34] And now, in this final bonus episode with a much more personal story about the power of meditation in a way that you may have never thought about it and why you might want to explore. Saying yes to starting your own practice today. And I’ll wrap this final bonus episode with a very special kind of guided practice that’s designed to both bring you back to a grounded place and also open your heart just a bit, which is a great way to step into this new year. So excited to share this final bonus episode with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.. So 12 years ago, my world more or less fell apart and only three people knew. It was March of 2010. Stepping off a flight in Austin, Texas. Something goes a bit haywire in my brain. I notice an odd fluttering sensation in my left ear. Not so unusual after flying, but by evening when I lay my head on the pillow, this clicking or seeping sound, a bit like a Geiger counter, starts tapping away. And over the next four days the noise persists, making it near impossible to sleep. I’m getting exhausted, sensitized to sound, and a bit freaked out. So I start popping pills in a desperate attempt to get some shut-eye. And I made it through that window.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:00] And then, returning to New York, I call my doctor, try some nose spray, he says. And two weeks pass. Still no change. At this point, I start battling severe headaches from the fatigue, and I start taking other pills for that. And the timing, by the way, is pretty terrible. I have just signed a book deal with my dream publisher and I’m under deadline. But in my altered state, I can barely scratch out a sentence. I end up on a flight to Pittsburgh and Chicago to speak. The noise in my head follows. Everywhere I go back home, I try everything. I try acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, every modality you can think about. Still the Geiger counter clicks on. And it’s now joined by this kind of pulsing and wooshing sounds in my quote. Good ear. And I can’t focus for more than short windows. Nightfall becomes my enemy as the din of the city where I was then living in New York City fades, leaving me to battle the sound in darkness. And things are about to get worse. About a month and a half in. One evening at about two in the morning. I wake to this high-pitched electronic sound screaming through my head. I fumble through the darkness for an off switch. I must have left something on. Everything that can be off is off. And I realize this sound too. It’s coming from inside my head. And with my wife and then young daughter sleeping feet away, I collapse onto the couch and just begin to weep.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:50] And over the next few days, I find myself in a soundproof booth, poked and prodded and cocooned in a brain scan, looking to rule out all the big scary things. The good news it’s not a brain tumor or an aneurysm or cancer. And yet the sound remains. I can’t sleep. I can barely work. And I’m doing everything I can to keep it all secret from the world. I don’t tell my friends, my editor or my agent, because once I do, it becomes real. I have to own it and it becomes a conversation, one I can’t bear the thought of having. So I bury my pain and hang on to the hope that it still may just go away. Every time I hear an ambient hum or a high-pitched noise, I wonder. Is that real or is it in my head? And I want to ask, can you hear that? But then everyone would know. And soon after a diagnosis finally comes tinnitus or tinnitus, which I learn as a catch-all phrase for oh, your brain is making you hear stuff nobody else hears, but we’ve got no clue why. It’s so poorly understood. Doctors can’t even really agree how to pronounce the word. Tinnitus. Tinnitus. Tinnitus. Tinnitus I hear both. Have you been exposed to loud noises? I’m asked.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:14] No. What about medication? Well, I’ve been popping sleep and headache meds for weeks, and I checked the side effects for both meds online. And there it is. Buried in the fine, fine and even finer print. Potentially tinnitus or tinnitus. So now maybe I have a possible cause. But even then, who knows? Really? They certainly don’t. My only question how do I make this go away? The answer when I asked the doctors. You don’t. For some reason. For some people it goes away over time, but the longer it stays, the more likely you’ll have it forever. So back online, I start to read stories of people whose tinnitus leads to crushing anxiety, depression, estrangement, lost jobs and destroyed lives, sometimes even ends of lives. This can’t be happening to me. My entire life depends upon my ability to create things. I am a maker. I’m screaming towards a book deadline, but the words aren’t coming to create I need peace. But I can’t hide from the noise that constantly barrages my brain every second of every day. And I wonder if the love of my life, my wife, will get tired of my struggle. Will it push me from my daughter, my source of breath and inspiration? Will I be able to earn a living doing what I’m here to do and put food on my family’s table? In a few days pass. I awaken to find the Geiger counter in my left ear gone.