Last updated October, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
"I live in a house with four other people. I'm able to go into a room by myself and they aren't inappropriately loud, but I can still hear them when I'm trying to meditate and it's really distracting and interferes with my practice. Do you recommend earplugs or headphones?"
I've addressed this question before on the tad blog (index here) and in other discussions, but it comes up often and is worth revisiting.
No, I don't recommend earplugs or headphones. Meditating isn't about blocking things out. It isn't about suppressing or trying to change your experience in any way.
To the contrary, it's about learning to be with your current situation as it is. This is what meditating teaches us, if you receive proper instruction.
To further elaborate - noise isn't a problem. Thoughts and emotions about noise aren't problems, either. The problem is our minds label experience as pleasant or unpleasant, which leads us to habitually react with desire or aversion to everything that happens. We continually do this moment after moment: we try to "fix" our experience, and create this perfect world where we are surrounded by everything we like and protected from everything we don't like.
The bigger problem is, we aren't even aware of this process our minds go through. We just get dragged along, and suffer the consequences (stress, feelings of anxiety and depression, extreme emotions, etc.).
That's where meditation and mindfulness can help - they teach you to strengthen and apply awareness. As you get better at it, you are able to watch this process unfold. As you watch this process unfold, you can interrupt the habitual reactions that always find you trying to "fix" things (or, trying to hold on to "this" and push away "that").
Meditation and mindfulness also teach you to observe your compulsive mind without getting caught up in it. Instead, you can see everything come into being, exist, and cease. It turns out mental activity doesn't persist unless we give it the fuel to do so.
How do we give it fuel to persist? We mindlessly indulge it.
"Mindlessly indulging" is the normal state for most of us. We get lost in thoughts, emotions, urges, labels, and judgment. We turn it all into a story about something being done to us. Or, something we need to fix or overcome.
This creates an unending flow of mental activity. Thoughts and emotions lead to more thoughts and emotions which lead to more thoughts and emotions (and on and on and on). Before you know it, you're somewhere you don't want to be: trapped in conditioned behavior that dictates "who you are" and "what you do."
But, there is another path. You can strengthen awareness, learn to notice this process, and move your attention away from it. In the case of your roommates making noise (or, any other interruptions or distractions), you can use what's in your experience to actually further your practice. When you notice these things, simply return your attention to your anchor (usually your breath or mantra).
You'll come to see reality is reality, and our attempts to control or resist it cause us to suffer more than the actual situations we are trying to control or resist. When you meditate, you discover first-hand this is true.
So, learn to be okay with everything that arises in your experience. You don't need to "fix" it - you need to change your relationship with it. This is how you realize the benefits of meditating during your "non-meditating" time (also known as bringing mindfulness to your daily life).
PUBLIC SPEAKING, ANYONE?
A good example is talking to a group or audience, because most of us have done it at one time or another!
If someone who doesn't practice meditation and mindfulness is nervous about giving a presentation and scared (or, worried) about "screwing up," they are likely to get caught up in those thoughts, emotions, and stories, and follow them down a path that culminates in their fear becoming reality (i.e., the mental drama influences behavior and actions, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy).
Through a consistent meditation practice, however, they can learn to notice these thoughts, emotions, and stories, and be okay with them ("accept them," if you will). Instead of getting caught up in them, they move their attention back to the present moment and the task at hand. The mental drama can arise and pass, but they are no longer held hostage by it - they are no longer mindlessly indulging it and giving it fuel to persist.
This makes it likely they will perform better in their presentation. Or, if they have a slight stumble, they will recover and not get dragged down into a "pit of despair" by their mental activity about it - which, of course, would ultimately affect the rest of their presentation.
Stop dealing with the symptoms.
Your struggles and suffering - whether it's stress, feelings of anxiety or depression, low self-confidence, extreme emotions...or anything else - are caused by the difference between the way things are and the way the mind thinks they should be.
Does it make sense to continue trying to control everything "out there" to conform to the mind's expectations? Or, is a more skillful use of your time and energy changing the way you deal with the thoughts and stories the mind constantly churns out?
If you believe it's the second option, continue reading...