The question of how to interpret our experiences is one of the most basic questions in life. But it depends on an even bigger question: should we interpret a particular experience at all? Should we bother to look for sense, for substance, for content in something we see, hear, or feel – should we treat that thing as meaningful, should we try to understand it, or should we ignore it and forget it?

It’s often said that when we endure a hardship, we can heal by searching for positive meaning in what we’ve been through. If we find insight, strength, or some kind of “lesson” in our pain, not only does that pain seem less arbitrary and pointless, but we feel empowered by our ability to grow in response to it, and we feel better prepared for what life brings next. But as much as it can be a virtue to look for meaning in an experience, painful or otherwise, there are times when it’s a greater virtue to not look for meaning, to know when to refrain from that search, to know when to move on, even to do so abruptly, without endeavoring to learn, grow, or gain any insight whatsoever. In some situations, perhaps there’s no meaning to be found? Perhaps the search for meaning would exhaust us unduly? Or perhaps there’s meaning we could find, but we don’t need that meaning – not right now, or maybe not ever – we’d have no use for it – we wouldn’t be helped by it.

An analogy between the world of experience and the world of physical objects is informative. When we choose not to look for “meaning” in an object, not to seek further use from it, the most decisive way we can codify this choice is to call the object “garbage.” It’s a critical life skill to be able to use the word “garbage,” to be able to call some things garbage and to treat them as such.

What if we weren’t able to call anything garbage? What if we weren’t able to relinquish a physical object that no longer served us? Some people hold onto every piece of mail, every plastic container, every cardboard box, amassing so much stuff in their living space that hallways become impassable, entire parts of the home become unreachable. Hoarding is a dangerous condition. 

Most of us who don’t suffer from hoarding take it for granted that we can manage our trash – we can choose what to put in the waste bin and we can empty that bin when it’s full. 

Physical garbage shows us that the decision to not search for meaning or further use in an object can be the right decision to make, the best decision to make, even when there is meaning or further use that could be found.

When we fill a bag of garbage, tie it up, and bring it outside to the trash receptacle, we’re intending to forget about the bag’s contents as soon as possible, but someone who opened the bag might find an aluminum can that we’d neglected to recycle, worth five cents at the bottle exchange. With sewing skills, the holes in an old unmatched sock – rescued from the bag – could be mended, and that one sock could be paired with another one of like size and material, from somewhere else. The pages of the magazine that we’ve tossed still contain sentences that could be understood – ideas that might be informative or even enlightening to the right reader. This doesn’t stop us from discarding the bag.

Indeed a sleuth, presented with our bag of garbage, or another bag from some arbitrary place and time, might find it stuffed with information in a way that’s positively thrilling. An expiration date on a discarded snack wrapper might reveal the timeframe when the bag was disposed; the lettering might reveal the bag’s country; and the choice of snack might reveal the dietary habits of the person who filled the bag. An empty medication bottle, even missing the patient’s name, might suggest the age, the gender, and the particular ailments of the household member to whom it was prescribed. If a crime happened, the DNA in an eyelash stuck to the adhesive on an old envelope might identify the perpetrator, or the victim. If this were occurring in an espionage thriller, the person who discarded the bag might have been a spy, and perhaps they intended to convey a state secret to the garbage man – also a spy – in their choice of whether to throw out a coffee-stained napkin or a tea-stained one. The plot might hinge on that one napkin.

None of this stops us from discarding our trash. It’s essential to our wellbeing that we’re not concerned about the meaning or significance or potential use of that trash. Society is wasteful, that’s true, and we throw too much away, that’s true. We should recycle more and reuse more, that’s true. Garbage pollutes our land and water, killing plants, wildlife, and even us. Still, it’s necessary that we’re able to call some things garbage, discard that garbage, and also to see other people’s garbage – perhaps many bags of it, left on the street each day – and pass that garbage without a second glance, not considering those bags as clue-packed or value-packed treasures. When our gaze lands on a couple of black plastic sacks, knotted shut, waiting on the street to be thrown into a truck that will carry them to the trash heap or the incinerator, it’s good for us that we don’t feel an overwhelming temptation to tear them open and mine them for evidence or utility. When we throw out our own garbage, we’re fortunate that we can bid it goodbye with haste, waiting for its substance to be gone from our lives for good – no matter that this substance is rich in data about us, rich in potentially useful material, even rich in that thing we call “meaning.”

