Note: A video version of this article is available on YouTube.
Imagine you're on the fourth day of a two-week vacation at a peaceful tropical island resort. You've escaped from your usual world; you have no television, no phone, no internet. Your friends can phone the resort's front desk if there's an emergency, but apart from that you're cut off.
You've been swimming most of the day, you've eaten an hour ago, and with 30 minutes of daylight left, you're lying on a beach chair looking out at the ocean.
Ah, relaxation. Peace. Silence.
Silence? The wind is blowing, the waves are lapping upon the shore, and an occasional snippet of music drifts in from the resort office in the distance. Yet inside you is ... silence.
There are many words or expressions to describe the incessant noise in one's head and the cause of that noise. Here are some of those terms:
Discursive mind, Ego, Mental chatter, Mind, Monkey mind, Self, Thinking, Thought
These don't all refer to precisely the same thing, and some of these terms (like “thought”) can be used in different ways, or refer to something smaller or larger in scale. In any case, most of us know the difference between a preoccupied brain and a calm, quiet one. So let's put aside the words above and just call the problem “brain noise.”
A brain free of noise is a wonderful thing. Alas, for many of us it's hard to be in that state unless we've just woken up, or are about to sleep, or are in the middle of a vacation. Alas, some of us don't find silence even in those circumstances.
Is brain noise inherently a bad thing? Not necessarily. If you ask me to multiply 15 times 23 in my head you're going to hear me muttering to myself. I don't have a natural gift for arithmetic, so I'll be tediously juggling the parts of the problem in my head. That creates a lot of noise. It usually works, and that's a positive result, though I do find it tiring.
While brain noise occasionally reflects something useful happening, it usually seems like a waste of energy. It spawns useless judgements (as demonstrated in my earlier article Idiocy); it amplifies fears and worries; it generally spins around and around accomplishing nothing.
We all face contradictory imperatives. For example, we might want to eat healthy food but we love chocolate cake. We might know that smoking is bad for us but we really love cigarettes. We might think that our single vote is insignificant but we do it to participate in the process.
There are countless “this but that” situations in our lives. Our minds are tempted to resolve these one way or the other but this is usually a waste of energy. We know this cyclic thinking is bad for us but we have the impression that other people have resolved their dilemmas by thinking things through.
Sometimes they do. Usually not, though.
Is there an escape from brain noise? Sure! Get blind drunk. That used to work for me but it's not a viable long term solution.
It seems to me that much of religion and eastern philosophy is dedicated to liberating us from brain noise — and doing so in a way that doesn't obviously hurt us. Alas, most religion requires us to believe in invisible people, while most eastern philosophy asks us to dedicate huge chunks of our lives to seeing what is right in front of us.
There doesn't seem to be a convenient shortcut but I'm always thinking about how there might be one. Yes, yes, you caught me: It's still more “this but that.” More brain noise.
Insidious, isn't it?