Noise is everywhere. Complete silence is a virtual state that doesn't exist, for even beams and electrons make noise we cannot hear. Noise is widespread, and its harms are more than commonly thought. Yet, we have to live with it, with some of us more exposed to it than others.
A typical noisy environment is not necessarily a working class house on a main street of a crowded neighborhood in a big industrial city. It can be any place with any people:
Nobody is immune to noise. Wherever there are people, there is noise. Sometimes the noise is inevitably justified, but mostly you still find noise even when there is a choice for people not to be noisy. They use high volume to smother others' voices as well as their own thoughts, weak argument, and voice of reason, if any. Not only do they talk "at" people, but they treat lifeless objects with equal cruelty and tactlessness, to assert their presence and scare away the silence they are scared of: harshly slamming doors, ringing bells, hitting things and people by accident with no apology to make.
It's true that chaos, accidents, mutations ... are useful and creative sometimes, but not for a lifetime. Chaos didn't build up civilizations; order did.
Civilized people in civilized societies learn, at a young age at school or with family, that noise and civility do not go together: that cacophony is a waste of one's energy and time, as well as their health, physically and mentally. Pointless babbling and quarrelling over petty things, by force of habit or for pleasure sometimes, is an animal behavior we humans still carry in our genes. There is no point in talking while others are not listening, or simultaneously talking, or talking without thinking; or, simply, when there is nothing to talk about. For a simple analogy, look around you for the nearest colony of birds on a large leafy tree, and listen to them; then you may get my point.
For those with hyper-sensitive hearing life can become miserable. One doesn't have to stick his fingers in his ears and scream in agony begging the world and people for a silence they will never give him, or run away like a madman in the streets whenever he encounters the ghost of noise. A wise judge of the human nature doesn't have to shout in the courtroom of life to keep everyone in "Order!" He rather learns to live with chaos, because chaos is part of life and the universe. Unlike animals and inanimate objects, we humans have free will and mind power that make us superior to chaos, devising many techniques and developing lifestyles to live with noise and chaos.
Caring too much about what other people say or do can be a hell! The German philosopher Schopenhauer hated noise all his life—as much as he loved quietness, and, of all arts, idolized music and gave it a special place in his philosophy. Unfortunately he paid dearly for having such a tender, critical ear (a hedonic ear that indulged itself in the beautiful sounds in nature, music and arts). For instance, the sound of a passing cart by his window, with the merciless driver flogging his poor horse, turned the philosopher choleric, angrily wondering: "How many ideas have been lost forever, the world could've benefited from, because of that imbecile driver?!" He spent most of his life paying the price for one of his anger fits, where his short temper had led him to beating a woman who'd been used to exacerbating the philosopher with incessant noise.
Unfortunately for our anatomy, our ears have no lids. Worse, technology so far has never been helpful enough in fighting noise. (Fighting is noise; resistance is better; non-resistance, i.e. ignoring, is even better.) An in-built ear-lid, if such a thing eventually existed, would be much better than the best earplug in the world, because with the latter, we still miss the vital sounds we must hear: a cry for help, a phone ringing, a knock at our door, etc.
We should only be disturbed by the meaning of sounds, not by their volume, rhythm, pitch or length. Knowing this fact is basic for training our ear to ignore what others say. In fact, selective hearing is a feature scientists believe human have developed over millennia of evolution.
Think of that frog in your backyard croaking all night, or that bird on your windowsill tirelessly chirping to his prospective mate, or those barking dogs fiercely fighting in the streets… Think of all these, and you'll find they are not so distracting to you, because "they are just animals" and, thank heaven, we don't understand their language! Whenever other people make noise again, which only concerns them, remember how humans are not so different from animals; therefore they too are "just animals." Your ear is yours; so don't blame others if you give it to them!
As long as our hearing cells are not "physically" affected by loud noise, i.e., damaged by frequent exposure to high decibel rates, there is no need to overestimate noise's harm or demonize audio-pollution. In that case only, we must take action and fight noise, as long as we want to keep our hearing sense safe and sound, not being yet prepared to go partially or completely deaf (not everyone can cope with that mute mode of life that deaf people are used to).
In fact, there are high-decibel sounds that can be more harmful to us, without being aware they are, compared to those we consider noisy. We forget how dangerous they become by force of habit, familiarity, monotony, and closeness to our ears. We find them not distracting and less noisy, typically in households and workplace; as with those of us working in, or living near factories, construction sites, airports, schools, traffic, parties, etc. However, to fight noise then, ignoring noise is not enough, because of the health risk involved. This is why a simple cotton ball, a wrapped tissue, or an earplug will do the job. Anyway, let us focus here on ways to fight noise, not as a threat to our health, but a disturbance to our mind.
Coping with Noise
• Playing Deaf
When we stop paying attention to sounds around us, we can better hear our thoughts, enjoy them, process them faster, and feel less urged to talk or respond. This is why it's important to train ourselves to develop an ascetic ear. There is no need to escape noise to hear oneself think, especially when noise is inescapable, and the time, energy and temper lost in fighting it leaves nothing for our thoughts to live on. Making quietness a prerequisite to thinking makes life unbearable; it's unwise, unrealistic and unnecessary. Many people cope with living in noise because they learn by experience that what matters is not physical quietness but mental peacefulness. If they lack the latter, they will need some practice, or even therapy.
