The link between the life and behavior of a philosopher, thinker, or creative person and that person’s work is often made, even insisted upon. Usually, the link is made to argue that the ideas or beliefs are flawed because of the person’s behavior — or the opposite, that the expression of the person’s life proves the value of the idea.

What an irony — the link works both ways! Whether we condemn or praise the ideas, those ideas are made the responsibility (or genius) of the person. Or, conversely, if we condemn or praise the person’s behavior, that behavior becomes the basis of the ideas.

So we are trapped having to accept both or none — if we insist on a link.

More likely, and more realistically, there is no absolute link because there is no new idea, nor is there any new personality or new behavior.

We skirt the edge of validity in reviewing forms of expression and what a given society will look like socially or technologically based on its values. Appearance involves historical or accidental elements that simply distinguish one era from another, one culture from another. New ideas are not channeled from the dead and morphed upon arrival into some human receptacle that will express the ideas. Rather, old ideas are textured by the atmosphere in which they arrive. Every era is a modernity to the ideas of the past. Through the prism of the moment is applied the myriad factors of what is called “the world.”

But the nuances of expression over time does not mean that there is no link between existence and expression. Ideas are the epiphenomena of mental activity, which is in part a physical and physiological foundation for our thoughts. The mind’s complexity will probably never be unraveled. Why should it be except to control it, meaning to be controlled by others? And that control would itself be on behalf of a particular cultural, societal or political intent.

To “get along” in the modern world, we are resigned to tolerance, which post-modern critic Slavoj Zizeck, among others, labels a Western conceit by which another idea or belief is grudgingly allowed to exist because it is inconvenient to destroy it. Those who tolerate seldom scrutinize their own ideas as valid because they constitute the cultural and social dominance or majority — or imagine that they should be.

When we hear philosophical arguments made today as if they are new, we almost have to filter them through the clouded atmosphere of modern times.

We have little experience of what material conditions affected our best-thinking ancestors. And yet we can identify those trains of thought so well. But how can we ever apply them to better our lives if our identification with modern society is so strong?

This is the prime reason that solitude and silence are essential to our well-being — physical health and mental equanimity. Despite the many relaxation techniques trumpeted today, they have no ancient context, no continuity other than name and form, specifically if we use them only to postpone value-making decisions or to allay stress just enough that we are recovered for the next day’s rat race.

In this roundabout way we can see that the links between behavior and ideas are authentic if we are able to understand the context of the person’s life. Art is a combination of a complex of mental interchanges — among which is simply personality, that tightened bundle of heredity, environment, and life circumstances. But such an understanding is still a tool, not a judgment.

The best art, like the best ideas, are anonymous, and come to us over the centuries as a perennial wisdom, self-effacing and deeply resonant, like a deep still pool of water undisturbed from which any can drink. Such is Jung’s collective unconscious. Such is the tradition of the spirituals who did not write anything, or reputedly did so but probably did not: Buddha, Lao-tzu, Jesus, and the mystics and hermits whose works are now ashes of the great fire once burning. Even the wisdom philosophers who wrote, and wrote a great deal, were only trying to express what they could barely retain.

We can read as much as we can, but without changing our environment and behavior, little will be accomplished. We can identify ourselves with the dead and the past, but until we also understand the tenuous link between behavior and expression, we are apt to make overstatements and to misunderstand the plight of the many ignorant of the modern world. This is why, instead of tolerance, we must practice indifference. Ideas, beliefs, opinions, ideologies, must be objects of indifference to us. We only see the person and the circumstances of their plight, their disposition, whatever animates them, be it poison or nectar, for we only what to understand.

The slender thread that links us to wider reality is more important than anything we think or dream, anything in our environment that impedes us. We must be scrupulous not to obscure our view of it, for understanding is a boon to wisdom. If we merely tolerate, we are consumed with trivial decisions, rankings, hierarchies to construct and maintain, pride to disencumber. Through indifference, we actually remain linked to reality but not bound to its vicissitudes.

Brain work

The identification of brain waves is well established, but less so the notion of maintaining an optimal range regardless of one’s situation or activities. Modern life and its artificial schedules and routines have already created seasonal affective disorder, diseases of sedentary living and bad nutrition, and the tensions and stresses of technology and society. The modern idea that we are largely dominated by evolutionary instincts and impulses can overshadow expectations that our brain (and our emotions, feelings, outlooks, and behaviors) can reside in a healthy range.

