Dealing with noise

commutersCarol, 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 feelings 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.

There’s another approach that’s related, and which I’ve found useful. Often when I’m meditating I begin by becoming aware of the space around me. I very consciously become aware of the space in front, behind, and to the sides—even above and blow me. It can almost feel as if my mind is expending into the space surrounding me, expending even outside of the room that I’m in. (I’m not saying that my mind is actually doing this, just that it feels like that’s what’s happening.) I’m aware of the light coming through my closed eyelids, and of any sounds that are arising.

Rather than being an annoyance or distraction, any sounds that are present become an opportunity to be mindful. I’m practicing “mindfulness of listening.” I remain open and curious about the sounds. I let go of any thoughts that arise, in favor of paying attention to the sounds themselves. I can’t stop sounds, or make them change, or turn down the volume, so I simply accept them. I let them pass through the space of my awareness (which is the same thing as the space around me) without thinking about whether I like or don’t like them.

If there are pleasant or unpleasant feelings that arise in response to particular sounds, I just allow them to be there, but I don’t create stories (“I wish that sound would stop! How long is this going to go on!”).

When I’m doing this, sounds no longer bother me.

How well does this work? One time I was visiting a friend’s house, and I wanted to take a nap. They warned me that there were roofers working on the condo, directly above my head. Sure enough, as I lay down in bed there was a constant “CHUNK, CHUNK, CHUNK” of nailguns, just a few feet over my head. Within minutes I was asleep and I had a delicious 90 minute nap!

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80 Comments. Leave new

Thanks for posting this. I am in a garden level studio apartment with a parent, kid and dog wrestling all day above. If I dare sit, the meditation is all about releasing the reaction coming up to the noise. I start to release the tanha, etc that is leading to my irritation and supporting my identification. Then it’s just sitting. Until the next cycle of releasing my next irritation.

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Hi, Sam.

I hope you continue to take the risk and dare to sit. At first your effort may well be, as you say, letting go of your reactions to the sounds. But with practice, especially if you learn how to have an expansive awareness of the sounds around you, you’ll find that you can simply let the noise be. There can be various stages:

1. Sit there getting mad at the person or thing making the noise; being completely caught up in reactivity.
2. As above, but when you notice you’re distracted you let go of the reactive thoughts, return to your sensory experience, and consciously allow the body to relax.
3. You may notice a jarring sensation in the body when a sudden sound happens, or perhaps an ongoing unpleasant sensation with a continuous sound, but you accept this with equanimity and the mind doesn’t react.
4. You’re aware of the sound but it doesn’t bother you. In fact it’s simply part of your meditation practice. You may even extend lovingkindness to the source of the noise.
5. You tune out the sound as you become more absorbed in focusing on something else in your experience (e.g. the breathing).

This takes practice, which is why I encourage you to keep sitting.

These qualities of nonreactivity are highly transferrable, by the way, so you’ll find that the benefits extend to other parts of your life.

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Janetfoxwell
June 11, 2015 5:41 pm

Thank you very much for your quick response I’m really ready to conquer this and will put into practise your advice

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Hi,

I’ve been struggling with anxiety for 11 years now, and it all relates to noisy neighbours: everywhere I’ve lived in that time (four places) has been next door to bad or noisy people — even when they’re quiet, I’m wracked with anxiety because I’m expecting noise.

My anxiety has gotten unbearable lately, after the neighbours have been incredibly noisy, and I’m now on anti-depressants. I haven’t tried meditation yet, but I’m so filled with anger at the people I’m not sure I could feel anything but hatred towards them. However, I also know I can’t keep on like this — I feel upset, fragile, anxious, afraid and more all the time.

Can you suggest the best meditations to start with, please?

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I always suggest mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practice as the two places to start, Ky.

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Hi Bodhipaksa,

Many thanks for your response!

I’m going to read more on this site, and hopefully find a way to help myself be free of my constant anxiety.

Ky

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I’m not talking about simple noise. I’m talking about screams as loud as they can be that hurts the ears. Is it really possible to meditate, study, live in harmony while such is happening?

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Probably not, Pelapse.

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