Many a time someone calls our name, repeatedly, or even talks to us for several minutes, while we are fully absent-minded, indulged in our own thoughts and living in a different world. This happens when our higher brain functions are more active than the lower ones, the latter being only concerned with perception: they are just gates to our brain. Only in speech, music and critical situations requiring immediate action, we need our hearing most, and responding to what we hear. But for the rest of time we really don't need it.
Unlike most mammals and early Homo sapiens, the advancement in language and technology made humans less reliant on their hearing for communication or perceiving the world. Listening to music, for pleasure or inspiration, can also be replaced with any other art, at least temporarily, while there is noise. Even visual alarms, vibration and sound-recognition devices can replace hearing.
For most people, reaching a state of detachment from the physical world is easy, with no need for earplugs that never fit, messy cotton balls that get lost in our ears, or white noise that can be a headache in itself, blocking other vital sounds we need to hear.
Until our human nature changes, training our ear to be ascetic is all we have. Critics may complain about the difficulty, even impossibility of this solution; but others, who read history and are well-versed in world cultures, know that with patience and perseverance one can defeat noise, filtering, ignoring or playing completely deaf towards sounds, by one's will. The true ascetic can train his ear to treat sounds as non-existent, not by an earplug but by controlling the hearing nerve connected to his higher brain. Hence whenever a stimulus is sent by that nerve to the other lobes of the brain, it finds no welcoming signals and becomes automatically blocked.
Be passive, do nothing! Instant, full, relaxed stillness, i.e. physical apathy or playing dead temporarily, is the most effective strategy for ignoring various physical stresses, including that caused by noise, being recommended and practiced for centuries by many yogis and Buddhists. Our nature is "deceived" when we are still:
The lower brain, the one causing all this trouble, is thankfully "dumb" by nature. It's only concerned with basic survival needs and the operation of senses. When we stay still, it mistakenly thinks that our sudden stillness indicates peacefulness and security, lack of interest and lack of danger, etc. Thus it triggers relaxing endorphins, giving itself a break and allow the higher brain to step in (or come down) and take the watching shift. Then, when the higher brain has the mind territory all by itself, it starts showing off its reasoning skills and ability to do/enjoy "brainy" stuff (meditation, fantasies, memories ... ), uninterested in the noise taking place in the outside world.
Thanks to stillness, both the lower brain's restfulness and the higher brain's activeness keep us "relaxed and busy," internally shielded against noise.
Say nothing, in response to noise. Let it go on forever, like a one-sided conversation you have no interest in sharing. The stress noise causes to some is the result of a compulsive painful urge they feel to respond to whatever they hear. Knowing that others' noise doesn't concern you (even if it's inches away from you), and that it's "none of your business," will ease out that stress and calm you down. Practicing timely silence as a lifelong style will keep you away from many noisome troubles that others, and you, might get you into.
Speech is both input and output. Born-deaf people cannot talk because they cannot hear. So let that be a lesson to you! Only your deafness will be by choice; you will turn a deaf ear to all vacuous talk around you instead of fighting it. Let everyone indulge in their own soliloquies and monologues, that they can't keep to themselves and have to force on others, because their Voice of Reason is too low to hear alone, hence they rush to other people to be their sounding board who will double it and triple it for them. Their thoughts are too weak and inchoate to stay alive in their mind womb. So just like their brains, their ideas are shapeless, if not stillborn.
• Filter out the sounds you don't want. This requires you only few seconds to stop and "label" sounds as useless. Then, however loud the noise becomes, the labels your mind attached to sounds make it uninterested in them. Generally, any sound (conversation, music, machine's, animal's, nature's, etc.) not particularly made for or addressing you is by nature a meaningless sound.
• One can be armed with simple ideas to remember quickly, e.g. facts and sayings to repeat when they are suddenly attacked by noise, till noise effect on you wears off. At such moment, what one thinks of acts as a brain barrier between them and noise.
• Mantras and repetitions are great tools for mind control. When we "hold on to words" they become the vessel to transfer our thoughts on demand, to whatever place or time we want to travel to, instantly and freely. Once we are there, the temporary role of mantra is over, as most brain's attention becomes focused inside, whatever is happening outside.
• Thinking in a foreign language helps against noise. Thinking of a different subject, unrelated to the subject of noise, if it has any, also helps. However, if we already label such sounds as noise, there will be no need to fight, escape, or seek refuge in other ideas or languages from them, wasting our energy and losing our calm in the process, as they become already unwelcome by our higher brain, in spite of their constant contact with our physical ear. The mere fact that they are noisy is enough to make them devoid of meaning.
• Getting used to noise, voluntarily, by frequent exposure to noise of all sorts in advance, before it attacks us, is a good test and a useful exercise for ignoring noise. If such noise-fighting strategy is difficult to some, they can still try the other ones. This technique is best applied gradually, starting with sounds that are easier for us to ignore (monotonous machines, white noise, animal and nature sounds, ponderous TV shows, boring company, mind-numbing speech or class or sermon, etc.), which can perfectly act as a background noise to our free thoughts.
Sometimes, you might end up "liking" noise, preferring it to a dead silence! You will get used to noise to a degree that you become on good terms together. You might even allow it to lull you to sleep. Some people admit that their best snoozes ever were those taken while attending prayers, meetings or classes they barely paid attention to.
However, unfortunately you can never trust noise, because it can change suddenly: it's out of your hand; you have no key to turn it on and off whenever you like. You only have keys to your senses, that, with practice, you can learn how to close and open.
• Traditional methods can still be used until you master the above, especially in extreme noise: