Unplugged: Finding Mindfulness on My Commute

Walking to work not long ago, my ears were filled with the sounds of Washington, DC, and my mind was abuzz with everything that I needed to do in the hours ahead. Then, I stopped, and I heard the tweeting of birds — beautiful, soothing, and cheerful. I looked up, and little finches had filled the trees above me, saying good morning to the city.

The birds had taken up residence in some of those trees that look out of place in the city, the kind you look at and wonder how they’re able to live amid the concrete and exhaust. And yet here those trees stood, and the birds had found a home in them tweeting away. I stopped and watched them hop around for a few seconds, which may have confused those people walking past me.

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The reason I heard the birds that morning is because I didn’t have my earbuds in, which isn’t always the case. Walking to work, I’m often trying to finish a podcast or get a musical lift to start my day. Listening to music is one of my favorite things to do, and I find that as life gets busier, podcasts give me the flexibility to learn and be entertained on my own time. At home, in the car and on the street, I usually have something cranking.

Concerns about hearing loss and headphone use aside, I find that plugging in has a way of turning the volume down on the world around me. Often, this is exactly what I need — if I’m trying to get work done, some soothing white noise is much more conducive to productivity than the conversations happening in the hall outside my office.

But when I leave them in, and all I hear is what I want to hear, I miss a lot when I go out in the world. I can’t hear the woman on the corner asking for help, and I don’t hear the goofy conversation of the teenagers behind me deciding where to buy lunch. Yes, I drown out the clamor outside, but there’s a certain music to the beeping and rushing and slamming of a city working through its day.

More importantly, plugging in means that I don’t give my own mind the space it needs. When I’m listening to something, there’s not a lot of real estate in my head to think through things. Finding a moment of quiet is difficult when my ears are filled up, making it hard to reflect on where I am and how I should be responding to the world around me.

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There’s also some interesting science to support the idea that we are happier when we stay in the moment and navigate away from what’s in front of or behind us. The more I unplug, the more open and able I am to accept where I am and let go of what I think I should be. The stresses of the day and the regrets of the past fall quiet when I allow myself to enter the present moment and listen to the buzz of traffic and the songs in the trees.

I find a bit of peace in that — the peace that comes from being where you are, if only for a time, and experiencing all that this moment has to offer. It’s an opportunity for mindfulness, allowing the racket of the city to resonate through my senses and bring some much-needed calm to my morning.

That morning, headphones in or out, those birds would have gone about their business, singing their songs. But I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate them had I been plugged into whatever song shuffled into my ears. I would have only heard what I had planned to hear. I would have missed the peace that comes with the unexpected, and I’m grateful that my ears were open to it.

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