But when I quiet my mind, the first thing I notice is the noise. Lots of it. The sounds of cars and trucks rumbling by on a nearby major thoroughfare and the highway a mile away, the whine of a chainsaw or the buzz of a weed-whacker, and the ever present roar of airplanes overhead. When you realize that all of this sound is blaring all around you all the time, you naturally wonder: Why don’t I usually notice this? How do the birds and other animals cope with this racket, and how are they affected by it? The noises of the modern world, when you stop to notice them, can sometimes feel annoying, nagging, almost tormenting.
But a stilled mind can also better hear the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s amazing when you realize how much chirping is going on! So many critters, insects, and birds are all out there, especially right now as springtime emerges. They are doing their myriad animal activities, living in their amazing worlds of natural wonder that parallel our human world every moment of every day. It’s like hundreds of separate realities coexisting all the time, intertwined yet completely distinct and foreign to one another. Amazing!
As I describe in my book Active Consciousness, one of the things my teacher Gary Sherman emphasizes in his teaching is how our consciousness is always shifting, based on where we place our attention. We can focus on the cars or we can focus on the birds. We can focus on our anxious worries or we can focus on our physical pains. We can focus on a painting or we can focus on a symphony. And if we really choose to, we can focus on stillness, or on perceiving and receiving information coming to us from deep within — from another more subtle realm. It’s all about tuning in to the “channel” of our choice. With some practice, we can learn to roll our “dial” and go anywhere we desire.
Of course, sometimes an outside stimulus can be so overwhelming that it is hard to shift our attention away from it. When those road noises are blaring at me, it’s often hard for me to focus on the birds and their sweet music. It’s no wonder that most people simply opt to cover up the noise with headphones, or move inside and listen to soundtracks of nature sounds instead.
But remember this: there is a difference between silence within and quiet without. When you are tapping into your internal silence, the noises without lose their charge. You become more neutral to them. Another trick I’ve used is to imagine that road noise is simply the sound of an ever present ocean. This helps to distance me from my own irritation or “story”, settle myself, and direct my attention to where I want to go.
Of course, dealing with the sounds of the outside world has much in common with dealing with the noise within. The constant drone and blare of our thoughts and stories can sometimes be omnipresent and oppressive. Sometimes we shut it out with drugs or alcohol or distractions. But just as we can find the silence within and become neutral to the sounds of the world, we can also become a more neutral observer of our thoughts. They are simply a part of us. We can achieve this by focusing on our immediate body sensations, placing our awareness in the present moment, and listening very carefully for the still voice within. The more we practice this skill — perhaps through meditation, but even more importantly, by remembering to refocus ourselves as we go about our lives — we become much more adept at directing our attention to where we really want to go.
Remember this: one of the amazing hallmarks of humanity is our amazing adaptability. Although many of us struggle mightily to keep our lives structured and predictable, when unwanted changes do occur, we can adapt — and much faster than we might have imagined possible. Our brains are even built that way. I’ll never forget one trip to Manhattan, when I stayed on the second floor of an older hotel. The first night I couldn’t believe how anyone could possibly sleep there. The clanging and beeping of trucks all night was monstrously loud and annoyingly intermittent, constantly erupting after a brief lull. But by my third night, I wasn’t even noticing the noise anymore. Because my body needed to rest, my brain adapted and tuned it out.
Sometimes we adapt by necessity, just as I did during my visit to New York. But regular practice can also enable us to more easily adapt to whole new ways of being. We simply need to regularly exercise our internal “receiver” — our attention — so that it becomes more fluid, more keen, and more finely tuned. Start practicing today — in fact, right now! — and tune in to where you want to go.