"Hear what you want to hear," proclaims one television ad for noise-canceling headphones, showing professional athletes walking through jeering crowds but still at peace thanks to sound-proofing technology. We already focus our eyes on little screens in front of us, so covering our ears is a natural extension of the technology bubble we live in. But it has me a little worried about the shift from actual, serendipitous human interaction.
Hearing what you want to hear has its merits. Right now my peaceful evening is disturbed by the bass beats of a repetitious video game from the unit upstairs. Certainly it is easier to plop them on my ears then actually confront my 20-something neighbors at 10:30 at night. And also more likely to result in peace for me rather than frustration.
I rode the LA subway to work for three years and listening to music was a nice way to pass the time as well as a very effective shield from unwanted attention from hustlers, panhandlers and intoxicated persons. But wearing them and hearing only what you want to hear definitely takes you out of the moment and into your own head. When I consider the amount of time I have spent in yoga classes trying to "be in the moment," wearing the headphones makes it seem like I am running away from the moment rather than embracing it. But would Buddha have strapped them on? Probably, if he worked around jet engines. But would he do it to listen to chants while waiting on the bus? I don't know.
Life after all is pretty mundane. Commuting, making the bed, grocery shopping, standing in line. None of us should blame ourselves for wanting to escape. Perhaps the key, as with everything, is balance. Don't wear them all the time; some days, let yourself be immersed in the world. You might just walk right by something extraordinary and be the only person who noticed.
Want to see a real world application? Check out this video from a Washington Post reporter who conducted an experiment where famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a DC subway station during rush hour. Thousands rushed by, not even noticing; only a few stopped to enjoy. They called the project "Stop and hear the music."