Last updated August, 2016.
It's time for another installment of "Question and Answer Tuesdays!"
"I live in a noisy environment with traffic sounds coming from outside and, at times, roommates who are moving around and talking. Is it ok to wear headphones and listen to music to block out these distractions? Along those lines, is guided meditation a good method for helping me to focus better so I can analyze my thoughts?"
These are great questions because they allow us to address a few more misconceptions about meditating:
I'll address each of these, but first we need to come up with a working definition of meditation. Here are two from our page "Meditation explained in 60 seconds (or less)":
Meditation isn't about "shutting everything out" or trying to stop thoughts. It's about becoming aware of thoughts. It's learning to observe them without getting caught up in them.
The normal state for mankind is "lost in thought."
This state creates conditioned behavior, which drives our decisions, actions, and reactions, and leads to the struggles we all face:
> A lack of focus
> Endless worry
> Sleep issues
> And on and on...
Meditating is a dedicated exercise that cultivates awareness of your compulsive mind and non-stop mental noise. You develop the skill of observing it all without getting caught up in it.
Through consistent practice, you increase awareness and - in turn - stop being lost in thought. This allows you to break free from conditioned behavior and habitual actions/reactions.
Put another way, you are no longer held hostage by the next thought, emotion, or urge that pops into your head.
Now that we have a definition, let's look at your first question: Should you wear headphones and listen to music to block out external noises?
When you meditate, you should observe everything that arises in your consciousness, including sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings, emotions, et cetera. Watch everything as it arises (comes), and watch everything as it passes (goes).
Learn to recognize the temporary nature of all phenomena: whatever arises will cease; nothing is permanent.
You mention roommates. There is nothing wrong with moving to a quieter area to practice, especially if you are surrounded by people who are going about with their lives. And I'm not challenging you to try and meditate during a live concert, or while your friends are in the same room cheering on their favorite sports team.
But, you shouldn't strive to isolate yourself from reality and the "everyday" conditions that come with it.
If you are meditating and you hear someone talking - or a dog barks, or a horn honks, or a siren wails - simply notice the sound and any thoughts, feelings, or emotions that arise, and return your attention to your anchor (usually your breath or a mantra).
The same applies to smells, minor aches and pains, or whatever else might arise in consciousness (such as an itch, or a desire to stop meditating).
You are cultivating awareness, so simply notice everything that comes. And, do so non-judgmentally.
Next, you ask about guided meditation. "Guided meditation" is listening to audio or watching a video that gives instructions to assist you in your practice. There are several pitfalls to this method, but these are the three we usually highlight:
Instead of becoming dependent on guided meditation, learn to do it properly by focusing on your breath or a mantra. If you do that, you will be able to meditate anytime and anywhere.
Finally, you mention "analyzing thoughts" in your question. It's important to note that meditation isn't analyzing thoughts. You don't dwell on your thoughts, and you don't dissect them or try to understand why they occur.
You simply observe.
The normal state for most of us is "lost in thought." We spend a good portion of our lives blindly following our minds wherever they lead. But, with a consistent meditation practice, you can cultivate awareness and stop being held hostage by the next thought, emotion, or urge that arises.
Address the root cause of your suffering.
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