The Coffeehouse, the Zendo, the Gym

June 17th, 2011

Yesterday, I was at a coffeehouse with my netbook computer, working on some writing, when two women sat at the table behind me and started a very loud conversation. My writing was kind of slow going, and their voices were distracting. I thought about turning around and asking them to modulate a little; indoor voices. I know it’s not a library, and I can’t expect silence.

Then I had to reason with myself and wonder why I was at the coffeehouse anyway. If I wanted to drink coffee and write without hearing other people’s conversations, I could do that at home. But something about being around other people–something about the potential for annoyance, the invasion of privacy–makes me a little more productive in my writing. I hunker down; I tune out annoyances and keep writing. When trying to write at home, I get up and pace around the room. I waste time on clicky games like Jorinapeka. (Seriously, don’t click if you don’t want to waste hours.) Around other people, I’m at my best. If anyone happens to look over my shoulder, they’ll see me writing, not wasting time.

It’s also why I go to the temple to meditate. A few weeks ago, there was an especially fidgety Sunday service. A few people in the zendo were restlessly shifting during the meditation. It made it difficult to concentrate. I could have done my practice at home with fewer distractions.

my home altar

But I also know when I sit at home, I’m like that. I squirm a little. I clear my throat. These things aren’t cardinal sins, but I know that my meditation is much more effective if I sit still. Being around others, sitting with the sangha on Sundays, gives me more incentive to go deep in meditation. I focus myself because I don’t want to be that person, the one who distracts people. I think about using that pressure for good–not to be neurotic and chastise myself for sighing or scratching or fidgeting, just doing my very best not to. When I focus myself out of consideration for other people, it turns out I get most of the benefits–I get a deep, restful meditation, or I get a productive morning of caffeinated writing, because I clear away my own junk. And if once in a while it takes a twitchy sitting or a loud neighbor-table at Biggby Coffee to remind me of that, I’m grateful for it.

However, it’s also important to watch out for contagious behavior. I’m thinking of a phenomenon I call the locker-room sigh. I’ve noticed often after exercising in the gym, people changing clothes will make a little extra noise, as if to say, “Whoa, what a workout. Ugh, I really stretched myself today. Ohh, that was tough.” They aren’t saying the sentences out loud, just the vocalization, to no one in particular. I wonder if they think they’re starting a conversation, if they are doing it to commiserate with other people in the same situation or to show off how hard they’re working.

It seems to be the same principle, but I wonder if locker-room sighs only lead to more locker-room sighs, that they don’t have the same reminder to focus. I’m also not sure if there’s an equivalent, that I’ll get more out of my own workout if I consciously refrain from going “Ugh” afterwards. But one way or another, I react the same way. I’m going to keep trying not to be that guy.

Leave a Reply