Last updated December, 2017.
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.
To the contrary, it's about learning to be with your current situation as it is.
Noise isn't a problem. Thoughts and emotions about noise aren't a problem. The problem is your mind trying to push away what it finds unpleasant (just like it tries to cling to what it finds pleasant), and how our lack of awareness into our mind's attempts to control reality lead to conditioned behavior and emotional turmoil.
Instead of trying to "fix" things (noise, thoughts, emotions - whatever arises), meditation and mindfulness teach you to accept it. What you don't do, however, is indulge it. This means you refrain from labeling and judging - in this case, refrain from labeling and judging the noise that you notice and the thoughts and emotions about the noise you notice.
If you indulge it, you perpetuate the mental activity - you turn it into a story about something being done to you, or something to overcome:
And then you probably judge yourself for the story, and for judging the people you live with!
You can see how this creates a chain of mental activity - thoughts and emotions lead to more thoughts and emotions lead to more thoughts and emotions (and on and on). Before you know it, you're somewhere you don't want to be: trapped in conditioned behavior that dictates your decisions, actions, and reactions.
If, instead, you notice what arises and move your attention back to your anchor (your breath, a mantra), you are using what's in your experience to further your practice.
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 we meditate, we discover first-hand this is true.
Learn to be ok with what arises in your experience. You aren't trying to "fix" it - you are simply changing 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).
A real-world example
If someone who doesn't practice meditation is nervous about giving a presentation and scared (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 through their behavior and actions.
Through a consistent meditation practice, however, they can learn to notice these thoughts, emotions, and stories, and be okay with them (accept them). Instead of getting caught up in them, they move their attention back to the present moment and the task at hand. The mental activity can arise and pass, but they are no longer caught up in it and no longer 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 wallow in mental drama about it (thus affecting the rest of their presentation).
What are you trying to "cope" with?
Coping doesn't work - addressing the root cause does. We'll show you how.