Turn Down That Racket

I had a meditation teacher in New York City about four or five years ago (long before I was actually ready to start meditating) who would sometimes leave the windows cracked in our meditation room. We’d sit there, five or six of us packed into this hot, tiny space. I’d come in bedraggled, sweating and overrun with bags. Sometimes I would fall into a chair and just start weeping (sobbing). Why was I weeping? Hard to say really. Maybe it was because I was sweaty, because you’re always sweaty in New York City. It’s either 97 degrees or you’re wearing 97 layers of clothing to keep out the cold. Maybe because, like everyone else in New York City, I had become a bag lady, carrying with me everything I might possibly need in a day: salad dressing, a 400-page novel, a computer, work shoes, an umbrella, notebooks, a banana that looked okay at 7 a.m. but now looked more like my hopes and dreams, bruised and oozing weird stuff at the bottom of one of my bags. I was tired in every way a human being can be tired. And now it was time to meditate.
Those cracked windows were my lifeline. Each session began with closing our eyes and focusing in on our breathing. But it can be hard to breathe when you’re crying, and it can be hard for other people to focus when you’re crying or looking through your bags for tissues to wipe your tears and your sweat (“I know they’re here somewhere”). So she’d have us quiet our thoughts and slow our racing minds by identifying (in our heads) the sounds we could hear coming through the open windows: honking cabs, yelling street vendors, sirens, conversations on the street, helicopters, an AC window unit kicking on, the sounds are endless in the city. And through that exercise I was able to begin to slow down my thinking. I held this belief then that meditation was the absence of thought, so this felt like a loophole, like I was getting to think (by identifying these sounds) while still technically “meditating.” 
After my time with that particular teacher ended, I put meditation back on a shelf and didn’t touch it for many more years. Meditation was intimidating, and I didn’t like intimidating things. Too much potential for failure. But that idea of identifying sounds as a way to slow down and to ease into meditation stuck with me.
This morning, as I sat outside for my morning meditation, I heard a fire truck, then an ambulance. A couple of airplanes flew overhead, and then some cars drove by. It was my first morning back in Nashville after two months away in a relatively remote area of Tennessee. For the last eight weeks, I’ve spent each morning outside listening to birds, bullfrogs, cicadas, squirrels, bees, flies, even a grunting deer bring me into my meditation. So this morning, when I heard all those sounds, I immediately registered them as noises, as disturbances, as things taking me away from the deeper connection I was seeking. For half a minute I felt irritated and annoyed. And then I stopped. I didn’t let that feeling go any further. I was back in that hot, tiny room in New York City, only now it was a hot, medium-sized patio in Nashville, and those noises—the fire truck, the ambulance, the carswere bringing me into today. Instead of sitting there frustrated and angry, missing the sounds of yesterday, I did what I know to do: “I hear a plane. I hear a fire truck. I hear a car,” and then, “I hear a bird. I hear a neighbor. I hear a bug.” The noises became sounds. The sounds became meditation. Meditation became just another way to be okay today.