We just ended the 20th week of 2020. Doesn’t it feel like 20 years have passed since January 1st? In good times or bad, through ups and downs, meditation is a great refuge and island of peace that anyone of any level can cultivate. The practice has certainly helped me keep my bearings in a tumultuous year.
At the beginning of 2020, I took on the challenge of meditating 100 hours across the year. As of the end of week 20, my count is 54 hours and 45 minutes. Passing the halfway mark is quite the morale boost so thank you all for keeping me accountable!
Are you taking the challenge or do you already meditate? If so, are distractions like loud noises driving you so crazy you sometimes want to quit? You took the time to finally sit and now this! It’s maddening. Here’s how to deal with them so your practice – and sanity – stay intact.
Noises & Distractions
Random noises are one of the biggest hindrances for beginners. Probably we’ve all been sitting in meditation, trying to focus, when suddenly an ambulance or police car drives wailing by or a jackhammer starts drilling and won’t stop. Maybe a dog barks or a loud conversation drifts through our window. The refrigerator may even choose that moment to hum loudly or our neighbors decide to mow their lawn. Or a construction team goes to work. Whatever the case, our concentrated is shattered or we feel irritable and annoyed by the unwelcome disruption.
These noises are common occurrences during meditation and our responses to them are also normal. So often we try to refocus and can’t. We might resent the intrusion into our attempts at tranquility. Here we finally sat down and now this! We may even get annoyed at our annoyance or inability to focus, compounding the problem. We go from peaceful to stewing in our heads worse than before we sat down!
But is there actually a problem?
Let’s take a step back and look at this from a different angle.
We get so wrapped up in doing something “right” or “perfectly” that we lose sight of the purpose of meditation. We’re trying to teach the mind to be present to what is happening now. Much of that being present means learning to accept the imperfection of the moment, not escape it, and acknowledge that we have very little control of much of anything that is going on outside us. At best, we can only try to control our response to what is happening. This might mean acting, refraining from acting, seeing the situation in a new light, or accepting what is without our emotions or thoughts running us in circles or fits.
The annoyance or irritation we feel toward a distraction like a fire engine siren is a reminder that we cannot control the world to suit us. In those times, we can only notice what is happening and learn to let be that which we cannot change.
A dog barks during meditation. No amount of concentration will make it stop. You can choose to listen to it, ignore it, accept it in the background, counteract it with other noise, go to another place, or close the window in hopes of blocking the sound. That is really about it short of going outside and perhaps shooting the dog – not at all a wise choice of action!
The barking dog, the wailing siren, the jackhammer all present training opportunities. Can we sit and let them be without getting upset or worked up over them? Can we watch how our minds and emotions react to these seemingly unwelcome or unpleasant interruptions? Are we creating narratives or stories and running off on speculations about what is going on? Why are we so upset anyway? What’s this huffy self-entitlement that thinks the world should work to suit our whims, even wanting it to go so far as make the world be quiet while we meditate?
The ego wants the world to go its way. Even in little moments it wants this. It’s like a child throwing a tantrum over the most insignificant things and this child often runs our internal dialog unchecked. After all, what is so bad about a barking dog or the neighbor mowing their lawn? They are living their lives. Do we really want ambulances and fire trucks to cease operating? Of course not. But our frustration or anger at them are points of observation on our ego and underlying defaults toward the world around us and the present moment.
In the Present Moment
When you think about it, we often drift on distracted thoughts during meditation. We may be thinking about the past or the future or just planning out our day. Maybe we’re thinking about someone or worrying over a decision. Rarely are we fully present during meditation. Then bam! a siren wails, jarring us out of our thoughts.
Up until then we were supposed to be sitting in the present moment but our consciousness had drifted everywhere but the present. That loud noise certainly takes us out of our head and focuses us on the here and now. When the sound doesn’t stop, we become very one-pointed on it, more so than we were on following our breath. Now we’re doing very well at siren meditation!
Think of that noise as an alarm clock waking you from the dreamworld. The louder, more irritating and longer it is, the more you probably need it to help you swim out of the grasping fog of sleep.
The Micro Mirrors the Macro
Throughout life, distractions come and go. Everything is trying to distract us from the present moment and get us tangled in an avalanche of responses, many of them self-defeating. Most are not worth a second thought. When we sit in meditation and hear the siren, it is calling us to be present and practice catching out and reprogramming our default responses to the world around us.
A distraction during meditation is a trial run for real life distractions and unpleasant obstacles or situations that can impact you positively or negatively. In meditation, you notice the distraction or unpleasant situation and learn to let it be so that your thinking is not blinded by anger, irritation, etc. You notice too how you’re responding and in that noticing, a gap opens that allows you to sometimes change the response. That is responding to the present moment rather than just reacting to it. As we practice, we get better and better.
Then one day the dog barks and we merely notice it without any internal commentary or emotional reaction or maybe we even smile in response to a dog living its dog life. The barking weaves into the fabric of existence around us. When we can do this with the dog or siren, we can start doing this with the office blowhard or when stuck in a traffic jam. We can stop reacting to people who push our buttons and can better navigate difficult or unpleasant situations than before because we have learned how to respond skillfully and in non-self-sabotaging ways.
This and more is the point of meditation. The distractions and noises are the training “problems”. Without them, we might not progress or learn anything about our inner foibles and hindrances. Sitting in meditation gives us the chance to notice and change our default programming with clarity and insight.
So the next time you hear that loud jackhammer, smile to it and thank it for returning you to the present moment and teaching you to let go and be present on your terms rather than by reacting on autopilot. This is how you build sanity, peace, equanimity and happiness. Who doesn’t want more of that?
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