We know that brain waves reflect the brain status of any given moment. For adults, the delta and theta waves are produced during sleep. The awakened state is reflected in alpha waves: relaxed but alert. Beta waves dominate regular waking functions, from interested attention to focus to intensive to stressful.

While beta waves reflect all of the functions of the awakened state, the brain is flexible and can adapt to circumstances, even welcoming optimal circumstances. But one must become conscious of optimal circumstances in order to foster brain health. While there are brain exercises for memory, the “exercises” that will bring us to optimal living are not so easily identified and implemented. They must be cultivated and pursued. This requires learning and reflection, a critical faculty, and an appreciation for natural settings wherein the brain can rest in alpha waves.

In the late 1970’s, biofeedback was the popular method for attempting to affect brain waves. The developer of biofeedback was Les Fehmi, who now calls his system “open-focus attention.” Similarly, the 1975 book Relaxation Response by cardiologist Herbert Benson became a break-through concept to address stress. Since then, Dr. Benson has studied Eastern methods of meditation for clinical input in the search to identify optimal brain flexibility. As Fehmi puts it, “Flexible attention is the sine qua non of health.”

Part of the Western response to technological society’s sources of stress, therefore, has been to find physiological coping mechanisms rather than to address the premises of modern technology and modern socioeconomic conditions, which have been exported to the rest of the world with the same ill results. In part, the conclusion that changes cannot be affected in such deeply-rooted material conditions leads to the search for palliatives. But these palliatives will not work without understanding the conditions, without recognizing that the cause is not addressed if mere palliatives are applied. This is the mistake of modern medicine (curing disease by obliterating symptoms) as much as modern diplomacy (curing what are judged inadequate, backward, or offensive political systems by obliterating them). The premises of modern technological society are not to be questioned.

Into the breach of Western values come various imports of original wisdom, usually broken or made ineffective by the transference from East to West. Most Westerners refuse to countenance Eastern thought because of their own extension of Western colonialist thinking, xenophobia, or inherited bias against what can be called exoticism.

In philosophy, Thoreau and Schopenhauer were notable 19th-century exceptions. In religion and spiritual thinking, Theosophy and Gurdjieff in the early 20th century tried their filtered and eccentric versions of East-West reconciliation. They were predecessors of New Age. Similarly, New Age has drawn on post-World War II physics and ethics to elaborate a cosmology and vision that varies from one source to another but is characterized by wholesale incorporation of Eastern ideas left without their material and cultural roots.

More scientifically-oriented examples include the collaborations of the Dalai Lama with Western scientists (such as Benson) to explore neurological foundations of Buddhist psychology, and the famous 1998 book, Zen and the Brain by neurologist and Zen practitioner James H. Austin, which remains an unrivaled source for bridging techniques of East and West.

The great challenge, then, is how to incorporate into the modern world solutions that will ameliorate the ills of modern society. Solutions will not appear within the modern political and technological realms because they are invested in the perpetuation of the ills. From where, then, will solutions come?

Richard Moss, author of the Mandala of Being, suggests that all human activity is ultimately subjective, both in self and experience of the world, and that our various subjectivities come together to form society. His solution emphasizes the experience of “Now,” which will sound familiar to New Age thinking popularized by, for example, Eckhart Tolle. Richard Moss, who was a physician, has since switched his approach to one of more social conviviality with his “radical aliveness” theme.

Unsuccessful approaches to East-West integration of ideas and techniques is not entirely cerebral. But too many suggest that by a trick of consciousness or sleight of mind or a Buddhism deprived of ethics or social awareness, we can transcend the ills of the world around us. Effectively, the ills of modern life are thereby ignored.

We live in a vacuum of indifference if the Now unsuccessfully becomes a code-word for “Me.” Solitude has little to do with “me” and my own problems or my cultural inheritance and has everything to do with nature and the natural world around us, which includes us. Our brains become fully aware of our world, our environment, by shaping our daily life to practices that naturally aligns us with the “biorhythms” of the universe.


Noise is offensive sound — not offensive in just an aesthetic or ethical sense, but in the direct sense of being human in origin and, therefore, contrived.

Sound is natural, but noise is not. Sounds (which will include the subset of noises) must be filtered intelligently, distinguishing degrees of meaningfulness from deliberate and reprehensible offense.

