This is number two in a series in which I dispel the most common myths that prevent people from practicing and enjoying meditation.
Some of my best teachers are convicts.
I've volunteered for years at a maximum security prison, running meditation sessions for guys serving long sentences. They live with a lot of chaos, and chaos is loud. Raucous, razzing conversations are the norm on the tiers of cells they call home, with radios and TVs playing nonstop, each guy cranking up his volume to hear it above the others, resulting in a brain-jangling, round-the-clock commotion.
And yet there my guys sit on their bunks with closed eyes, enjoying the bliss of just being.
How do they do it? Have they mastered some secret Eastern technique of mentally blocking out noise?
Nope. It's way too loud for that. It's just one of the many elements of prison life they can't hope to control. There should be a sign over the prison entrance, like the one over the gate to Dante's hell: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. But in a way, that's the secret of their success.
When you eat at a busy restaurant, you're surrounded by other people's conversations, but that's not a problem. You just listen to the conversation at your own table. Simple. You don't have to make some Herculean effort to "concentrate" or "focus" on what your friends are saying, and you don't have to block out the rest: It's just there in the background.
On the other hand, if you were to suddenly decide, "Jeez, I hope those people leave," or, "I hope they stop yakking when their entrees come," or, "I wish they'd pipe down with their dumb political opinions" (as opposed to your smart ones), then there's a problem. But you've created it. You've chosen sides against What Is, and that's always a losing battle. The world is full of motion, and motion produces sound: talking mouths, clinking silverware, zooming cars, chirping crickets, planes, trains, automobiles.
Note that I said motion produces sound, not noise. What's the difference? It's like the difference between plants and weeds. There's no special, icky weed DNA that's different from that of other plants. Weeds are just plants that we've judged to be undesirable. In the same way, noise is just sound that we've judged to be undesirable. My father was a classical musician with no ear for rock. When I played Dylan or the Stones, he would tell me to, "Turn down that noise." We transform sound into noise by judging it... and hoping it will go away.
Most people think of meditation as a process of judging and excluding. They think that if they can shut out enough stuff, pluck out enough weeds from their sensory field, then what's left will be a meditative state: a perfect, weedless garden of the mind. But natural meditation is just the opposite. It's a wide-angle openness to What Is. You just let your awareness be like a forest, a rich ecosystem with niches for all kinds of vegetation. You don't try to push out this vine or hold onto that tree, but just remain open, neutral, welcoming. Every plant that sprouts has its own natural lifespan, then passes away. Perfect. No plant detracts from the wholeness of the forest.
So, when you sit to meditate, if you find yourself gritting your teeth against the barking of the neighbor's dog, the roar of the passing planes, or any other "noise," you can remember it's just a sound arising and passing away, just a conversation at someone else's table, and continue to rest non-judgmentally in the wholeness of awareness. Whatever's there, just rest aware.
Once you give up your old, futile efforts to shush the world, you'll find it very liberating. Now you're free to kick back and enjoy just being (aka "meditate") in subways, in office cubicles... in the actual world rather than in a fantasy silent world that will never exist. And then something profound happens. You start to discover that you don't have to have silence because you are silence. At your core, you (the one who's been experiencing a lifetime of sounds, thoughts, feelings, and sensations) are pure, silent awareness, which is never interrupted by anything else. You're like open space, which never becomes less spacious no matter what passes through it, whether dust particles or galaxies.
When I meditate out back in my little garden, with a gentle breeze or a bird's song in the background, that's perfect. And when I go to prison and meditate with my guys in our bare, chilly cinderblock chapel with the big, whomping speaker just above our heads, and it suddenly blares, "ATTENTION ALL AREAS, ATTENTION ALL UNITS: PHONE CALL FOR OFFICER RODRIGUEZ, PHONE CALL FOR OFFICER RODRIGUEZ," that's also perfect. We're soaking in the hot tub of simple beingness, and whatever else is there is OK with us.