I owe a huge debt of thanks to my friend the photographer Chris Nitz. He recommended this video, which says in a few words, pictures, and not a little evocative music what I’ve been trying to find the words to express for well over a year now.
You actually don’t have to read any of the rest of this post. Seriously, if you are in a crunch for time, please watch the video, beginning to end, then go about your business. Anything I have to say from here on out is just…well, it’s not noise, I hope, but it’s redundant signal at best.
Counting your facebook likes…that’s noise.
I’ve been talking a lot about ways that the “noise” of social media (and other media, Netflix and Amazon don’t get off the hook) impinges on our lives. This video reminded me of the other side of the coin: a lot of the noise we have to deal with comes from internal sources, not external. I have come to believe that one of the most essential skills we can possibly develop is the ability to differentiate our internal noise from our internal signal.
In the video, the suggestion is to break it down to the simplest parts: a light, a camera, and a lens. These are things the photographer feels he can control, or at least understand, and they are the essential elements without which the end result – a photograph – would not exist.
While it wasn’t explicitly stated in the video, my first inclination was to try and draw analogies to things like sitting practice. Reduce things down to their bare minimum, just your butt, the floor (or “cushion” if you’re one of those wimpy liberal meditators) and your breathing. Bring it down to those essentials, and start to build your sense of inner tranquility from there. That’s what it’s all about, right?
In a sense, yes, I do still think that’s right. When you break it down to those simple elements, when the only noise that is possible is the stuff that comes from inside, that’s when you can begin to filter it. You begin to see what kinds of though patterns keep on coming up, what kinds of reactions and emotions you have to those thoughts, and you even begin to catch a glimpse of just how unrelated all those things are to reality. That’s definitely the way to begin building the filters, because your brain doesn’t have a nifty little program to block the distractions of mindwandering and wouldashouldacoulda.
Well, actually, I’ve heard there’s some substances like alcohol that sort of do that. I’ve never been terribly inclined to try them very much myself, so I can’t really say.
But there’s another problem with that particular metaphor, and it lies in the photograph.
The fact is, we don’t get the end product. The end doesn’t come until it’s too late for us to notice, and even then it’s not really a product, it’s just a memory made up of other people’s brain cells and your accumulated stuff.
What we get, though, are milestones – waystations on a journey that really doesn’t end until we die. We get moments when we’ve achieved some goal – school, marriage, a job, a certain amount of independence, a certain level of interdependence, whatever it may be – and we can, for a moment, be satisfied. But it’s the rare and usually smiling person who is able to remember that feeling for very long, before that path to whatever the next milestone opens up before us.
That’s where more noise comes in. That next milestone may be a siren call to the next level of success – or it may just be that you think you need it, when in reality you’re fine where you are. That person who seems so perfect for you may be a soulmate – but then again, maybe you’re just getting bored with the person you’re actually with. Or maybe they are perfect, and you’re just too stuck in your own rut and afraid to take a chance. Are you slavishly following the unrealistic demands of the dominant culture’s body image, or are you trying to slim down and be healthy?
The reality is that it could be both. Life is not still; if there are photographs, they are moving frames of a long film, and if we think we’re seeing a single frame the truth is that we’ve only caught the after-image, and the time is still flying by.
Personally, I have a very hard time figuring out what parts of my internal soundtrack is noise and what is signal. All too often they seem to both be equally strong. My journal, my sitting, this blog; they’re all the ways I’m trying build my filters, focus the images even as they fly by, and maybe, at some point, make sense of that cinematic epic of life.