Should I Use Ear Plugs for Meditation? The Ultimate Noise Guide

We’ve all been in that situation before – you sit and try to meditate and then someone decides it’s a great time to see how much noise they can possibly make. So is it okay to use ear plugs or headphones to meditate in these situations?

It’s completely okay to sometimes use ear plugs or headphones if you can’t find a peaceful environment. But don’t become reliant on them – just use them occasionally so you can go a little deeper in your meditation. Else, you can use the sounds to practice your patience and tolerance, or even use them as the object of your awareness.

Okay awesome! But do I use ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones? When should I not use them? Do I listen to music? Let’s discuss.

When You Should Use Ear Plugs for Meditation

The original instructions for meditation are to go to into the wilderness, under the ‘shade of a tree’ or an empty building. In modern times, this means a quiet, safe place where you won’t be disturbed. But in reality, this can be hard to do.

We try to fit our meditation somewhere in our busy lives and that’s probably the most important thing – that we are actually finding time to meditate. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the train, the bus, the park or on a plane. The truth is that we sometimes do need peace and quiet to meditate a little deeper, as is intended with the original instructions for meditation. If this place has to be on a train, then so be it – nothing will stop me from meditating!

Blocking out unnecessary stressful sounds is helpful for beginners and those wanting to go deeper into meditation

So ideally, we want to use ear plugs when:

  • There is a conversation near us that will clearly distract us. It is sometimes very difficult to ignore the spoken word, particularly if you are a beginner (and a human being!);
  • The noise around us is annoyingly loud, such as someone playing music; or
  • When we want to go a little deeper in our meditation.

What we don’t want is to:

  • Become dependent on complete silence to be able to meditate all the time;
  • Use the highest range ear plugs to block every sound possible (we are just looking to ‘muffle’ sounds so we can concentrate a bit better); or
  • Use the lack of silence as an excuse not to meditate.

Obviously, your first choice would be to actually try find a quiet time and place to meditate.

Meditating in Noisy Places

If this is not possible let’s follow the original instructions and find or create a quiet place for our meditation practice.

It has been known for a long time that noise effects our ability to learn and retain information. A study in 1975 showed that the reading scores of children in a school where classes were located adjacent to elevated train tracks were significantly lower than students on the quiet side of the school. A 2016 study found that people living in areas with more road traffic noise were 25 percent more likely than those living in quieter neighbourhoods to have symptoms of depression. Noise impacts skills that reflect our ability to stay aware of, focus on and absorb information. With the stifling of this ability, meditation is also much less effective.

“While we may learn to shut noise out of our conscious mind, our subconscious still hears everything.”

This is why some people have to turn down their music or tell everyone to be quiet when they are parking their car – so they can concentrate better. And there’s actually nothing wrong with this. Someone who has learnt to shut out noise from the conscious level of their mind might still be able to concentrate in this situation – but this is not always a good thing. Sometimes you may look composed on the surface level, but you aren’t aware what’s happening underneath. A 2018 study found that people exposed to noise pollution were found to be more likely to have heart problems like atrial fibrillation.

If it is difficult for you to ever find peace and quiet, you are going to have to use something to block out sounds every now and then

So you can see that our brains do, over time, learn to shut out some noise but this is just out of the conscious mind – our subconscious still hears everything. Someone who lives across the road from a set of train tracks says that they don’t notice the noise anymore. What they really don’t notice is that this is affecting them subconsciously, particularly their ability to continue to absorb information around them. If you are pushing out some external stimuli, what else are you pushing out?

“Learn to observe sounds objectively and not react to them.”

So, as a general rule of thumb, try and make at least a minimum of 50% of your meditation sessions in quiet setting, whether that be in a quiet room or artificially through ear plugs or headphones. This will allow you to go a little deeper in your sits, allowing you to deal with some of the more profound hidden tendencies lying in your subconscious.

Use the rest of the time to meditate with noise as a training exercise in patience and tolerance. Learn to observe sounds objectively and not react to them. A great way to do this is to observe the sensations that appear on your body when a sound annoys you. What happens? What does it feel like? Are you reacting to the sound, or to the sensation on your body? Let’s see what happens when we watch this sensation without identifying ourselves with it.

