If you’ve ever spent any time in the modern world, you’ll know that life today is one long battle with complexity, noise and hyper-stimulation. Acoustic noise is bad enough; most of us are well aware that it causes us excess stress and harms our health in myriad ways. But acoustic noise is just one kind of unwelcome stimuli. We’re routinely assaulted by visual noise, cognitive noise, and conceptual noise at every turn. All of these forms have a similar effect on our attention and well-being: Not only do they distract us, they also force us to bring more and more of our metabolic and psychological resources to bear just to maintain our focus. This effort is exhausting and will-power depleting. Fighting your way through a daily thicket of acoustic, visual and cognitive noise eventually takes its toll. To tap a modern metaphor, we might well say that our modern problem with complexity and noise resembles our battles with spam. Spam, of course, is unwanted email, but in a larger sense, spam is any distracting stimuli that interferes with our primary objective. In essence, spam is noise.
We can even create our own taxonomy of spam. Just as we are buried with spam in our inboxes, we’re assaulted with sensory spam, cognitive spam, linguistic spam, commercial spam and cultural spam. Naturally, corporate advertisers and marketers are responsible for much of the deluge. Modern media, TV, radio and the Internet have opened the floodgates to invasive messaging, noise and unwanted stimuli of all varieties, piped into our lives in every second of every day. The noise never stops; we can scarcely hear or feel the natural world or our bodies above the din.
Externally-created spam is bad enough, but we make things far worse by generating our own spam. Perversely, we spam ourselves with cognitive noise, repetitive narratives, chronic strategizing, rumination, worry and recriminations. In fact, this kind of spam may actually dwarf the stuff that comes into our in-boxes. And of course, it all feeds into a nasty vicious spiral of amplification. External spam feeds our stress response which jacks up our internal noise and in turn, creates more stress. It’s all one hyper-linked noise machine.
So what are we supposed to do with all this spam and noise that flows through our lives, our minds and our bodies?
The most obvious first step is to limit the onslaught with rigorous triage. Decide what's really important in your life. Learn how to say no to hyper-normal stimulation. Build firewalls around your most vital, health-giving practices. Keep your electronic devices at bay.
Likewise, we’d do well to simplify our homes, our workspaces, our gyms and studios. Make these places beautiful. Follow the Japanese model of the dojo, or the French art of Mise en place. Pronounced MEEZ ahn plahs, this practice puts things in their place. It’s attention to order, with care and forethought. It’s often employed in cooking, but applies equally to any discipline and any environment. Clean and simplify as you go.
Meditation is also an ideal practice for eradicating spam, particularly the self-generated variety. Unfortunately, this process often begins badly. Beginners are likely to sit down, focus on their breathing and quickly become distressed. Suddenly it becomes obvious just how chaotic and noisy our minds really are. Sitting quietly in one place, we can feel our personal spam generators at work, spewing out an astonishing stream of random thoughts, images, judgments, opinions and non sequiturs. The typical human mind generates enough spam to put an eastern European basement hacker to shame. Indeed, a paper published last summer in Science, found that people would prefer electric shocks to being left alone with their own thoughts. The report concluded: "the untutored mind does not like to be left alone with itself." And to make matters worse, resistance only makes the spam generator more active; the more we try to fight the stream of thought, the stronger it becomes.
The solution lies in non-resistance and persistence. Observe the flow of spam as it arises, then return your attention to your breath. The spam will come, but don’t judge the content or the fact that you’ve generated it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here; spam is an entirely normal feature of the human mind. Next, relinquish any attachments that form; if your mind sticks to any bit of spam or goes on some kind of journey, just let it go. Relax and return to your breath, again and again. Keep doing this for a good long while, then do it frequently; daily is best. Over the course of weeks and months, the flood of spam will subside and in the process, you’ll gain a sense of calm and equanimity.
And then, if you can figure out what to do about all that junk that shows up in your inbox, you’ll be a master of your art.