Dealing with noise
Carol, one of my meditation students, lives in a very noisy apartment in New York City. She wrote: “The subway train is right across the street, the police/fire station is right around the corner, and to top it all off there is a dance club on the bottom floor of my building! I’ve tried pretty much everything — earplugs, music, meditating at work instead of home — the only thing that really works is just to let it go and stop fighting it, but sometimes the noise will still yank me out of concentration.”
I replied as follows: “I think I used to live in that apartment, except that it was in the city center of Glasgow, Scotland. I think you’re on the right track by stopping fighting the noise. Take that one step further and appreciate the noise — embrace it. As you prepare for meditation, really notice and appreciate all of the noise around you.
Call to mind the living, breathing, feeling human beings behind the noise and wish them well. And then accept that noise as part of your meditation practice. Stay loosely focused on your breathing, and let the noise be a sort of secondary focus of the practice — like the ring around the bull’s-eye. If you stop seeing the noise as the enemy of the practice and instead see it as part of the practice, then the conflict will vanish.”
Trying to fight the noise is unlikely to work. The noise is not going to go away because you don’t like it. If you respond aggressively to it then you’re just getting yourself into a fight that you cannot win. In that apartment in Glasgow I had a dance club across the street, a taxi stand outside the windows, and a washing machine through the wall from where I meditated. When the washing machine got noisy, for example, what I would do was embrace the noise, just as I suggested to Carol.
I’d take this even further. What I’d do was reflect that the noise of the washing machine was a perception that existed in my consciousness. Since the noise of the washing machine was in my consciousness, and since my consciousness was meditating, then I reasoned that the washing machine was also meditating.
Realizing this made the washing machine noise just another part of my experience, like the sense of weight on my cushion, or like my breath, or like the emotions in my heart. It was no longer something separate from me that was interfering with my practice, but was a part of my practice.
Doing this, such noises could cease to be a problem altogether, and actually seemed to enrich my experience of meditation. Of course the logic in the above paragraph may not be entirely sound! But the important thing was that in creatively finding a way to stop seeing the noise as an enemy and to start seeing it as just another part of my experience — and a possible aid to may practice — it actually became an aid to my practice.