The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
It’s easy to think that over-stimulation is a side-effect of modern life, but it was obviously a concern some 2600 years ago, too, when Lao Tzu (or whoever was truly responsible) wrote this verse. But I think that today overstimulation is actually changing the way we think, remember and solve problems. We are moving away from a tradition of learning a small number of subjects very deeply to being shallow experts on any number of topics. The instant and universal availability of information (at least in the first world) is changing how we relate to that information. Instead of keeping in our minds a deep and thorough understanding of a topic, we are becoming masters at quick retrieval of answers from external sources. Where we once learned how to do something, now we learn how to find out how to do something. Once the information is retrieved and used, it is often tossed aside.
This is not entirely a bad thing, as the spread of access to knowledge democratizes and liberalizes the world, but there are very bad aspects to it. Often, the best solutions to problems come from having a fundamental understanding of a subject and through that understanding finding novel synergies with other subjects. Being able to quickly locate and assimilate a piece of knowledge does not provide the same problem solving tools.
Likewise, problem solving and creative think require a bored mind. Consider again the balance of potential and benefit. If there is no emptiness in the mind, no new creative thought can be cultivated. And many of us, myself included, have a real problem with overstimulating the brain. We fill every moment of our lives with entertainment or information or obligation to the point where we can no longer focus. Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Even now, as I collect my thoughts and write this, I have four other tabs open in my web browser. One is my e-mail. One bounces back and forth between a couple of social sites each time my mind wanders from this writing for a moment. The other two have pages loaded up that I’m using while writing this (like this translation of the Tao Te Ching). Likewise, I have iTunes open with Phase Selector Sound’s “Disassemble Dub” pumping in my ears. In the periphery of my vision I see my dog and my wife to my right, a pile of books and papers I need to clean up to my left. All of this competes for my attention even as I am typing this sentence (though, to be fair, the music actually helps by drowning out other distractions in the room).
My current line of work certainly doesn’t help. Being presented with all of the news in America as soon as it happens, getting all of the spin from every side, every fact and error all at once has made me hyper-informed but also almost completely desensitized to human suffering. By the time that regular people are starting to get a handle on a story, it’s already old news to me, replaced by countless other stories. Perspective gets lost in the process, sometimes.
Over-sharpen a blade, and it quickly dulls. Over-stimulate the senses, and they lose their sensitivity. You lose the beauty of a particular color when all of them are competing for your attention. You lose the emotional impact of an album when you’re listening to a thousand different albums on shuffle.
So take a moment to stop, to savor moments of quiet or even boredom. Take time to do nothing. Give your mind and senses the contrast needed to fully appreciate and process the information with which you present them. That will make the information that much more meaningful and useful.
Is my difficulty concentrating on one task the result of developing an over-stimulated mind? Am I on a constant endorphin withdrawal, always in need of another small spike? The wise person chooses to recognize and let go of that need for over-stimulation. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.