Meaning is everywhere – especially in garbage – but we don’t look for it everywhere, and we shouldn’t. The same is true of sound. When we choose not to look for meaning in sound we call it “noise.” But if we stopped to listen to the random noise on a city street anywhere in the world, we’d find it full of clues, signifiers, patterns, and suggestions. The noise tells us how close the cars are to where we stand, and what direction they’re going, and where the other pedestrians are, and how fast they’re walking. A Walk or Don’t Walk sign makes noises that signify instructions to us. Are there animals to be heard? A portion of a seagull’s chirp might sound like a portion of a human cry, or it might resemble a siren; the seagull’s presence reveals the city is near the ocean. What time of day is it? Church bells or the “adhan” from a mosque might tell us that. How many airplanes are flying overhead? How many jackhammers are working? The answers to a million questions live in that noise.

But no matter that information is writhing in the noise, seething in the noise, dripping from the noise, the noise is still noise. If we approached this noise with the conviction that it had been “composed” by say, an avant-garde sound artist, we might coax ourselves into perceiving an artistic “intent” or message in say, a minute worth of it. Perhaps as we listened again and again to a short recorded sample, memorizing the details, we might begin to hear a narrative that bears the hallmark – we’re sure – of intentional design.

But if we listened to hours of this noise, trying to interpret it as art, we’d become increasingly frustrated in our efforts to find a coherent narrative there, or else we’d have to invent increasingly fantastical theories about what that narrative might be. We could drive ourselves mad trying to perform an exegesis of this noise, without changing the fact that the noise has no author. There’s no composer home.

If we were trying to carry out a conversation with a friend standing beside us on this city street, then the noise would pose a nuisance to overcome – our challenge would be to tune it out. Perhaps there are a dozen conversations going on around us – and each one, if we heard it in isolation, might reveal a fascinating story. In those conversations, there could be a spontaneous marriage proposal, a million dollar business agreement sealed with “Yeah, we’re on,” and the seed of a crime. But to the extent that we falter in our labeling of that sound as “noise” – to the extent that we start hearing language in the noise – allowing words and phrases to reach us and catch our attention – we won’t be able to follow the person we’re speaking with. Other people’s meaning is our noise – and it must be so if we are to communicate with one specific person in this busy crowd. Stray meaning, overheard bits of conversation, are obstacles to our intended conversation, and we must treat them as such.

As we go through life, some acts of discernment are easier than others. We might not struggle to discern what physical objects are “garbage” and what sounds are “noise” but it’s more challenging to make these decisions about things that happen to us – events and experiences that transpire in our lives – including the thoughts that course through our own mind. Which experiences are “noise” and which are “signals”?

When we choose not to look for meaning in an experience, we might call it “insignificant,” “trivial,” or even “meaningless.” When we choose not to look for meaning in an argument or a story or a thought, we might call it “nonsense” or “gibberish.” No matter their derogatory inflection, these are some of the most useful words in our vocabulary – but when should we use them?

As we’re walking on a city sidewalk, if someone steps in front of us and blocks our path, is this act of rudeness a reminder that we’re living in the wrong place? Is it a signal that we should move somewhere with a slower pace, where the people around us would be less rushed and more thoughtful? Or have we simply experienced a random, meaningless instance of one stranger’s obliviousness, which tells us nothing important because, for the most part, we’re happy with our home and we’re fully capable of ignoring minor annoyances?

If we had a frustrating day at work – an argument with our boss – is this a meaningful indicator that our life is on the wrong track, that we’ve traveled down the wrong career path, that our work relationships aren’t value-aligned? Or have we just experienced an insignificant, near-meaningless happenstance, based on two people’s bad moods coinciding? Would we be better off if we moved past it quickly so that the satisfaction we do find in our work can remain in the foreground?

