Before we go into some guidelines on how to practice absolute listening, we should first understand that there are a variety of ways to employ absolute listening. Depending on our circumstances and intentions, we have a bit of flexibility in deciding what degree of awareness we are to apply to our listening. The most concentrated version of absolute listening can involve a pure and exclusive focus on the music itself. This might include finding a peaceful environment, settling into comfortable listening pose, and closing our eyes to allow for a total immersion in the sound.

As an option to this concentrated approach, we can practice with our eyes open while sitting or walking in various interesting environments, or while attending a live concert. Whatever the approach or circumstance, the goal is the same — to establish a high quality of awareness that allows our power music to enter and awaken us.

The following pointers are to be used in whatever manner we wish to practice absolute listening.

Spend a few moments creating emptiness by clearing the mind and focusing on the silence or sounds that surround you. After a period, exhale, and start your musical selection. From the first instant the music begins to sound, surrender to it completely, breathing in the initial sound slowly with a full, complete breath.

With unwavering pure attention, simply be present as each musical moment emerges. If your mind wanders while listening (and it will) be aware of it, and allow each thought or attitude to pass as you gently bring your awareness back to the musical moment.

Whatever arises in the music — consonance, dissonance, the expected or unexpected — accept it and experience it thoroughly. Open your heart to the sound, equally feeling the tension as well as the release. Our goal is not to force a response, but rather to permit the music to move us, letting the music find us instead of us trying to finding it. This is not a process of doing but of allowing and letting go.

Breathe firmly and evenly, allowing the abdomen rise and fall gently. When particularly vibrant musical moments arrive, it can be helpful to respond with our breathing, taking a strong deep breath during a more climactic moment, or exhaling during a moment of release. Most importantly, savor each development. A truly resonant musical moment is a gift. It is within these subtle moments that we become fully alive.

Do your best to avoid analyzing, labeling or searching for a suggestion of meaning. Don't concern yourself with memorizing or acquiring an overall picture of the piece, or even the particular significance of a passing musical idea. This will happen on its own. Listen without naming, comparing, or any internal dialogue whatsoever. Although we may want to experiment with shifting the focus of our awareness around the musical landscape as in 'active listening,' our aim here is to gather the unified essence of the music, rather than any singular aspect.

Be on the lookout for any judgments or criticisms that may arise, letting them go as you return to an open awareness of the music. Try to manage the impulse to anticipate what is coming next. Let each phrase, each cadence, say what it has to say with no rush. Although we will be working with images and visualizations in our next communing technique, we are not to encourage them in absolute listening. If images spontaneously appear, try to let them go and return your awareness to the musical moment.

Whatever is evoked, allow all responses to flow freely. If you feel the urge to cry, laugh or moan, just let it happen. Feel free to react to the music with facial expressions, or mild movements of the body. There will be a fuller exploration of movement in the upcoming communing technique of 'musical kinetics.'

If we choose to practice with our eyes open — outside or inside — we can either incorporate what we are seeing and sensing into our experience, or de-emphasize our surroundings, settling into an unfocused gaze. If our environment seems to effectively complement the experience in some way, we can allow what we are sensing to become a part of the overall scenario — the trees, the sunset, the crowd, the smells, the temperature, the entire scene.

If attending a live performance, you many want to experiment with occasionally closing your eyes to avoid becoming distracted by what you are seeing. There may be times when it can be interesting to watch the performers in the act of making music, but we need to guard against becoming distracted by internal comments on the performers themselves. Experiment with this using your intuition as a guide.

If you are responding well to the music, and find yourself reaching a climax before a particular selection is finished, feel free to fade the music slowly out. It is your option to stop where you are and simply absorb what the music has evoked within you.

Whatever the musical experience brings us, it doesn't have to end when the music stops. As the conclusion of the music delivers you back into the reality of the present moment, remain still, making an extra effort to still the mind. Try not to jump immediately into thought, not even to reflect on what you experienced. Remain in stillness and simply enjoy what has been evoked. Then, after a period, bring your awareness back to your surroundings, taking full advantage of your fresh perspective. Sense your environment anew and incorporate your heightened awareness into the subsequent events of your day.

If, after the experience is over, it was less than you desired, or if it wasn't particularly effective, reflect on what occurred. What went right or wrong? What worked and what didn't? Were you unprepared or distracted? Was the music inappropriate for the circumstance? Were your expectations too high? Use these insights to refine the details of your practice. In general, it may help to understand that the quality of our experience will certainly vary from one to the next. We can start to accept (and even expect) these natural fluctuations as part of our practice. Our less than satisfactory experiences play a role in creating contrast and ultimately help define what is a powerful experience.

While incorporating these guidelines, keep in mind that there is no set formula to follow. It is through practice, experimentation and patience that we find what works best for us.

Matthew Cantello in Communing with Music