Last updated December, 2019.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of the page (no email required).
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:
Meditation isn't about "shutting everything out" or trying to stop thoughts. It's about strengthening awareness of thoughts, and learning to observe them without getting caught up in them.
Our normal state is "lost in thought" - and, because this is our normal state, most of us don't realize we're lost in thought. It's a bit like a fish not realizing it's surrounded by water. It's always surrounded by water, so what is there to notice?
This normal state leads to conditioned behavior, which dictates our decisions, actions, and reactions, and leads to the struggles we all face:
Meditating is a dedicated exercise that helps you strengthen awareness of your mind and its non-stop activity. It helps you develop the skill of observing it all without getting caught up in it.
Developing a consistent practice will help combat being lost in thought. You can transfer the skills you develop during meditating to your "non-meditating" time. We refer to this as bringing mindfulness to your daily life, and it allows you to break free from conditioned behavior and dramatically reduce your struggles and suffering.
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 comes into being, exists, and passes - which it will if you don't indulge it (if you don't get caught up in it).
Learn to recognize the temporary nature of all phenomena: whatever arises will pass; 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 noisily with their lives. And I'm not challenging you to try to 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 about the sound, 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 strengthening awareness, so simply notice everything that comes and goes as it comes and goes. Don't judge it, don't fight it, don't indulge it in any way.
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.
If you analyze, you are indulging thoughts by engaging with them. This gives rise to more thoughts, which lead to emotions, which lead to more thoughts, which lead to more emotions, which...
You aren't strengthening awareness at this point - you are getting dragged around by your mind.
So, again, simply observe. Strengthen awareness. Watch it all arise and pass.
Stop getting caught up in the stories running through your head.