I'm always bugged by noise pollution. People, pretty much everywhere, usually seem to me unduly and kind of desperately loud. I still think this is the main reason people seek out and enjoy large groups - the sound of laughter and shouting and whenever possible the deafeningly blaring anonymous and characterless music helps them block out who and what they are and how unpleased they are with their general lot in life. Not that I can look at my life in silence in smug self-satisfaction, but I generally prefer knowing what's missing to ignoring it - it seems like the logical first step towards changing things for the better.
So it confused me a little today when in a bit of internal dialogue I characterised my excessive preoccupation with myself and whether my stuff was going well as "noise" - isn't it exactly what "noise" is by (my) definition out to prevent?
So I started building this scheme that began getting complicated enough to need to be written down. To my mind, there are three layers of noise under which most of us are usually submerged:
1) Conformism: Peer pressure striving to control our whole identity and striking spectacular successes at least insofar as our actual behaviour is concerned - we do what others do because they do it, and don't try particularly hard to find our own way. On the rare cases that we do, the group will often go into direct-rather-than-implied pressure mode, creating the most clear-cut instance of repression - but most of us will never even go there (at least not beyond adolescence).
2) Busyness: The impulse to keep on the move, to keep active, to be perpetually stimulated by a hectic life - whether this is expressed in workaholism, partying, television, drugs (even soft ones) or mere extroversion - this is what I have traditionally referred to as "noise", and see as ultimately concerned with not letting you hear yourself think. When I was overwhelmed by my moods people kept telling me "you think too much" and "you just need to find something to do" and I'd be at a loss because to me these counsels conveyed a far deeper desperation than what even I was feeling, and suggested that the solution was to never listen to yourself ever again. This "busyness" impulse terrifies me because it's so pervasive and accepted, and yet so obviously nihilistic and suffocating - so much in denial of life and aliveness. It's a whole institution powered by a self-righteous intellectual timidity.
3) Intellectualism: Or perhaps "Analysisism" would better describe what I mean: In retrospect it may not apply to "most of us". Excessive analysis is a syndrome reserved for relatively few, but it's self-denial's last line of defence. Even once we've broken free from conformism and busyness - once we are ostensibly free do what we want and to know what we think - the intellectual independence that brought us this far threatens to betray its own purpose by so frenetically cultivating itself as to drown out what we feel, which is what all of this noise excavation was about in the first place. Sometimes we think about things not because they're worth thinking about, but to serve the same impulse of repression that ever made us consider for a second that conformism or busyness might be good ideas. They don't actually "make sense", but they have an inner momentum that comes from the deep-seated fear that there is actually nothing there, so we better not look too directly into ourselves.
Though probably quite few of my friends and acquaintances fit this criterion, I don't think I'm just talking about myself. It appears that Western intellectual tradition in general, and certainly most of its moral philosophy that I've encountered, is deeply infected with this fetishistic "scientific" attention to irrelevant detail and structural considerations. The pursuit of objectivity has us discussing "objects" and their relation to one another while ignoring as much as we can their relation to us and our feelings. Even our "appreciation" of art has more to do with what it makes us think than with what it makes us feel, which to me seems ridiculous but to the world in general appears to seem obvious - much like our differing stance on busyness.
The alternative to the last of these noisinesses can be found, I think, by examining what is at the heart of all these exercises in repression. Namely, pressure. We are under pressure to meet the group's approval as we are under pressure to find something to do as we are under pressure to conform to our own standards to the letter. The alternative to pressure, is Taoism.
If Buddhism asserts that we don't need desire to live a good life, Taoism (more sensibly, I think) asserts that we don't need pressure. The idea is that if something is good, it should be done, and if it's bad it should be avoided, and that it shouldn't really get complicated beyond that. There is no sensible reason to avoid the good and to pursue the bad - only pressure, from whatever source, to do so. Taoism would tell the pressure, in general, to go fuck itself, much like the "intellectual" told conformism and busyness to sod off. Instead of pitting a better pressure against a worse pressure, the idea is that pressure is fundamentally unnecessary, and that truly independent and truly sensible conduct can be achieved by simply doing what you want and avoiding what you don't. We are not children who need to meet parental pressure without which we will not get for ourselves what we need; we are adults who know what they want and usually how to get it. Forwards planning is fine - backwards examination does little beyond distracting us from ourselves, at least when it's done not from the position of relaxed contemplation but from a sense of duty.
You need silence in order to hear yourself. Noise as expressed in any and all forms of pressure is designed to prevent precisely that, for reasons that are sometimes extremely bad and sometimes only a little. Possibly you need to read through the Tao Te Ching before this statement becomes convincing, but there is nothing appeasing others can get you that you can't get from listening properly to yourself instead.