About six months ago, I made my first trip back to the yoga studio since breaking my ankle last fall, though rather than asana, it was for a series of classes on pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation. The studio, in a renovated corner rowhouse, overlooks a busy intersections in Washington, DC’s U Street area, which has become one of the city’s burgeoning dining and nightlife destinations in recent years. It’s an ideal location for a yoga studio, adjacent to a Metro station and in the heart of one of Washington’s most diverse and densely populated neighborhoods.
Up until this point, I was a firm believer that meditation should and could only take place in a setting of complete and total silence. When I would meditate in the mornings, I would make sure I reached my cushion a full half-hour before the sprinkler system on our roof turned on, as the sound of water trickling through the downspout outside my window would prove to be an unbearable distraction. Sitting in the evenings at home was impossible because of the sounds of my spouse and our two energetic dogs. And on the weekends, when I found myself in the house alone, every source of noise had to be turned off, lest my best intentions to meditate be otherwise foiled.
On that first Thursday night back in the yoga studio, my teacher warned me. We already had a bit of a running joke about the fact that one could hear the Number 96 Metrobus coming from blocks away (Washington has ridiculously loud city buses), and as my class settled in for a 25-minute sit, she remarked that the noise from the street below made for less-than-ideal conditions.
I got into position, adjusted my posture and then found myself cringing: I could hear a large group of women screaming to a friend who was sitting on the outdoor patio of the huge Tex-Mex-and-margarita restaurant directly across the street from the yoga studio. In my mind’s eye, I could see a flashing red light as the physical sensation of frustration moved from the pit of my stomach toward my throat. At that exact moment, someone’s car alarm went off right below our window.
“It’s like that car alarm is going off in my mind,” I thought to myself, and then suddenly, it clicked. My head is filled with blaring alarms, roaring buses and crowds of screaming people.
Every day, I am challenged by a constant barrage of internal distraction that makes U Street on a Thursday night look as calm and quiet as a public library. How is it that I think I can’t meditate against this background? So I sat. And over the next few weeks, I did it again and again, discovering that I could create a small amount of space in my mind between my awareness and the noise from the street below. It wasn’t easy at first, but with practice, I found the noise became less and less of a distraction.
Even in the silence of a darkened spare bedroom at 5:30 a.m., I can’t run from the alarms and chatter and commotion that makes up monkey mind. Distraction is a fact of life, and the whole purpose of my meditation practice is to cultivate a state of non-distraction that can exist even when I leave the cushion. While silence may indeed be golden in some circumstances, it is not the reality of people who practice in urban environments. I have learned to appreciate the opportunity to try and silence that car alarm in my mind, even if another one continues to blare out on U Street at all hours of the day and night.