This morning I woke up, here in my little house in beautiful, rural North Devon, to the sound of birdsong, I never tire of this. It is most especially welcome after the cold, dark silent mornings of winter. As I listened to the blackbirds 'chinking' and the robins singing my mind wandered back to Singapore where I lived for a decade ... an island nation of, amongst other things, relentless noise.
I used to awake to the sound of cars and buses and motorbikes. It drove me mad. Until I reminded myself of something I share with others in the course of my coaching and training work. Over my early coffee this morning I pulled up words that follow, written at the height of my frustration 10 years ago. 10 years! It seems like just yesterday ...
No mistaking the fact that today is Monday.
In the deep darkness before dawn the haunting call of the Koels stirred me from my slumber. I listened awhile from that place somewhere between sleep and wakefulness before drifting slowly back into dreamtime. Not for long. Before the sun had painted the sky with the colours of daybreak the traffic was already roaring along the road outside. It is my alarm clock six days a week.
Early last year, shortly after I moved in here, I would lie in bed most mornings on the verge of tears, so frustrated and angered was I by the infernal and unending noise of the traffic. I would mentally will myself back to my house in Bali - in the rice fields where you wake every morning to the sounds of crickets and frogs and birds. I would lie in bed, with the duvet over my head in an attempt to block out the traffic, creating schemes as to how I could live permanently in Bali all the while knowing that my business is here: Bali is my spiritual getaway not the place where I create my income. I thought of moving but I love it out here near the beach and besides there is traffic noise pretty much everywhere on this island.
One evening I was watching TV. One of those travel programmes. The presenter was on the balcony of a brownstone building in New York City with an elderly Jewish man - a resident of the city since birth. The street below was thick with traffic; engine noise reverberated off the buildings making a grating cacophony of sound so loud the presenter was having a hard time making himself heard or hearing the old man’s responses. He yelled a question into the microphone as the camera panned along the snaking lines of cars below,
“How have you lived with this incredible traffic noise all your life? It is unbearably loud!”
The elderly man turned to face him and raised his rheumy eyes to the camera, just the hint of a wise smile on his face and replied,
“ Noise? What noise? Young man, that is the symphony of the city.”
The symphony of the city ... these words struck a chord in me.
In Bali I awake to a ‘symphony of nature sound.’ Why then could I not awake in Singapore to ‘the symphony of the city’? Like New York, Singapore is an island city. That is never going to alter. But I could alter my perception. The noise will not change but the way I react to it could. And in so doing my frustration and anger might abate.
I have to admit it has not been an easy journey. As with many things this change in mindset was intellectually easy but difficult to truly embrace. I went through a phase of sleeping with earplugs in until I realised that the discomfort they caused was waking me up earlier than the traffic.
A year on if you were to ask me if the traffic still wakes me up I would have to say, ‘yes’. Does it still annoy me ... well, no. It is the inevitable symphony of this beautiful island city and changing the way I perceive it really has made my life a lot better.
I now carry with me through my day the uplifting song of the birds that I can hear if I make a concentrated effort to rather than the irritating noise of the traffic; this leaves me smiling rather than scowling and that can only be a good thing.
There is no such thing as a common reality, just the lens of individual perception.
Originally published 2007