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:53] My God, there’s hope. I’m thinking to myself. Some small window of peace returns. Until three days later, the Geiger counter returns. And the fluttering and pulsing sensation in my right ear. It evolves into extreme sensitivity to certain frequencies, to certain sounds. My wife stands at my side as I’m cupping my ear, trying to block out sound. Are you okay? And I shake my head near tears. What’s going on? Certain sounds, I tell her. They seem to kind of make my brain scramble. And the sound of your voice is one of them, and I try to laugh it off. That is not something that you want to say. And she tells me it’s really upsetting. Of course. Why don’t you take something to help you sleep and get rid of your headaches? She asks, and I’m barely hanging on, I say. God forbid. Drugs were in some way a part of the cause of this, and we have no idea what it really was, and I take something that makes it worse. I think I’d want to end things. I can’t believe what I’ve just said. This cannot go on. And for the first time. I begin to ask a different question. If the smartest doctors in the world can’t make the sound go away. If this is me for life, what do I do with that? Is there some way to turn my tormentor into my teacher? And the Buddhist slogan abandoned hope finds its way into my mind.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:33] And for the first time, I actually get it. I had railed against this, really not understanding what it’s about for years and studies of eastern philosophy. And they start to realize it’s not about giving up. But rather shifting your energy from trying to change and unchangeable circumstance to changing the way you experience it. And I begin to wonder why I hear sounds around me all day. I’m in New York City, literally. I’m being barraged with noise, with sounds all day, all night, every day. But only the sound coming from my brain brings me to my knees. Is there some way to train the part of my brain that spirals into anxiety to be okay with the other part of my brain that creates the sound that haunts it? Can I find peace with the possibility? That this may never go away. And in fact, at any given moment, it may get worse. I scour the web for ideas, tools, resources, strategies. There’s an odd irony here. The book that I’m writing at the time. We’re trying to write in random fits and starts. It begins as an exploration of peak performance, but along the way refocuses on uncertainty as a key to peak performance. And this shift becomes my salvation. I find myself in knee-deep in research about mindfulness meditation. The practice trains you to dissociate circumstance from story, to give you the space to create a different frame, to tell a different story, to hold on to what you want to hold on to and let go of what you don’t.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:15] And this fuels a certain freedom and possibility instead of pain and paralysis. Then I begin to connect the dots. It’s not the sound that’s causing me so much pain, but rather my brain’s inability to hear it as anything but pain. To just fold it into the background the way I do with all the other sounds in the city. And I wonder if mindfulness might be able to help me live with more ease for as long as the sound in my head sticks around. But I have no idea if it’ll work. So I start looking for someone, anyone with an answer. And I’m close to giving up. When out of the ether, also known as the internet, my spirit guide emerges in the form of a tinnitus-suffering former rock drummer turned mindfulness-based cognitive therapist named Bruce. And I make an appointment and I go in. He happens to be two blocks from where I live. I ask him if mindfulness works for tinnitus. Yes, at least he says it might. Ten years into his tinnitus, the sound in his head mysteriously got louder and shriller and he didn’t know what to do. So he turned to mindfulness based therapy and it helped him.


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:30] So I scheduled the appointment. He explains what I’ve got to do, but when he gives me the instructions, I’m a little bit devastated. I know them well. I have practiced and even taught meditation on and off for years. Mostly off, by the way. Focus on your breath. And if you get distracted by the same thing over and over, focus on what distracts you. For now, he shares, you won’t be able to focus on anything but the sound, so you must make that your focus. So that night I go home. I sit on the floor next to an old radiator. I don’t want to do it the way my drummer therapist tells me. I try to focus on my breath, but he’s right. All I hear is the sound. Close my eyes. I turn toward the sound, screams at me. It tears through me. I begin to shake with anxiety. It’s just too much. So I deep breathe until I’m calm again, and I start to use breathing exercises that I had studied and taught as a yoga teacher for many years before that. And I try again and again and again and again, over and over and over, day after shaking anxious day until it starts to get just a little bit easier. And then one day. I noticed something. As I sit, consumed by sound. My mind drifts away from it. And returns to my breath. The cycle begins to break itself.


