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The Sounds of Mass Distraction

The Sounds of Mass Distraction
By Gene Sager

The roar of the FedEx truck announces its arrival before we can see it. And now it lumbers around the curve, overwhelming our narrow country road, so loud it makes the hills echo with its roar and snort. My neighbor’s dog is terrorized by the invasion of this monster and he frantically barks his loudest alarm and issues a citation on the charge of disturbing the peace. My neighbor, irritated by his noisy dog, thrusts his head out the window and shouts, “Rufus! Shut up! Rufus!” The bark of the master does not silence the dog, and the master barks louder still, “Rufus! Rufus!....” I feel like shouting the neighbor down, creating even more noise pollution.

Episodes like this have set me to researching and pondering our experience of sounds – sounds imposed on us from our environment, sounds we invite (self-imposed), and the physical, mental, and even spiritual effects. It is not merely the little bones in our inner ear that are rattled by the sounds around us.

Sounds Imposed on Us

No federal law regulates noise pollution, and many states have no laws to restrict it. The law in California, where I live, limits ordinary cars and smaller trucks to 95 decibels, but the law is rarely enforced. Truth be told, measuring noise in “decibels” (dB) does not reveal its full impact. A sudden acceleration or screeching tires is an auditory jolt. The whining sound of a motorcycle when shifting from third to fourth gear is a piercing sound that irritates us, no matter how many decibels it is. (88 dB is the limit for California motorcycles built after 1985).

For most of us, traffic noise is the worst type of noise pollution, followed by leaf blowers, lawn mowers, snow blowers, and chain saws. Some factory workers are caught in a dilemma between noise from machines and security issues: A worker using ear plugs cannot hear warning sounds or signals when emergencies occur.

Noise pollution has not received as much attention as air and water pollution, and former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart aptly describes the situation: “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.” Noise pollution is a contributing cause of hypertension, hearing loss, ischemic heart disease, and stress related diseases.
Self-imposed sounds are a problem if their habitual imposition preempts the most neglected of all quality times for individuals. I call it “soul time.” By this high sounding term, I simply mean a time when we turn off all devices and quietly settle our minds.

Self-Imposed Sounds

The conversation about sounds imposed on us is only half of the story. Nowadays, it seems that my friends are ill-at-ease unless they turn on some sound device in their home or car: iPods, CDs, radio, or TV. Perhaps this habit is a good thing – a pleasurable, interesting auditory elixir for mind and body. But perhaps this practice is a problem. Am I just an old grouch if I am critical of it? In what follows, I make my case.

Self-imposed sounds are a problem if their habitual imposition preempts the most neglected of all quality times for individuals. I call it “soul time.” By this high sounding term, I simply mean a time when we turn off all devices and quietly settle our minds. It is not a time for planning or imagining our schedule. The benefits of soul time are twofold. In this quiet time, we can take an honest look at our state of mind and see what we are obsessing about, what thoughts plague us, what red flags are waving, and what avenues feel clear and smooth. The benefit is self-understanding. Secondly, we have the opportunity to experience an even deeper, spiritual awareness.

Spiritual Silence

The second and deeper benefit of soul time takes us beneath our mental states (feelings, thoughts and words ) to a spiritual awareness. We begin to experience this when, instead of focusing on our mental states, we treat them like the chatter of the birds on the other side of the window. We can just let all sounds, feelings, thoughts, and words pass through our mind without focus, analysis, or judgement. Inner and outer noise is dismissed or let go.

Freed from these distractions, we experience a strong sense of relief and tranquility. With this calm comes a sense of unity, a sense of how everything is connected. Most of all, this silence instills compassion for all those who suffer from the trouble and noise of this world. Given these kinds of benefits, this experience may sound religious. Spiritual silence is compatible with religion but is not tied to any religious doctrine or organization. Both religious and nonreligious individuals can enjoy its benefits.

The FedEx truck, if the biggest, is not the only major distraction that disturbs our peace of mind. Self-imposed sounds are perhaps our greatest foible. And our chattering minds can be a constant distraction. To adapt the words of the rock song: “Don’t let the sound of your own mind drive you crazy.” Our thoughts are often like sounds which distract – like inner noise pollution. For relief, spiritual silence can bring us the tranquility so sorely needed in our world today.

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues.

 

 

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