Few disciplines are more difficult for modern man than silencing his noise machine. It’s a machine that continuously floods the mind with thoughts of guilt, anger, the latest injustices he has suffered, and endless trivia. It randomly engages in self-debate and senseless chatter, blocking out all attempts to bring forth a meaningful thought.
Many people are so addicted to noise that it’s become their drug of choice. Even when alone, they engross themselves in frivolous activities — music, texting, gossiping, games, and more. Anything but silence and tranquility.
Of course, the true noise addict would prefer to be at a boisterous social gathering if at all possible — volleyball at the beach, drinking and hooting it up with the crowd at Buffalo Wild Wings, or just exchanging an endless stream of babble about his and others’ travails.
Just about anything is preferable to silence. Silence is the enemy. Silence is maddening. Silence must be drowned out at all costs. Thus, the genuine noise junkie goes to great lengths to avoid quiet places as a safeguard against having to endure dreaded inner silence.
Why are people so attracted to noise? It’s really part of a larger problem — a lack of control over one’s mind. As Arjuna said to Krishna, “The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, and obstinate. It is as difficult to control as the wind.”
If, through a lack of focus, you allow your mind to wander, your attention becomes vulnerable to time thieves such as gossip, television, electronic devices, and menial tasks that don’t really need your attention. In other words, your attention becomes enslaved. All these things are addictive and serve to anesthetize your brain, working in concert with your inner noise machine to drown out constructive thoughts.
Just as bad as enslaved attention is dispersed attention, because it renders you a zombie of sorts. Dispersed attention turns the mind into a pinball machine, with thoughts flitting from one meaningless topic to another. It flourishes best in noisy environments — places with lots of distractions, the more the better, because noise is the food of choice for a mind in search of distractions.
Distractions, of course, make life more difficult. For example, have you ever put something in a dumb place, somewhere you never put it before? Perhaps your car keys, which you usually put in a specific drawer in the kitchen as soon as you walk in the door? You are totally baffled trying to figure out where you could have put them.
Then, after scouring the house and looking in the kitchen drawer twenty times, your keys finally show up in your bedroom, underneath some odds and ends on a table. It isn’t that you forgot where you normally put them. What happened was that when you came into the house, the chatter box inside your mind distracted you, so you weren’t concentrating on putting your keys in their usual place.
It’s uncertain who first put forth the thought “never less alone than when alone,” but whoever it was, he stated a beautiful truth. Over the past forty years, I’ve only lived alone for eleven months, and it was the most peaceful time of my life. Because I drenched myself in silence and tranquility, the endless chatter within me disappeared and my noise machine turned itself down so low that I could barely hear it. Though I was alone, I was never less alone.
I clearly remember that I was able to concentrate on whatever I was doing at the moment — reading, listening to soft music, writing, etc. — because my mind was uncluttered. My attention was neither enslaved nor dispersed. As a result, I made more headway in my career during that brief period of time than at any other time in my life.
So what’s the secret to controlling the mind? It is to be found in that ever-mysterious abstract known as free will. No one totally understands free will, but few doubt that every human being possesses it. Through free will, you can choose to concentrate totally on whatever it is you’re doing at any given moment in time, which I’ve found does not leave room for clutter to take hold.
Of course, a lot of the clutter comes from people, so you have to lay down your rules of engagement. It goes without saying that people who lie, steal, or cheat are not worthy of your thoughts. Nor are people who waste your time. Or people who thrive on complaining and lamenting.
What it all boils down to is your mind-set. Practice surrendering yourself to the moment. Whatever it is you would like to be doing, do it — and give it your full attention.
Of course, all this takes vigilance and self-discipline, both of which free will is capable of producing. Remember, concentration is not controlled by the involuntary nervous system. It’s a conscious action that is simply but accurately summed up in Krishna’s response to Arjuna’s observation (above): “Undoubtedly the mind is restless and hard to control. But by practice and dispassion, it can be controlled.”
Or, as a well-known 21st century philosopher put it some five thousand years later, “The simple secret to controlling your mind is to ‘concentrate on concentrating.’”