Jonathan Fields: [00:14:16] The sound is still there, or at least the stimulus for the sound. But I begin to let it go. To rediscover ease, to see just the smallest glimmer of peace. I have the capacity, I realize, to live with this, but not make it my life. Over the last dozen years, I have kept to this daily practice, explored a variety of ways to kind of better tune it to my needs as I move through different seasons of life now and support me in different ways. I begin every morning with a blend of breathing exercises that still anchor back to that moment, with an emphasis on extended exhales and open-throated pauses that bring my breathing rate. Now, after practicing this for years down to probably somewhere in the order of 2 to 3 breaths a minute, which is down from the normal of about 16 breaths per minute. It’s taken years, but slowly, by slowly, my body has learned to down-regulate very quickly through the mechanism of breath, and it’s designed to rapidly bring me into a deeply grounded state. And I then transition into a basic mindfulness practice that blends both focusing on my breath. And then opening my attention to all sensations around me. And these two approaches help me both notice where my tension is and keep cultivating the skill of holding it where I want it to be, and letting go of the places and the thoughts and the emotions and the feelings and the stimuli that I don’t want it to be attending to, and also expanding my attention to allow all sensations to come into my experience, to let it all in.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:08] And then, like a breeze against a screen summer porch on a on a hot day, just let it blow through without holding on to it or grasping for it. And they also mix in what we call a loving-kindness meditation, which I’ll share more about in just a few moments. And then after the break, I’ll actually guide you through if you’re inclined to give it a try. So, as I share all of this with you today. The sound remains, but maybe not really. And I’m okay. And I guess maybe I’m okay because maybe it’s not really there. What I’ve learned is that. Any sensory experience is one part stimulus and one part what the brain does with that stimulus or input. Now, in this case, my brain is both the source of the sound, the stimulus, and the receiver or translator of it. The thing that says there is a sound here and also tells me whether it’s okay or not. But there’s something else a massive realization. My perceiving brain only experiences the sound or the experience. The sensation of sound. When my attention is focused on it, sure, the stimulus is always there. At this point, I assume it will be for life.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:33] Part of my brain is generating something that says there’s a sound to be perceived, but I’ve trained my brain to stop maniacally locking its attention onto it. And in fact, I now have to actively direct my attention to it if I even want to be aware of the sound. And now when I hear it, because I know it no longer consumes or defines me, I can just let it go. Redirect my attention to the thousand other things that captivate and interest me. And it’s not even that my practice has trained my brain to ignore the sound anymore, because my attention, more than my circumstance, or external or internal stimulus in effect. Determines my reality. For all intents and purposes, when I don’t look for it, it doesn’t exist. And this capacity has now, over a period of deepening practice for over a dozen years, it has changed my life in ways that extend far beyond its initial purpose. Joseph Campbell said. It’s by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of our life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. And sometimes we go into the abyss willfully. Other times. Most times, the universe delivers us kicking and screaming. My abyss. It was the sound in my head. It brought me to my knees. But it also brought me to my treasure, to my practice. To who and what mattered.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:05] Once I opened to the possibility that within this struggle lay the potential for growth. So I still have days when I’m over tired and stressed where my attention sneaks back to the sound. But they’re extremely rare now, and when it happens, I also I understand what’s really happening and know how to proactively let it go. I’ve been able to return to writing and speaking, loving and being present in the people’s lives who mean the world to me, to creating and to living. And my practice. The thing I came to as a last resort, therapy to take me from -100 back to zero, has now taken me from zero to plus 100. It’s become a place to touch stone, a source of extraordinary creativity, clarity and power. Fuel for ease, one that reaches so much farther into the fabric of my life than I ever intended or expected. And here’s the thing. Every one of us has our own quote sound in our heads, our own source of fear, our own place of deep uncertainty, distraction, pain, paralysis, or suffering our own abyss. Waiting to deliver us into our treasure. So I guess my question for you is this. What if you said yes to taking the first step into a daily practice that held the power to slowly over time? Give you the agency over not just your attention, but the way you experience nearly every moment of your life.


