Keep the Noise Down
Sitting in my favorite cafe in Stockholm, I read and drink coffee as people come in and out and swirl around me. Some days, after I’ve finished—if I have truly been tuned in to my experience—when I get up and walk out the door, for a split second, I’m surprised by where I am.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten what city I’m in or the day of the week; it’s just that it can take me a second to re-engage with the world. I look around at everything that isn’t me and I go: “Ah, yeah—you’re here, too.”
The other day, one of my oldest friends asked me: “How do you deal with/think about the unknown?”
He was one trimester away from becoming a first-time father, and told me he’d been struggling with that question a lot lately—not in a fearful, paralyzing way, but enough to make him wonder if he was over analyzing things.
Cutting out the noise has certainly helped me, I told him. I don’t use social media or have news apps on my phone—nor do I feel like I need daily updates to understand what’s happening in the world.
Honestly, the more “news” I read these days the less informed I feel.
Instead, as often as I need to, I remind myself that for all of human history people have been warring and oppressing and committing atrocities. And yet—here we all still are. The disasters and tragedies we will face in our lifetime will only be new in terms of their mechanism (climate change, cyber warfare), not in terms of our emotional response (fear, anger, blame).
I mean, look at history: We are as bad at learning from the past as we are at predicting the future. No one really knows what’s going to happen—but we’re all so desperate to feel like we know that we end up outsourcing our thoughts, values, and beliefs to some self-proclaimed authority: organized religions, political parties, one of many internet-troll mobs.
“There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us,” Seneca wrote, at some point during the 1st century, “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
We are now as we have always been: sailing toward an empty horizon in the same rudderless ship. Peace of mind is simply a matter of no longer pretending we know what life has in store for us—for the human race, for the planet it’s on.
What helps me keep the noise down more than anything is constantly separating (in my mind) the things I have control over and the things I do not. Then, I simply do my best to be indifferent toward (or at least not agitated by) anything that ends up in the “not in my control” column.
This allows me to focus nearly all of my attention on the single item in the other column: My responses in the present moment to the world around me.
How you show up in the world, moment to moment, isn’t determined by what you do or don’t do on a regular basis; it’s a matter of who you are being at all times.
It just doesn’t work to say: “I’m really patient until…”
Or, “I’m always kind expect when…”
Kindness and equanimity are not things you do or don’t do depending on the situation; they are a philosophy: A way of living.
Even when the metaphorical middle finger of life (or an actual middle finger) is aimed in your direction, you are allowed not to have an opinion. No one is forcing you to be offended, to get rattled. You always, always have the choice to let it go.
“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed,” the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”
The easiest way I’ve found to avoid saltiness, discouragement, and despair: Keep my expectations as realistic and unspecific as possible; I always try and allow for the possibility of many scenarios, never getting too attached to one.
I try to maintain faith in my ability to navigate a range of situations—some certainly more favorable and more likely than others—while also staying tuned in to my own life. I save myself a lot of grief and anxiety by simply being patient and waiting to see what becomes reality.
That said, it feels like I hardly have time at all to just wait around; I’m too busy giving a damn about all the mundane stuff happening between catastrophes—aka: My life.
“There are months I’m doing work that matters,” another friend said to me recently, “but there are also nights I’m doing absolute bullshit—washing dishes, etc.”
As I see it, I told her, the distinction between doing work that is or isn’t meaningful is all a matter of perspective. Are you washing those dishes as best you can, so they will be clean and ready for someone else to use when they are hungry? Or are you doing it in a way that reflects your sense of indifference and obligation?
“Are your life experiences an interference of your spiritual practice,” Ram Dass once asked his students, “or are they the essence of it itself?”
In Hinduism this idea is manifested through the practice of Karma Yoga. Derived from the Sanskrit word for “action,” a person’s karma is the sum of their past, present, and future deeds. In your present life, you do your “karmic duty” by humbly accepting whatever role—position, task, challenge, etc.—is presented to you.
Setting the idea of reincarnation gently off to the side (for now), there’s a practical application here that should not be overlooked.
I forget where I first heard the phrase—”How you do anything is how you do everything”—but it’s been attributed to a number of different sources, which also may be why it’s so regularly misinterpreted: A metric of external success is often mistakenly implied—”How [good or bad] you do anything is how [good or bad] you do everything.”
But this concept is not about achievement at all. It’s about intention: Can you bring the same amount of care and attention to all aspects of your life?
“I also find it absolutely overwhelming to truly believe I can do anything and everything I want,” she continued.
That makes sense, I thought. Because you can’t. No one gets to do everything they want. We absolutely can, though, do everything we do get to do to the best of our abilities.
Again, this doesn’t mean everything you touch turns to gold. You can put all the love in the world into something and it might still end up a turd. But that’s life: No one is great at everything.
We can, though—every one of us—wash our dishes and treat our patients, serve our customers and make our beds, with the exact same amount of pride, presence, and dedication.
That’s Karma Yoga. That’s how I stay tuned in to my life. That’s how I keep the noise down.