Noise, Signal, Focus and Breathing

I always like when I find a thread of thought concurrently running through the different information sources I swim through day to day. In the past few days I’ve found a particularly relevant one. At the weekend I completed my third weekend-long meditation course at the Shambhala Centre in Dublin and thoughts of focus and clarity are prevalent.

Yesterday on Twitter, Martin pointed towards a really interesting post by Rands about thinking, and trying to disseminate signal from noise. The author, in talking about our thought processes, contends that we need to set out space to let the signal rise above the noise. The signal are the thoughts we really should and want to be aware of, but they are lost in a sea of noise.

Then this morning a great post from Tommy dropped into my RSS feed. He also talks of noise in his life, thoughts that distract and worry him and how he cuts through them by diving into projects. By concentrating on something important to him he can focus ‘on the now’

Last night, in between the two, I read another chapter from Dzogchen Ponlop’s Rebel Buddha. The book is an attempt by Ponlop to relate the story of the Buddha and his practice to our everyday life. In it he writes:

What are we looking for? Whether our problem is suffering or a desire “to know”, we’re living with profound questions every day. Why do you get out of bed when the alarm goes off at 6:30 A.M.? What goes through your mind when you turn out the light at midnight? Our questions get lost in the busyness of our life, but they never really go away. If we can catch them and look at them in odd moments – when we’re pouring our first cup of coffee or waiting at a red light – we can begin to see beyond this “job of life” to life itself. We don’t have to wait until life becomes shaky – until we’re facing the pain of depression, disappointment, loss or the fear of death – to ask questions that are “spiritual” in nature. All we need to do is let our questions back in. Tell them, “You’re important to me now.”

To discover your real questions, simply take a time-out. Stop looking ahead of yourself at where you’re going or backward at where you’ve been. When you do stop, there’s a sense of going nowhere. There’s a sense of gap, which is a tremendous relief.

In samatha meditation we let our attention focus on the breath, and we practice to keep it there. In doing so thoughts will naturally arise, and we are urged to notice them, but not to indulge in them. Here we are trying to see, or feel, the noise but not get caught up in it. By doing so we hope to be able to identify it away from the meditation cushion in our everyday lives and not let it dominate us.

Bells starting ringing in my head as all these ideas started converging. Of course, they also differ, but there is a constant; the desire to tune out, or cut through the noise in our heads and focus on what is important now. Tommy does it by throwing himself into work, Rands suggests a break, or simply changing your routine. Dzogchen Ponlop urges us to find a space, or a gap, in which the insightful questions can break through.

As Rands said:

The Noise wants you to believe it’s Signal and its omnipresence in your life slowly and deviously convinces you that the Noise is important. But all listening to the Noise does is deafen you to the things that are important.

I think cutting through the noise, or at least being able to identify the noise, is really important. I have a lot of work to do in this department, but It’s always great to hear different ways in which people are trying to do this.

All dharma agrees at one point.

Geshe Chekhawa (1102–1176)