When we have a dream about falling or being chased, if we take it to a psychoanalyst or a counselor who believes in dream interpretation, they might probe it for hours. Being chased in a dream could mean we’re avoiding something – if we believe in such symbolism. Falling could indicate there are major life choices we need to rethink. But maybe our nightmare was caused by nothing more than a “dumb” choice to have a cup of coffee before bed. Is the “meaning” of the dream simply that we should avoid caffeine at night? Does the dream have no meaning at all?

The fact is: our minds generate a lot of noise, all the time. And a lot of our agony comes from the habit of taking the noise in our minds ever so seriously – being unwilling to label it as noise but instead looking for significance in every blip and pop, every little thought that enters our conscious awareness, in much the same way newscasters feverishly hang on each little motion of the stock market: “It’s up today – here’s what that means. It’s down today – what can we blame that on? It’s up again today, no wait, it’s back down – what does this suggest about the future?” Nothing, perhaps – maybe what we’re witnessing is randomness at work?

Ideas, images, assumptions, guesses, free associations are being manufactured in our consciousness all the time we’re awake, and when we’re dreaming too, and some of these products of our imaginative capacity are pure junk. Yes, our own precious, beautiful, powerful minds can churn out garbage. And we’re generating this garbage all the time. A steady stream of it. Ignoring it, relinquishing it, labeling it as garbage is an essential skill.

But we don’t want to do that. An anxious thought enters our mind and we begin unpacking it or ruminating over it – what does it mean? If it’s a fear, is it true? Why would I be thinking that? What does it say about me? What does it suggest about the future?

Especially when we embark on a path of personal growth, we try to “tune in” to ourselves, to listen to the dreams and hopes and fears that we’ve been ignoring, to give more attention to the subtler, quieter thoughts that pass through our mind often unseen.

To label the contents of our mind as “junk” or “noise” seems unkind to the self. And the challenge is that as with physical garbage or real, audible noise, there is meaning to be found inside it: the more we look, the more we discover. So the argument that any particular bit of noise in our mind is meaningful always comes with evidence in its favor.

But it may be precisely the labeling of our mental junk as junk, it may be precisely a decision to not over-interpret what enters our mind, that could free us from the labor of fruitless divination and offer some relief from self-imposed stress, as though we had committed ourselves to a career as a professional tasseographer and then we realized one day that we could quit. “What a relief – I don’t have to find meaning in tea leaves or coffee grounds anymore!

To give an example, I was sitting this morning on a quiet balcony with a view of some trees, the same balcony where I had been each of the past five rainy days when the trees were dark and wet. But this morning the sun shone on the branches, making them stand out as bright golden veins stretching out among the saturated green. It was a glorious sight. I thought to myself “There are artists out there who would love to paint this.”

But that remark led me to think about an attempt to paint those sun-drenched branches. I saw a canvas in my mind, I imagined an artist executing some brushwork, and guess what? The result looked unimpressive in comparison to the actual trees in front of me. In this fantasy, I soon assumed the role of the artist myself, and now I was stuck with a lackluster canvas that I had made. What was I supposed to do with it now? The green wasn’t lush enough, the branches weren’t luminous enough – and I didn’t know how to make it better, and I couldn’t decide whether start over, give up, or try to fix it.

Out of that beautiful sun shining on the branches, somehow I had created a little “bad dream” in which I had given myself a problem, a burden. By now I had invested a lot of energy in this mental tangent and I could see that it had all been a waste. I had started with some refreshing sunlight and worked it into a source of stress. Still I was left with a feeling of wanting to get something – anything – from my “investment” in this line of thought.

I could have looked at this whole episode of mind-wandering and attempted an interpretation. What did this daydream reveal about me? Is there some inner source of negativity that I haven’t confronted? Some deep-seated fear about artistic failure? Perhaps a revelation or discovery about myself would be the payoff for all this.

