Distract-Me-Not: Transforming our Distractions into Music

Sometimes when I am meditating in my small Brooklyn bedroom, I hear all the cars and trucks coming off the busy BQE, and the children who have just gotten out of school, and the dogs barking at the dog park, and I wish I had a pristine soundproof room in which to sit. I’ve even tried meditating with earplugs. But then there’s my room.

The walls might look better with a coat of mint-colored paint, and my books could certainly use organizing. So I close my eyes. And then my mind is pulled towards a stiff spot in my back, and the sound of my heartbeat, and the sensation of swallowing. Suddenly I have the urge to check my twitter account. And I’m composing a grocery list. And now where did that memory of elementary school detention crop up from? If it weren’t for all these distractions I’d have the best meditation session of my life!

The fact is, there will always be something around to distract us. Even if we find that pristine soundproof room, our mind tends to work hard to fill the vacuum. So if we can’t eliminate distractions, we can instead change our relationship to them. We might even be able to transform the things we thought of as distractions into reminders of the present moment.

I’ve been holding a meditation and music workshop called Sound of Mind in the upstairs loft space above a restaurant these past few months. It’s an amazing way to really get into the idea that we can train in awareness and begin to accomodate and make space for the so-called distractions in our environment. Mindfulness meditation is a form of training in awareness, so that we can intentionally place our attention where it is skillful. After sitting silently, I played some music for the meditation group and guided people through the idea of gently letting go of the stories we tell ourselves about the sounds. Can we hear them as just pure sound? Then I switch off the music and we all listen to the ambient noise of the restaurant: the murmur of voices, glasses clinking, the clammer of plates as they’re whisked away from tables, chairs moving across the floor. I don’t mean to sound like Bjork or anything, but I truly believe that we can begin to hear these sounds as music.

When we loosen our grip on the habitual stories we tell ourselves about our distractions, and when we stop vigorously trying to push them away, we transform our sensations into music. I don’t know about you, but when I try to shut things out, they typically multiply and get ugly, like gremlins fed after midnight. With a little effort, we can begin to change the stories we tell ourselves. We could tell ourselves that a car horn is a reminder to come back to our breath and our body, rather than an annoying sound that is the result of misplaced aggression. When we really begin to look, there is no end to the opportunities for practice in our daily life.

Try it!

•Sit on a cushion or in a chair in an alert, grounded and supported position. Keep your eyes open but lower and soften your gaze.

•Locate the physical sensation of the breath in your body and begin to follow the rhythm of the air entering and leaving your body.

•When thoughts arise, don’t push them away. Just notice them, and then let them go as you return to the breath.

•Similarly, when you notice physical sensations or sounds, just let them be part of the environment. Don’t try to push them away, and try not to let them pull you out of the present moment. Just notice, and gently return to the breath.

•After practicing this form of awareness training for 5 – 7 minutes, begin to loosen your grip on the felt sensation of the breath.

•Begin to open your awareness to the space. Take in the sounds, the sights, the sensations. See what it is like to perceive without narrating too much. What is it to simple hear, or see, or feel?

Image by Alison Scarpulla

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