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!

101 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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Thank you for this advice. I am going to try…:)

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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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I practice meditation, and it helps me relax when I take that time out, but afterwards I still get overwhelmed too easily. I take stimulant medication, and it has helped, but I will never be perfect. I have ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder characterized by overthinking to a point of absurdity, 2 teenagers, and am taking online college classes. I can not stand any noise except for some study music that I have learned to handle. I like the alpha wave music while studying and am convinced it helps to keep my mind from wondering. I always feel like I am running out of time for something and it makes my frustrations worse. I know that my anxiety seriously affects my memory, and I’m getting ready for midterm exams. I get upset and angry because, I have to read and reread, and have a hard time absorbing the information. I normally have no problem with sounds, and will turn background sounds into a song..but when I am studying it feels immeasurably difficult to think. I have so many things to do in my life, and I don’t have very much help from others, because my family is far away and my friends have their own kids and lives. I ask my kids to be quiet, but the length of time they must be completely silent is too much. They want to sing and laugh and do the things that kids do, but the walls are thin and I can’t just leave. I have tried turning up the concentration music, but I just feel so angry I want to put my fist through the wall..(not that I would, but I want to) I’ve gone to counseling, and understand cognitive behavior therapy, but I feel like noises are louder and more demanding of my attention than my inner dialogue that is reading and haven’t got a clue how to think my way out of being so distracted. This has always been an issue for me, and has caused a lot of frustration. When I am anxious it is usually the exact opposite..at those times my internal dialogue is so loud that I literally do not hear (or process) other people talking to me. I go into myself when I am in public places. Maybe I should get stressed and study in Walmart, because that would be a nightmare?! I get tunnel vision focus when under stress as some type of coping mechanism. The only reason that I assume that I don’t have that at home is because, I am suppose to have control in my home and in my life. I cannot control the strangers in the store, but I can make my children back off and be quiet, so maybe the real issue is that I am a control freak?.. It is as though noise stops my thoughts, but I know that this cannot logically be true. I wish I could just listen and appreciate the noise, but I want to not notice it so much. If you have ever seen the movie Punch, Drunk, Love with Adam Sandler..that is how I feel when I’m trying to study at home!

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I’m sorry to hear that you’re suffering, Holly. This is a site about meditation, and the article you’ve commented on is about dealing with noises in meditation. But you didn’t mention meditation in your comment, so I’m assume that you aren’t meditating. Perhaps you should give it a try. It might help you.

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I do meditate, and commented about the fact that I meditate and how I can handle noise while meditating, but the lack of residual affect afterwards that I experience. I was relating the article to personal experience in order to understand more about noise, meditation, awareness, presence in moment, etc. I felt that there was an obvious connection that could be related to this article. I apologize.

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Oh, boy! It’s right in the first sentence, isn’t it, Holly! Apologies. I obviously hadn’t woken up when I responded.

You didn’t mention how you deal with noise in meditation, and I’m curious about how you deal with this. Are you able to just allow sounds to come and go when you’re sitting? If you are, or if you learn to do that, then you can apply exactly the same principle in your daily life as well.

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Is it possible to meditate while a bass from another apartment is vibrating through the walls?

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Of course. It might not be easy to drop the reactivity that often arises at times like these, but it’s perfectly possible to have sounds like these be part of our meditation practice, and to be at peace with them. I’ve meditated in some extremely noisy places, and been able to find stillness and calm.

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I just moved into an apartment in which the neighbor below is a DJ and either watches TV at a loud volume of blasts his music. This is all late night making it hard to sleep.

Can I do mediation lying down on my bed and use the procedure you describe in order to calm the mind and let the fatigue naturally take it’s course to allow me to fall asleep?

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Yes, you can do that, Dan. It can take time to learn to let go of reacting to the noise, and to accept that you can in fact get to sleep even when there are loud sounds around you. It’s not the noise itself that keeps us awake, but our reaction to it.

