The Noise Within

During my son’s recent visit, we drove up to Vermont. The centerpiece of this daytrip was lunch at my favorite summer eatery—the Marina, in Brattleboro. The restaurant boasts a sizable deck overlooking the Connecticut River. In the soft hazy heat of a June afternoon, you can enjoy a lazy meal to the sound of water lapping and birdsong. The word somnolent comes to mind.

I first dined at the Marina eons ago, scant weeks after moving from the heart of Boston. The restaurant’s deck was smaller then, but the tranquility factor was just as high. Sitting there, I was startled to realize the only noise was me. All around was serene—the agitation, the angst, the tumult was all within me. I love cities. Love the diversity, the wide array of culture, the energy, but in the chaos and rush of the urban, you may never hear your own heartbeat.   

A Discordant Jangle of Uncertainty 

The noise within: You’ve got a zillion things to do—a zillion things you want to do—but you can’t settle on what to tackle first. Whatever you turn your hand to, you find yourself spinning your wheels, repeating the same steps without making any discernible advances. Busy doing nothing, as a friend once put it, leaves you exhausted but unfulfilled. In this state of paralysis, hours and days melt away as you frantically row but get no closer to land.

The noise within distracts us from what matters most in the moment, leaves us confused and uncertain about our true feelings—Am I doing what I want? What do I want? It blurs our focus and renders us immobile. Should I go this route? But what if I went the other way? What if I miss something vital? The possibilities overwhelm. The problems feel insurmountable. Fear spirals wildly, an endless loop of anxiety. What if I fail? What if I fail because I fear failing? We are swamped in a deluge of despair.

What is Making All That Racket?

The still calm of that long ago afternoon on the Connecticut River revealed the noise within me, but Boston didn’t create that noise. You don’t have to be standing in Times Square to be rendered deaf to your inner voice. We live on Planet Earth, home of Social Media A to Z, the Worldwide Web, and the 24-hour news cycle. An unceasing parade of pundits forecast doom and gloom. Experts—true and false—spout their wisdom(?) freely everywhere. “You should do this.” “You mustn’t think that.” “Everyone knows…” The subtext: Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. Like the increasingly contaminated air we breathe that pollutes our lungs, the constant, often contradictory, mumbo jumbo from these talking heads offers lots of anxiety but little affirmation.

The din of the outside world—a cacophony of voices, often strident and discordant—may drown out the most essential voice, our own. Getting away from that din long enough to tune in to our true inner state is the first step toward reducing the noise within. The good news is, we can choose to decrease the time we spend on, take breaks from, or entirely turn off this media circus. We can limit the authority we grant to others, especially strangers.

You don’t have to hide away in a yurt in the Himalayas to hear your own voice. You just need to create space and trust yourself. While it’s wise to take in and weigh new or differing viewpoints, it’s healthy to remember—and value—your own experience, your needs, your hopes. If anyone tells you they know you better than you know yourself, don’t believe them. And if someone says, this is the one right way to do/approach/achieve this, ignore them. In every field, for any endeavor, history proves there are many paths to any goal.

Mute the Noise: Mind Cleansers

During the pandemic, shut out from my usual visits to the gym, I took long walks. The gym has re-opened but I’ve put off signing up, preferring these daily rambles that both empty and “clean” my head, leaving space for new ideas, insights, calm. Some people, I know, swear by meditation, but I get fidgety sitting still. For me, the mind/body catharsis of a good walk works best.

Other mind cleansers I’ve discovered or borrowed and tweaked include:

1. Get ready… Jigsaw puzzles! Yes, those BIG 1000- to 2000-piece babies. Absorbed, focused solely on finding and fitting pieces, it’s my “dessert” at the end of a workday. Unlike the inner push many of us feel to have a finished product—a new chapter on the book, the entire garage cleaned—to show for a day’s effort, jigsaw is all about process. No one expects to complete a jigsaw in an afternoon. There’s no “right” number of pieces to fill in. There’s no success/failure pressure. It just feels great to make whatever progress you can. If we could adopt this attitude about all our endeavors, the sanity quotient would skyrocket around the globe.