Can  I Also Use Noise Cancelling Headphones for Meditation?

You may well be asking, ‘well, what about noise cancelling headphones?’.

Really it doesn’t make a difference and it is personal preference. Technology has come so far these days that these headphones are probably the better choice for most of us…if we can afford them. The top end noise cancelling headphones can set us back 100s of dollars.

“Noise cancelling headphones are truly one of the wonders of modern times.”

I was sceptical at first about this new technology…until I tried it. When I did, it was like my world transformed. Before this, I never really properly experienced how much ambient sound existed in modern suburban cities or even smaller towns. Our conscious mind is always at battle trying to push down these sounds so we can concentrate better. We know now from numerous studies that this can have a significant impact on our stress levels and normal every day ability to function effectively.

“Most of us never realise how detrimental the ambient sounds of city life can be on our general levels of stress.”

I used to live in a share house where no matter the time I decided to meditate, someone would be making a considerable amount of noise. I can tell you from personal experience that noise cancelling headphones literally saved my practice here. They gave me the opportunity to create a quiet sanctuary for myself when I needed to. They allowed me to go into very deep meditative states that I probably would have never otherwise had the chance to. Who knows, I might have even given up meditating for a while. Remember, the most important thing is that you keep up your practice!

Noise-cancelling headphones can make you feel like you are in a serene place

So my advice would be to just try it and see if it suits you. You can ask to borrow a pair from a friend for a little while. Experiment!

Again, remember that we don’t want to become reliant. Ideally, we are not looking to block out all noise all the time, although it can sometimes be useful to have complete silence. It can also sometimes be helpful to have some noise to allow us to slowly build up our patience and tolerance of noise, particularly if we are just starting out. So, if you do decide to go down the headphones path, it’s great to have a pair that have the option of changing the level of actual level of noise cancellation. I discuss a couple of these at the end of this article.

Is it Okay to Listen to Music While Meditating?

It is preferable that you give your mind the chance to be comfortable with itself in silence. In saying this however, if your goal is simply stress relief, and you are just starting out, peaceful sounds can help you relax. But, in the long run, we don’t want to become dependent on them. We want to be able to find peace in any situation!

Some caveats when using ear plugs or headphones for meditation

  • They can make the breath more loud and pronounced which can be bothersome for some, but can also help beginners achieve greater focus on the breath.
  • For some it may make their heartbeat more noticeable, which again, can be irritating for some but it’s not a bad idea to investigate this irritation.
  • Again, don’t become reliant on them. Sounds can be a wonderful object of meditation for some types of people.

How to Use Ear Plugs for Meditation

For almost all ear plugs the process is the same:

  • Roll the ear plug between your forefinger and thumb until it is fully compressed.
  • Insert the narrow section into your ear canal.
  • Give it about 30 seconds to expand fully and take the shape of your ear (you may need to hold it in place during this time).

Best Ear Plugs for Meditation

Really any foam ear plugs will work. They are inexpensive, disposable and there are no issues if you lose them. Go to your local hardware store and look for plugs rated around class 5 or -26dB (for mid-level noise) for a reasonable price. Remember, that you are not trying to shut out noise completely but just ‘muffle’ the sounds so they are less distracting. Ear plugs made by 3M or Mack’s are always of great quality, but any reputable brand will do.

Just make sure you don’t use the same ones more than a couple times or you may develop an ear infection. If you wish, you can clean them with a wet wipe or a damp soft towel and then leave them to dry naturally. Never soak ear plugs as they will absorb the water and become unusable.

Best Noise Cancelling Headphones for Meditation

As mentioned, we’d prefer to have a pair that have the option of changing the level of actual level of noise cancellation. We also want a light, comfortable pair of headphones where we won’t really notice their presence. Here are a few that I have tested that worked really well for me:

  • Sony WH-1000XM4
  • Sony WH-1000XM3
  • Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
  • Bose QuietComfort 35 II
  • Jabra Elite 85H

Stay aware, equanimous and don’t worry – everything is fine, be happy!

Josip Puric

Josip is an accredited meditation teacher specialising in mindfulness and insight meditation, including breath practices. His extensive meditation study and practice has led him to profound insights about the nature of ourselves as human beings. His only aspiration, is to share this experiential wisdom for the benefit of all.

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