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Thanks so much for writing on a topic that has been so painful in my life! I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and maybe a borderline case of some kind of autism and noise tops the list of symptoms. I struggle so much with anticipatory anxiety with noise issues resulting in sleep deprivation. Now I’m really struggling with my neighbor’s dog barking. The neighbor may take her dog outside and when I’m not done with my sleep and it starts getting light out my anxiety shoots up as I worry if the dog is going to bark or not and thus I can’t get back to sleep. Recently amidst all this obsessing I was awoken by a single bark from the dog on a couple of occasions which spiked my anticipatory anxiety. I was wearing earplugs and had my sound machine on that emits white noise going at the time but the single bark still woke me up. Is the bark waking me up because I’m anxious about dog barking interfering with my sleep? If so, can meditation help me to reduce my sensitivity to the single dog bark (and more than one bark if that happens) enabling me to sleep through dog barking? If there’s nothing I can do about the dog waking me up how am I supposed to find peace in that. I can’t seem to accept having the possibility of my sleep being disturbed every morning. So these questions focus on situational anxiety of actually being woken up by noise, not anticipatory anxiety (of course I need to work on that and you make the case that meditation can help with that).
One other question: It seems that I have control issues with noise where anger pops up. I still don’t understand how I can turn those powerful angry emotions into lovingkindness. Please explain. Thanks!

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Hi, Missy.

“…can meditation help me to reduce my sensitivity to the single dog bark (and more than one bark if that happens) enabling me to sleep through dog barking?”

Yes, it’s very likely that meditation can help you reduce your sensitivity to any “disturbance.” By being attentive to sensory stimuli and recognizing that it’s not inevitable that we react — in other words learning that we can accept the sounds around us — we can change our attitudes.

I’d suggest that a “just listening” meditation practice would be useful. This is where we make the sounds around us the object of our meditation practice by being mindfully attentive to them. You can remind yourself, as you listen, that you can’t change sounds, but that you can just allow them to pass through you.

“If there’s nothing I can do about the dog waking me up how am I supposed to find peace in that.”

Waking up isn’t the problem. If you wake up, you can go back to sleep again. It’s believing that there’s something wrong about waking up that keeps us awake. So again, practicing acceptance helps.

“I still don’t understand how I can turn those powerful angry emotions into lovingkindness.”

Well, you don’t literally change one emotion into another. You recognize that you have a choice about what you do with your thoughts, and that your emotions follow your thoughts. Anger may arise, and you may not have a choice about that, but you can choose whether or not to continue having angry thoughts. If you drop the angry thinking, then the anger starts to disappear. But you can also choose to bring in kind or compassionate thoughts. You can wish the dog well. You can recognize that the dog is probably feeling afraid and threatened, which is why it’s barking in the first place. It takes time and practice to continue training yourself like that, but you will start to feel softer and kinder inside if you persevere.

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I’m going to try this out. I’m having a hard time with noise..I feel like every sound is amplified once I get into a calm state of mind. Thank you

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The important thing to remember is that the problem is not the noise, but our resistance to the noise.

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This is wonderful advice, thank you for sharing.

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At times the noise is the problem and you should kindly let your neighbors know about it. You can change things sometimes. If something is not okay, say something. Don’t remain a victim.

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I agree with you, Scott. The problem, however, is if the noise doesn’t break an ordinance we’re are at the mercy of the neighbors, hoping that they will help. I love that you used the word “kindly.” Being kind will definitely increase the chance that help will be offered. And the police may help facilitate an agreement even if an ordinance is not broken. I (turning to police is supposed to be a last resort).

Again, good solid advice but for those of us who have problems tolerating noise we have to be prepared to deal with it if the noise can’t be eliminated or controlled. Frustratingly, one can be awfully noisy but still be within the ordinance. I so wish noise ordinances were stricter.

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One more thing. The following is a message for the site: we should all have the ability to edit and even delete our comments just like it’s set up on sites like YouTube.

