Volume Culture Distracts and Detracts from a Mindful Life

I often find it annoying to be alone with my thoughts, mostly because I can’t seem to think of anything worthwhile. I’m not able to concentrate. It’s nearly impossible to saturate a single thought because of the incessant patter of others.

I have a sort of anxiety about being alone. I can only read in silence for a certain period of time, say thirty minutes, before I have to check my phone or walk around. It takes a substantial lapse of time before I can productively focus on writing and begin to create sentences that don’t make me want to explode from incompetency. My mind is clouded, constipated almost, by the constant volume of the world.

I have written before about how our culture is one of distraction and diffuse attention. The example I always use is opening ten tabs on your computer, each stuffed with an interesting article, nine of which take attention away from the one at hand.

But our lives are also entombed in constant sound. It seems like a prerequisite to all manner of work to have headphones in while we do it. We must have a running tape of sound blasting, or inducing a pseudo-fugue as we try to push our minds to the limits of creation. Even while we lie in bed alone, our phone places us in an unsettling, reverberating womb with the rest of the world, connecting us to everyone via the sounds of their lives. 

David Foster Wallace claims there is a “dread” about being alone, with just ourselves to talk to. On the surface, people claim boredom as the reason for constant audience with others, but it is deeper than that. It is a fear that if one is forced to sit alone and ponder the paths of their own thoughts, like a mouse and a ball of yarn, they will begin to unravel, quite literally, the immaterial farces that dominate their lives. I find that true, in addition to the even scarier notion that maybe I’m afraid because my thoughts don’t have much inherent value. It is only after sitting alone with myself for some time that I begin to fully form ideas, construct something vaguely full-bodied, recall complexities instead of choke out some stunted miscreant. Our fear is mistrust that what we will end up hearing from our massive interiority will be something we don’t much like. It is the haunting, subliminal fear that I am the object of the misanthrope, the fallen bit of humanity that is in a state of abjection. Our self-abnegation broadens to a larger fear that humanity doesn’t need us.

Foster Wallace goes on to say that “in most public spaces in America, it isn’t quiet anymore. They pipe music through. It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore, ever.”

The quiet is where dissolution happens. The constant fear of such leads to evasion. Most people never get past the frightening prospect of dismemberment. They abandon silence because the volume of the world will put their superficial identity back together, piece-by-piece. To live to the constant tune of the world is a non-threatening distraction. To practice quietude is to practice creation. It is also becoming used to deletion. But the kiln that melts can also forge a powerful aegis, one that helps the nonsensical volume outside your mind’s walls pare down into a lovely and joyous overture. It’s a sort of pushing through that most people (including myself) find hard to complete. Francis Bacon once said, “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” We need society, but we should also need ourselves.