A few weeks ago, I was out walking the dog along the waterfront, where a new pier is being constructed for a residential high-rise. It’s been a little noisy in the neighborhood for the last few months, but nothing really disturbing; just a constant sort of background hum.
This particular day however, as we got closer to the site, I could really hear it. I mean really. You want to know how loud it was? It was louder than the loudest setting on my phone’s music app! Awful, right?
Immediately, the yenta complainer voice that lives in my head chimed in: “Ugh. It’s so loud. I wish it would stop. Why does this need to be happening now? Why can’t I just go for a quiet peaceful walk on a beautiful warm day without something like this ruining it? Why does this always happen to me?”
She’s a real gem…
A pile driver was mercilessly banging away at the steel beams. Bang, bang, bang, without end in sight. And I noticed that I was feeling instantly annoyed.
Normal, right? Who wouldn’t be? Well, I live in a slightly different head-space these days, so my annoyance was like an alarm, letting me know there’s some lesson to learn here (a gift from the universe, if you will).
When I feel annoyance (or any other negative emotional state), I play with it. I use it as a signal, to go inward. I go deep inside the experience, with curiosity, to find out more. I apply a version of mindfulness to it.*
If it’s an emotional reaction, I get into the core of what’s triggering me. If it’s a sensory thing that’s affecting me, I embrace the experience to see how it can be altered by observation from within. It’s an ever-present meditative focus these days (which is actually a much more interesting way to live in the world, but that’s for another post).
So I thought “Ok. Pile driver. No end in sight. I can’t wait it out. What if I didn’t resist the sound? I know it’s unpleasant, but what if I just tried to welcome the sound, and really let myself feel it? What if I treated the sound like music instead of noise?” I chose to allow the sound in, and tried to locate the experience of the sound inside of me. (Yes, that’s right, I stood there, like a crazy lady, staring at the construction site, “feeling” the sound of the pile driver.).
I did a quick body scan to see where the sound was registering inside me. I let go of that very subtle muscle contraction in the ear that tries to keep out unpleasant sounds, and what happened next really surprised me.
After about ten seconds, the sound vanished out of my perception entirely. It’s like I couldn’t even hear it. And when that happened, suddenly the visual came into sharp focus. I stood there mesmerized by the construction scene itself. You’ll forgive me, I’m not a poet, but the whole site was performing a beautiful ballet in front of me! The pile driver was rhythmically moving up and down; the cranes were swinging and swirling around; the excavator was gracefully swooping down and shuttling earth and rocks back and forth… all in some kind of beautiful harmony, as if in sync with a melody only they could hear. I couldn’t believe it. It was captivating and absolutely magical.
I don’t know how long I stood there exactly, but I just couldn’t tear myself away. It was amazing; but more importantly, I almost missed it.
Had I continued to focus on my annoyance, and not overridden my default “normal” resistance, I never would have seen it. This is exactly how we miss the exquisite beauty of everyday life; when all we focus on is the automatic un-investigated negative response. Who knew that irritating construction noise could lead to this incredible experience?
It turns out that with a little internal awareness, we can begin to really savor life completely. Every moment. Every experience. Especially the “bad” ones. As if each experience was an exotic drink you’re tasting for the first time.
The next time you find yourself in an annoying situation, see if you can drop the resistance and watch what happens instead. I bet you’ll be surprised by what you find.
*In case you’ve been out of the loop, mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention and awareness, with complete acceptance, without judgment, to whatever is arising in the present moment.