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100 years ago in Germany, the Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing (1872 – 1933) wrote of the difficulty caused by the noise in his life as a thinker and writer. He further thought that noise caused invisible harm to everyone.

He wrote that noise was “the revenge of those working with their hands on those head-workers who laid down their laws,” calling it a kind of aural narcotic that dulled the mind just as alcohol or drugs did and prevented city dwellers from sharp enlightened thinking.

Just think of what Lessing would have thought of the world today. Perhaps, like many modern urban dwellers, he would have sought out libraries, nature, and noise-cancelling headphones.

Lessing wasn’t the first to decry the distractions of a noisy world. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers also often noted the challenges of noise. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for instance, decried the noises of the bathhouse below his workspace, noting the incessant babel of the bathers below. Christian monastics have famously made the point that silence is key to our soul’s ability to listen for God.

You can watch a full documentary film, “Into Great Silence” that follows the lives of modern Carthusian monks in France. The film itself is a meditation on moving through life with relative silence and the beauty that emerges.

The Downward Spiral of Distraction

It is said that when you lose one sense, such as sight or hearing, your other senses become stronger. The same is true when we simply reduce the input to one or more senses. Inundating ourselves with visual media from television, computers, and smartphones dulls our ability to simply sit and actively take in the world around us.

The world is beautiful, but if we grow accustomed to passively entertaining ourselves, we grow numb to the beauty. The same is true of our soundscape. If we live in constant noise, especially human-made noise, we lose our connection to the natural world. We also, of course, lose our ability to think clearly and deeply about the world. We become more susceptible to emotional manipulation and potentially even addicted to it.

As we see people who cannot stop watching 24/7 cable news or ranting on social media channels, we can find sympathy with Lessing’s analogy with drugs and alcohol. These latter two can more viciously and quickly destroy the mind and body, but seeing how some people go down “the rabbit hole” of partisan media, often becoming full of hate or anger with the world in massively destructive ways.

Noticing Deeply

The best way to move away from this potential downward spiral is to first see it for what it is and then work to counteract it. Part of what has kept me going forward first as a student and then as a writer has been a love of research. I find beautiful things in the writings of great thinkers and I want to know more.

The quote above from Lessing has been sitting on my desk for some time, just waiting for me to re-discover it in my life and think more deeply about it. This takes time and intention. And that intention is a muscle that needs to be flexed again and again. For there are always distractions that can come in and steal us away.

A common path for me away from deep noticing is: buzz of my phone. A text message. A question. I open my computer to seek out an answer. I notice a new email. I foolishly check my social media. I have three more messages there. All with questions or comments I can respond to. All of these distractions threaten to take me away from the simple task at hand.

Breathing In, Letting Go

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One of my favorite meditations is a walking meditation from the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. In that meditation, we repeat the four-part phrase (first part with in-breath, second part with our out-breath):

In, Out

Deep, Slow

Smile, Relax

Present moment, Wonderful moment

Like much of mindfulness work, it is a practice that takes time to produce its full benefits. Walking slowly and syncing my breath to each step will automatically put my whole body in tune with my inhales and exhales. Adding the phrase then anchors the mind to the body.

Each step becomes a re-strengthening exercise, re-attaching that mind-body anchor. Everything slows down. The words themselves, of course, help with this process. First, we connect with the in and out of the breath. Then we add depth, then slowing. By this time there should be a sense of shifting focus, equally aware of the world around us and the internal world. If we can find this balance, the smile comes naturally, joyfully. Then we can relax. And we know that this moment, this very tiny moment, is a truly wonderful moment.

If it didn’t settle in quite enough on the last round, go again. Slowly walking, a step with each breath, repeat the phrases. It is that finding of perfect balance that always brings out a smile for me. I’m not lost in internal thoughts. I’m not glued to a screen passively watching. I’m perfectly tuned to my body and my mind, actively moving through the world.

Silence Passing Through

In moments like this, the noises of the world are not a distraction, but rather just vibrations passing through. Moments of silence, too, simply pass through. This is the power of equilibrium. With this, the noise of the world is less of an issue and joy and insights can arise even with the many distractions “out there.”

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.