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That would be a good idea. It’s a shame that the software the site runs on doesn’t allow for that.

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Wow, such a helpful article and such wonderful responses to the comments! Thank you! I am from Glasgow myself, so can appreciate how noisy the city centre is.

I struggle with reactivity to noise, specifically my neighbour’s dog barking. This affects me in meditation and outside of it, to the point I have given up meditating because of my reactions and the constant anticipation of noise. I live and work in a small converted garage in the countryside, with just two houses next to me, and there is no noise except for the neighbour’s dog next door barking when it is let outside. It is by no means excessive, it is simply a dog being a dog. However, it startles me, makes my heart race and I can literally feel the cortisol flooding my body when it happens and I know that it is because of the thoughts associated with the noise. It is followed by a barage of negative thoughts, about the house I live in (‘I hate this place, I will never feel at ease here’), the neighbours (‘why don’t they take the dog in as soon as it barks? They must not care about other people, selfish so-and-sos’) and the noise (‘this is never going to stop, what will I do? Should I move? I feel so helpless’). I have resisted putting earplugs in or listening to white noise when it happens, because I feel that is running away from the noise and won’t help, but I can go from feeling pretty good, to hearing the barking and feeling trapped, depressed, fearful and violated. I know it is irrational (I have had dogs myself and know how noisy they can be!) but knowing that does not stop this reactivity that I have somehow catastrophised into a habitual pattern. I would very much appreciate your suggestions on how to deal with this noise that my unconscious mind/ body responds to so violently before my consciousness has even identified it! Thank you Bodhipaksa <3

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Hi, Jenny.

The part of your brain that’s producing a reaction in the body before you are even consciously aware anything is going on is doing so based on internalized “rules” or guidelines. It’s possible to deduce what these are by observing what we react to and in what circumstances. So you may have a “rule” that says “I should not be disturbed by unwanted noise while I am at home” or something like that. Your response to hearing a dog barking while you’re walking in a park in the city might be completely different, or indifferent.

Those rules are not hardwired but are established on the basis of previous experiences, thought-patterns, etc. And it’s possible to rewrite them. If you keep sending messages saying things like “Dogs bark, that’s just what they do” or “If I was a dog, I’d be barking right now” — saying these things especially at the times that the dog is barking — then you’re modifying the old rule. I’ve had to do this with other similar annoyances, for example when I’m trying to get my children to hurry. (“It’s developmentally appropriate for children to get distracted and to play.”)

It’s really important that you catch the critical thoughts as quickly as you can and drop it in favor of more accepting thoughts. The critical thoughts are reinforcing the rule…

Developing lovingkindness for the dog and its owners is another way to reprogram your subconscious. They more you consider a dog as a feeling being, the less you think of it as sent to plague you.

I’ve noticed also that people very quickly change their sense of what’s acceptable when they start to participate in the activity they’ve previously found annoying. A lot of people, before they got a mobile phone, found people with cellphones very annoying. Getting your own mobile phone removes the annoyance. It may not be feasible for you to get a dog, but perhaps you could dog-sit for a friend once in a while, and become the “offender” (which means no longer seeing the offense as an offense!).

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Dear Bodhipaksa,

Your comment was so helpful, thank you. You’re so right, I barely notice dogs barking outside my home, but when I’m at home and there is noise, it seems to affect me a million times more. Already I feel an inner ease knowing that my habitual thought patterns are able to be altered and I don’t need to wake every day fearing the arising of the dog’s barking and the associated turmoil. Now when it arises, I can recognise unhelpful thoughts, acknowledge the dog and send it my love, recognising it is only doing what it is meant to do and this is not out of the ordinary or any kind of threat. I have also considered taking that particular dog for a walk, going round and introducing myself to the neighbours and offering to walk their dog when they’re out in the evening. I thought that might allow me to ingratiate myself with the dog, and allow its barks to seem more innocuous and less threatening!

Thank you again,

Jenny

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