My first class was (and still is) run at a Warden controlled Care Home, where we use their dining room with adjoining kitchen. Over the years we have had to contend with the residents coming through to feed the birds (not sweet little garden birds, but huge gulls and crows) or arriving early for their lunch. Occasionally we will have someone sit quietly and watch us, or wander in to ask where a particular member of staff is. It is of course their home, and I tell my class that’s it’s a test of their concentration. Hardest to ignore is the intercom that (very rarely) blares out – which I brush aside with ‘Hi de Hi!’ Other distractions include lawnmowers, gardeners and window cleaners, and the smell of lunch being prepared often leaves us all with rumbling tummies, but I like the venue as in the summer we can practice outside under the apple trees.
Another long standing class is run up on the first floor of an old shirt factory, where I tell prospective students that if they can make it up the stairs, they are more than fit enough to attend the sessions. It’s usually a quiet place but we hope there are no fire alarm tests as it’s a small room and is ear splittingly loud when it goes off. We did once have to endure the next door room being used by a dance class; the volume of the music was so loud that the instructor had to scream at the top of her lungs to make herself heard. I’m pretty sure a lot of the dancers left with their ears ringing, and we were a little shaken too; I dread to think of the damage to the hearing of the dancers.
One hall is next to a café, and we had to make sure the staff knew not to start hoovering up the crumbs during the last five minutes when we meditate. Legend tells of a meditation class run in the same room in the evening which started pretty well until the Tap Dance class upstairs got going. Whether that’s an urban myth, I don’t know but it always reminds me when booking a room for a new class that the room has to be warm and reasonably quiet. I don’t expect deathly silence, but it’s always good to check what other sessions are running at the same time, or who else is using the building.
One hall decided to run a crèche in the next room despite us having a long running booking slot; that did not go well and it moved to another venue not long after. Another was a beautiful room but the main entrance had an electronic ‘bell’ attached to the door, which was a little disturbing at best, and very intrusive during meditation.
I think the loudest interruption we ever had was at a Community Centre, where contractors had arrived to inject cavity wall insulation just as we started. There was no other room available and I was forced to mime the session due to the noise. We could hear the foam being forced into the wall, and it sounded as if it would come up over the top and down on top of us through the ceiling. I believe I wasn’t charged for using the room. Users of the small gym at that venue have to walk through the hall past us, and few bother to tiptoe silently – again that’s a test of our concentration.
At the other extreme of the noise spectrum comes a couple of times when despite all I have managed to contract a heavy cold to the point of losing my voice. Of course then it is impossible to cancel class as although I have all the phone numbers, I could be mistaken for a heavy breather. It’s was an interesting experience to have to mime everything and so far no beginners have turned up when I’ve been afflicted; my regulars always cope well with our usual routines.
Over the years, I have come to understand that outside noise is usually unavoidable. It’s easy to concentrate or meditate in a tranquil beautiful place, but how much more valuable is it to be able to keep one’s focus in the middle of turmoil? If the noise is low key it’s easy to cope with – I ask my class to imagine that the conversation in the room next door is like the sound of a babbling brook, for instance. What is harder to cope with is when you can hear a conversation clearly enough for it to draw your attention away, or if the noise is sudden and sharp. It is useful to observe what feelings arise – annoyance, irritation, anger – and consciously let go. One explanation of meditation that I came across struck a chord with me; we are not necessarily trying to stop thinking or experiencing feelings or emotions – we are attempting not to get involved or attached to them. Practice makes perfect, so they say, so a little distraction is not a bad thing overall.