How to Meditate in a Noisy, Crowded Place

Over the last few weeks I’ve been practicing something that doesn’t come easily to me at all.

My spouse enjoys the energy of the crowds at the mall. He likes wandering around during the busier parts of the day and year. Here in Toronto we often have special giveaways, promotional booths, or other events put on by various companies to draw attention to their products.

As you might have already guessed, I am not a huge fan of this pastime. There is nothing relaxing to me about being surrounded by so many strangers in such a loud, bright place whose only purpose is to sell things to you that you don’t even necessarily need.
Last month I decided to take a new approach to the time we spent at the mall. Would it be possible for me to meditate in a busy mall? Would I ever learn to enjoy spending time there? Could I be as peaceful at the orangutang on the left in that environment?

The only way to answer those questions was to give it a try.

How It Went

Luckily, I had many opportunities to practice mindfulness at various malls this past month.

The first time I tried it I was sitting in a small food court that is nearly always packed full with people. There was so much background noise that I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. The sounds of clinking dishes, chairs scraping against the floor, and dozens of private conversations were all going on at once.

One of the reasons why I dislike that kind of environment so much is that it’s impossible to pick out individuals sounds or conversations. They’re all so muddled together that my brain can’t make sense of any of it, and that annoys me.

This time I ignored my urge to think about the background noise. Instead, I closed my eyes and let it all wash over me. It felt sort of like floating down a river. You can’t control where the current goes, but you can choose to relax and allow it to carry you downstream.

The most interesting part of this experience for me was how well this metaphor worked for me. I hadn’t realized how much energy I was putting into figuring out what all of those noises meant until I consciously chose to stop interpreting them for a little while.

The food court I sat in for my second attempt at meditating in a noisy place was larger and busier than the one I’d previously visited. I kept my eyes opened this time for the sake of comparison. This experience didn’t last very long due to reasons that I’ll explain in a minute.

The other attempts I made to stay mindful at the mall happened under less controlled circumstances. I was usually walking in a crowd while trying to get my mind to slow down and focus on what was happening in that exact moment. This is something I’ve had a lot of luck with when walking outdoors at the park or in some of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods, so I wanted to see if it would work just as well at the mall.

The Results

The first trial was the most successful one. That food court was slightly quieter than the other places I chose. Closing my eyes and purposefully allowing all of the sounds I was hearing to pass through my mind without trying to decode them also helped. It will be interesting to see if I can recreate something similar to this experience in the future.

Keeping my eyes opened in the second experiment didn’t work well for me at all. Food courts have too many distractions in them for me to stay focused on what I’m doing, especially when they’re as crowded as the one I was in. It will be interesting to see if I can reduce the amount of stimulation in this environment by focusing on a particular object the next time I try this. I’ve been thinking that something small and inconsequential like a soft drink cup might be the perfect thing to rest my eyes on if I want to keep them open in the future.

I was surprised by how little I enjoyed the experience of walking through the mall while trying to clear my mind. After thinking about it, I suspect it was because there weren’t any signs of nature there. Trees, bushes, flowers, and small animals are soothing to me. I was also so busy trying to avoid running into other people that it was difficult to keep my mind clear of thoughts.

Have I become a fan of wandering around the mall for the sake of having fun? No, I haven’t. I don’t think it’s ever going to become my idea of a good time, but this was still an interesting and worthwhile experiment.

Everyone feels uncomfortable in certain places or situations. There’s definitely something to be said for learning to relax in an environment that isn’t your cup of tea.

I’m looking forward to trying this again in other noisy, crowded places soon. It will be fascinating to see if I can get better results next time. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to hear what your experiences have been with meditating or staying mindful in less-than-ideal circumstances.

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