Jonathan Fields: [00:20:47] Whether it’s mindfulness, mantra-based, TM, chanting, prayer or the many other approaches, any practice that gives you the capacity to notice where your attention is and is not. And then direct it away from negative or destructive thoughts or emotions or experiences, and toward positive grounding, wellness-supporting experiences. That is a practice that truly can become the foundation of your ability to live the life you want to live, no matter what the world puts in your path. And that’s why I wanted to share my personal meditation journey with you today. We spend some time on the podcast with Tara Brock and others, who’s a wonderful teacher of insight meditation. Every week on her podcast, actually, she offers a guided meditation, which is a wonderful way to start if you’re looking for a place to drop into this practice. And there are now also so many fantastic apps just loaded with literally thousands of teachers and voices and approaches that you can try on experiment with so you can find what resonates most for you. The invitation is really to try to just explore. Now we’re going to head into a quick break, but when I come back, I’m going to share with you a guided meditation that’s called a Loving Kindness or Metta meditation. And I regularly mix this into my own practice because it grounds me both in noticing and in compassion. And there’s actually research that shows this kind of meditation over time cultivates very real, positive change in the way that you feel.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:34] So I’ll see you back here shortly for a guided metta meditation. So find a nice comfortable seat. It can be on a couch. It can be a cushion, a bolster, or whatever allows you to kind of settle in and a nice upright but not overly erect position. So you want to be feel like you’re active but not straining so you’re comfortable. You can sit for a little bit of time here, so just wiggle around a little bit and settle in so that you feel good with whatever you’re doing. Just close your eyes for a moment and just notice your body. Do a quick scan from the top of your head. And let your attention just slowly pour down through your body, just noticing how everything feels. You can kind of move your shoulders around a little bit, squeeze them for a second, and as you exhale, just kind of drop them and let them hang loosely and. Bring your awareness down around your hips and your legs, and just notice the sensation as they settle into the cushion or whatever it is that you’re sitting on. Feeling the sit bones in contact and the legs in contact with the floor or wherever they may be touching. Take a nice inhale with your eyes closed. Full body. Inhale through your nose. And through your mouth. Just let it all out.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:03] And again through your nose. Inhale. And through your mouth. Once more. And through your mouth. Just feel your body settle just really comfortably. The eyes still closed again. Just scanned from the top of the head slowly. It’s almost as if your attention were drifting down through you. Like an ephemeral line of awareness. It just slowly lowers from the tippy top of your head, down through your body and as it goes, just noticing. That everything seems to release so comfortably, so gently, without intention, without having to force anything. Just noticing your breath, noticing your body, finding a nice, comfortable place. And as you do. Very slowly, very deliberately. Ease your left hand up and place your left palm right against your heart so you feel the warmth of your hand slowly penetrating in. Can you feel the soft energy of your heart slowly pouring out into your palm? Just notice that sensation for a moment. And then equally slowly, really gently. Just slowly ease your right hand up so that your palm is sitting gently against the stomach. Again, noticing the warmth pouring in from the palm. And similarly, the softest energy barely perceptible. Just pouring back out into the palm. You may notice that your shoulders may have raised or tightened a bit as you did that. So keeping your hands where they are, relaxing your palms, but keeping them where they are, just slowly let your shoulders relax down.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:13] Soften them a little bit again. With your eyes still closed with the next inhale. Breathe slowly into the top palm and let your inhale pour down into the bottom as it pushes gently out. And then slowly exhale, allowing the bottom hand to recede in and the top hand to settle back into the chest. And again breathing in through the top palm and then pouring it down into the bottom. And then exhaling from the bottom, slowly rising up and down, letting everything settle. Just one more time into the top. Through the bottom. And then exhale, letting the hands slowly slide back into the center of the body. Keeping that stillness, that energetic circuit between the heart and the center. With your eyes closed. Just slowly release your palms gently back down into your lap or whatever feels comfortable to you. Returning to the sensation of your breath. And then bring a visual representation in your mind’s eye. Picture yourself just sitting here. With a sense of ease, a sense of comfort, a sense of acceptance. Just create that picture of yourself. And then begin to offer yourself certain wishes. So with that vision sitting in front of you. As you breathe, just very slowly and quietly recite with your mind the following phrases. May you be free. May you be happy. May be healthy. May you be loved. May you live with ease, sending it out to you, to yourself.


