The Sounds of Mass
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
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
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.
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.
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.