Okay, I hear you saying, but what about real deadlines? The kind the boss imposes. Believe me, writers get deadlines, too. All the time. I think it’s possible, though, that more gets done—and better—when we focus more on the work itself and less on watching the clock. Anxiety is not conducive to either creativity or productivity.

Unsplash: Hello I’m Nick

2. The stuff that nags. The seemingly endless—and changing—list of troubles and woes we can’t fix at the moment—or maybe ever—but must wait for the answer or leave to fate. This is an old trick—one the experts got right—but it has worked for me (when I’ve taken the time to do it). Make a list of the stuff your mind keeps churning over to no avail. Just brainstorm it without pause or judgment. Then tuck that list in a folder or a drawer—I tape mine to the far side of my file cabinet where I can’t see it—and let those suckers go. Get on with life. You might get a shock from revisiting this list in a month. How many items have resolved themselves or simply don’t matter anymore? And how much energy have you freed up in the meantime? Repeat as often as necessary.

3. Of course, there are BIG valid worries aplenty in our world. Our climate is in chaos—June saw 115 degrees in Las Vegas. Geo-politics are trending toward the fascist. Here in the States, we’ve watched the rise of violent militaristic groups and white supremacy. Voting rights are on the chopping block. Whole lotta noise out there.

Unsplash: Mika Baumeister

I confess to struggling with these fears—I like to get out in front of troubles and act to prevent them. But when we’re talking about problems of this scale, it’s just not possible for any one person to eradicate or correct them. They are systemic and well-funded by Big Money. Allowing them to endlessly rattle around in our brain drains us of hope and energy. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength, writer and Dutch watchmaker Corrie Ten Boom cautioned. And she walked the talk on that one. Cornelia “Corrie” ten Boom and her family hid many Jews in their home during World War II, aiding them in escaping the Nazis.

Like Corrie, what each of us can do is act from where we are. We can make phone calls, write letters, register voters, join local environmental groups, protest, and donate. Every dollar helps. Every voice raised swells the whole. As Corrie Ten Boom’s life shows, action gives strength. Empowers rather than depletes us.

Unsplash: Jonathan Kemper

4. Once you’ve freed up some mental real estate, you can direct your energy. Choose your focus. What are the basic areas where you want to expend your time and effort? My list includes: Writing (novels/short fiction/blogging), playing guitar, gardening, house projects, reading, walking and, of course, family/friends. These are things I strive to do with great frequency because they matter to me—in the case of writing, almost daily.

What my list does is provide a road map, a general direction, when I start to feel lost or overwhelmed. Say, if I have six hours today, I might spend two on my current work-in-progress, and one hour each on blogging, walking/guitar, and gardening. The sixth hour? Maybe I’ll throw those boxes of clothing for the Salvation Army into the car. Ed and I will drop them off, then enjoy a summer lunch at a favorite café.   

I don’t do these things with a stopwatch. It’s just a loose guideline. If I should get bitten by the neighbor’s dog—which happened two weeks ago—and have to spend my morning in the ER, c’est la vie. No self-recrimination. As John Lennon wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

5. Mental health days. Take them regularly. Play is as essential to our well-being as the loftiest purpose. Got a full-time job? Kids to care for? Ask a spouse/partner/relative/friend to step in for an afternoon. Even a daily mental health hour—like the walks I took during COVID and continue to enjoy—can reset your head.  

Your True Voice: Let it Rip

Unsplash: Clay Banks

“The sky is falling in!” Henny-Penny cries in the classic children’s fable, after an acorn falls from the tree above and bonks her on the head. While it’s never pleasant to get hit on the head, I think if you look up, you’ll find the sky is still there. It’s always been there. It will always be there—at least in terms of any timeline that concerns us.

The noise within, maybe it’s just a whole lot of acorns pelting us from one direction and another. If we let them take seed and sprout, we’ve got a forest so dense, it muffles our true voice. But we can choose to cast those babies aside one by one and keep focused on what really matters to us. Whether that’s work or play, if it doesn’t hold some kind of real satisfaction, I don’t want to waste myself on it.

I hope you’ve found something in these observations and ideas that will help vanquish the noise within. I also hope you’ll take a moment to comment and share any “tricks” you use to turn down that din. Our possibilities are too wondrous and our hours too precious to let our true voice be muffled in the roar of the crowd.