But I realized I had another option too. I could think of the whole thought process about trying to paint the branches as junk. My mind had manufactured some garbage through free association, that’s all. Now I was suffering because I was taking that garbage too seriously and trying to find some kind of deeper significance in it. Like any garbage, it might offer clues, secrets, suggestions if I examined it closely. Like any trash it could be interpreted and studied, and there would be things to say about it. But the best thing I could do would be to ignore it, discard it, and return to enjoying the marvelous sight that was still in front of me. The glory of that sunlight could still be mine if I could abandon my daydream with its disappointing canvas altogether.

It so happened that the larger context for this episode was that I had been trying to meditate. That’s why I was out there on the balcony in the first place. Of course, the daydream had taken my attention away from the sensation of breathing which was the intended focal point of my meditation. The basic process of meditation would ask me to observe the daydream impartially, allow it to dissipate from my awareness, and return my focus to breathing. 

Meditation typically aims for gentleness. We don’t try to “force” our thoughts to leave, we simply observe them and allow them to pass. By showing less attachment to our thoughts, it’s as though we’re slowly reducing their fuel. But there’s some subtlety in the idea of “observing” a thought. When we “observe” a thought we’re still perceiving the sense or meaning it contains, which is to say that we’re still interpreting it, we’re not dismissing it altogether as gibberish, nonsense, or noise. To observe a thought with detachment means that we still apprehend its content, but we choose not to engage further with that content, as opposed to ignoring that content altogether, never even looking at it, as if there were no “there there,” as if there were nothing to be seen or understood.

This suggests a possibility though. Why not attempt a more active, even a more “aggressive” form of meditation in which we repeatedly choose to label the contents of the mind as “noise” – noise that we don’t try to interpret, noise that we don’t stop to witness or observe. How would we go about this practically?

Trying to carry on a conversation in a noisy, crowded room – that’s the model we can use. We can imagine that we’re trying to tune out a certain kind of background noise so that we can hear a certain conversation partner. But in this setting, our “conversation partner” is our breathing – that’s what we’re trying to hear, to sense, to connect with. And the noise that we’re trying to tune out is all of our thinking. Our task is to listen as closely as possible to our “partner” while resisting the temptation to parse the noise of our thoughts for sense or meaning that would distract us.

You can try it: to sit down for thirty minutes and when anything passes through your mind, label it as noise that’s drowning out your breathing, which is the signal, the one thing you’re trying to hear.

As you do this, the “noise” of your thinking will try to convince you that it’s not noise. You’ll call a certain thought “noise” and it will say “No, I’m your task list, I’m an errand you have to run, I’m a meeting you have to attend. I’m important. I’m real. I have substance. You have to pay attention to me!”

When this happens, you should focus on the sensations of breathing, and notice the contrast between those sensations and your thoughts. The contrast between how it feels to breathe, on the one hand, and how it feels to think about about an upcoming errand or the email you forgot to reply to, on the other hand. That contrast is your key. That contrast allows you to see that while your thoughts are not absolute noise, while they are not absolutely devoid of meaning, they are still noise in relation to what you are trying to listen to now, they still are empty distractions in relation to what you’re trying to connect with now.

So while it might sound upsetting to label one’s thoughts as noise, the result can be quite calming. When we can see our mental content as noise and “tune it out” then we are free. Free to direct our focus as we choose. Otherwise we are stuck in a loop of hearing noise in our mind, and trying to interpret it, which creates more noise, which we try to interpret – and we drive ourselves ever onward in an exhausting loop.

Perhaps we should reserve more of our interpretive efforts for finding meaning at the large scale. We should look for meaning where doing so would help us connect, help us build, help us love, help us grow.

While there is endless meaning to be found in the things we call garbage and noise, and while there is value in questioning how we apply those labels, we shouldn’t exhaust ourselves in trying to find meaning all the time, everywhere. Instead let’s allow ourselves to call garbage garbage, and be done with it. Let’s allow ourselves to call noise noise. Let’s allow ourselves, when faced with the question “To interpret or not?” to sometimes choose “Not.” ■

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