Noise is made by people and machines, the latter being extensions of people. There are a few natural places left in the world of nature where human-generated sounds are not heard. Such places are rare — one may think of them cynically as the dwelling-places of indigenous peoples not yet conquered by civilization. To some people, silence is antiquarian, something to be hung in a gallery or boxed up in a museum. Noise rules the world. And like technology and globalization, noise cannot be rolled back.

Even in the apparent silence of one’s house or room there is noise: the clicking of a clock, the hum of a refrigerator or fan, even the “sound” of low and high frequencies and microwaves inaudible to our clumsy ears but affecting our health and well-being as we sit surrounded by them. In one’s relative silence, savoring the absence of a world’s presence, comes a deep sigh, the inkling of restfulness and independence, even a constructive meditation or musing. Then a klaxon blares in the street, a neighbor shouts, or an airplne passes overhead. Immediately we are shaken from our reverie and plunged again into the ubiquity of noise, of human sound.

City-dwellers, especially, tend to ignore noise because it is part of the normal soundscape of their daily lives. The modernist composer John Cage went so far as to celebrate city noises as the only form of spontaneous music. By this time, Cage was living in Manhattan as a retired celebrity, oblivious to the lives of the toiling masses in those same noisy streets. Perhaps it was the other way around: music is noise, not noise is music.

City-dwellers’ ears selectively identify certain audible ranges to pay attention to, like animals alert to meaningful sounds because they may signify danger. What used to cause stress to primitive humans was the roar of a lion or howling of a wolf. Today, vehicles rushing at us from everywhere in the street compound stress thousands of times over compared to our ancestors. We think we distinguish meaningful sounds, but these are the dregs of subjectivity. Every noise assaulting us is automatically “meaningful” in a neurological way. Still, we imagine that noises are not dangerous — unless we live in a country at war, where the whine of missiles, and the shouts of groups of men and vehicles in the street represent a perpetual danger.

Most city-dwellers distribute audible ranges into categories of utility, such as conversation, favorite music, cooking sounds, ringtones — versus aircraft, sirens, and shouts. And if urban noises are too distracting, there are always headphones to blot out noise — or to blot out undesirable noise for one’s own version. White noise is the last refuge of the harried urban soul. A whole industry of “nature sounds” exists, but soon to be found on the remainder rank along with other contrived sounds.

A recent study shows that in urbanites the amygdala — the most primitive of our brain structures — reacts to certain stresses that the same organ in rural residents does not. The sounds, in these experiments, were the badgering and disparaging remarks of the clinician testing the reaction of subjects and trying to provoke a pattern on a screen. Maybe other sounds could be tested, but the remarks of others are often all the stress one needs for a day, or a lifetime.

Once we consider all human-generated sound to be noise, we are challenged to defend our very words and our listened-to audio, be it talk or music. Does it stir us to anger, arrogance, passion, curiosity, wistfulness, amusement, resentment, numbness? How does this or that piece of sound contribute to right thinking and feeling, to the development of some virtue or skill? Does it address deep needs? Does talk represent words of discernment, presented in a way that does not bore us or miss the standard of good presentation skill? Is the music merely frustrating our biorhythms, artificially representing excesses of one sort of passion or another, leaving us with earworms for the next few days?

The challenge of only speaking and hearing what reflects our human needs and deepest spiritual aspirations sounds as if the social content of sound — communication — is usually bad, unworthy, useless. But communication of any kind should have not merely a utilitarian purpose, however humane, but a spiritual quality. That is the test of speaking and communicating, for these represent not merely sounds but feelings, beliefs, aspirations, deep sentiments. “Those who talk do not know, those who keep silence know,” to paraphrase Lao-tzu. Communication must have an ethical component, not merely an auditory one. Listening, in turn, should evoke tranquility, insight, perspicacity, harmony, introspection. This should be the touchstone applied to everything auditory.

The solitary is potentially far ahead in the tasks of right listening and hearing, in distinguishing noise and sound. The solitary has the potential to instinctively sense what sound does well or not for the spirit or mind. This sensibility cannot remain at an instinctual level if solitude is to be cultivated. Noise is a human enterprise blotting out nature. This is the first clue to what the solitary must cultivate.

Contrary to modern thinking, a world without noise would not be a cold, lifeless world but a clear and revelatory world, a world in which all natural sounds would be appreciated. Then the whispers of the natural world — already present but barely perceived by most — would become meaningful to us.