Jonathan Fields: [00:28:36] And you can even change it to I. So let’s try that. May I be free. May I be happy. May I be healthy? May I be loved. May I live with ease. May I be free. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be loved. May I live with ease. May I be free? Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. Repeating the phrase while you hold that image of yourself, wishing these things to yourself and opening surrendering to those wishes, allowing them to land. May I be free? Be happy, be healthy, be loved. Live with ease. Take a nice big inhale and then exhale and just let go of that image of yourself. And now take a moment and just bring into your mind’s eye the image of somebody who you love unconditionally, somebody who is so dear to you. And they may be with us today, or they may be somebody who’s past. It’s okay, either one. Bring that vision and make it. Make it as clear as you can. What do they look like? What are they wearing? What do they feel like? Create that visual in your mind’s eye. And then we offer that same set of blessings or wishes to them. May you be free. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. May be happy.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:05] May you be healthy. May you be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. Continuing to repeat those. What? You hold that image of this person who you care so deeply about in your mind’s eye. May you be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. And just continue slowly with that very slowly. And then as you’re ready, take a deep inhale and then slowly just exhale and let it all out. And then let go of the image of that person. Just let it sort of float off into the ether, and then very gently bring your mind’s eye to the image of somebody who maybe appears in your daily life, but you really have no feelings for, you know, no specific connection to somebody. Maybe you see, in passing, maybe it’s somebody who’s at the deli who makes your coffee or a barista, or maybe it’s just somebody who, you know, in passing but really don’t have any connection, no strong feeling for or about or against. Just bring a picture of that into your mind’s eye. See them in your mind’s eye. And then we share that same series of wishes to them. Holding that in your eye. May be free. May be happy. May be healthy. May you be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. May you be happy. May be healthy.


Jonathan Fields: [00:33:30] May be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Beloved. Live with ease. May be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. Take a nice inhale. And as you exhale, just let that person go into the ether. Vanishing away. And then bring your mind’s eye very gently, very gently. To the image of somebody with whom you feel a sense of unease or sense of struggle. It may be somebody you feel has done you wrong. It may just be somebody who you’re not comfortable with. And this can sometimes be challenging. And if doing so starts to bring up so much discomfort or unease or suffering within you, then just allow that person to drift off and replace them with yourself because you’re the one in need of wishes of love. So hold that person in your mind’s eye and create that same image, and to them we offer the same. May you be free. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be loved. May you live with ease. May you be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. May you be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. Taking a gentle breath. And as you exhale, just let that person evaporate out into the ether and just letting your mind go still.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:17] Nice and quiet. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:23] And then finally, and very gently. Bringing into your mind’s eye the experience of all those people and all those beyond a sense of oneness, as if, no matter who it is that we perceive to exist outside of this solitary boundary we call our body, we’re all just a part of one shared existence. When shared energy, one shared experience of love, surrender, and generosity. Feeling that connectedness and bringing your mind’s eye, a sense of oneness, a community, a vision however you choose to manifest it in your mind’s eye of those beings all around you, every one with whom we’ve just talked. And the greater community around us. And we offer those same blessings to us all. May we be free. May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be loved. May we live with ease. May we be free. May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be loved. May we live with ease. May we be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Be loved. Live with ease. May we be free. Be happy. Be healthy. Being loved. Live with ease. Taking a deep breath in and feel all the room, all those inner mind’s eye. And as you exhale, just let them all evaporate into the ether. With the eyes still closed again, very gently return a soft left palm to your heart and a soft right palm to your stomach. Just breathe into your hands, feeling the connection. Letting the shoulders relax. And with this final exhale allowing your palms to just gently return to your lap, surrendering open shoulders relaxed. And as you’re ready, very slowly. Letting your eyes lift open. Looking gently around. And bringing the same energy. To the rest of your day.


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