Take Your Damn Headphones Out

A Plea to Live in Your Environment Again

A bit of a rant here.

We all know entertainment is brainwashing. What you consume defines how you think. It’s ultimately a tool you can use to fundamentally change your worldview for better or worse.

Of all forms of entertainment, music is definitely the most “brainwashable” one. It’s designed to be consumed serially — it’s a bite-sized time commitment, thus easily repeatable, and with the advent of iPods, been easier than ever to take with us everywhere we go.

I think that’s a problem.

What does it say about where you are that you constantly need something else to be entertained?

What does it say about how you move that you need more than the natural world can give you to feel stimulated?

What does it say about the people you surround yourself with that you constantly need to be tethered to something (or someone) else not physically there to feel connected?

This has been a pet peeve of mine since college. I used to listen to music EVERYWHERE I went. A product of escapism from my home life became a source of portable refuge I leaned into at all opportunities. You wouldn’t see me on campus without seeing me dancing or singing to whatever I was listening to (I like pretending I’m in a music video. In another life I’m a rapper). Granted, I was the guy to also take my headphones out to talk to people I saw along the way, but I still had the crutch.

As I started discovering meditation and deepening my mindfulness practices in my Sophomore and Junior year, I began walking to and from class without listening to anything. I noticed that my mind would often fill the gaps with music anyway — I even kept a journal for an entire semester of the songs in my head. This interested me, especially because the songs were often ones I wasn’t listening to as of late, ones that I hadn’t heard in months.

I was still on my phone a fair amount, mostly to check the time and make sure I was running on schedule to wherever I was headed, but noticed I began observing the sounds around me more precisely. I saw the squirrels running through our courtyard. I saw the rats running between dumpsters. The sprinklers were a bit louder. The buzz of conversation was a bit stronger.

Once I learned how long it took me to get around campus, I started turning my phone off and just walking. In addition to new sounds, I found new imagery. I realized the flowers on the lawn for the first time. I became acutely aware of other people’s shoes (a weird habit I still have). I observed others’ walks and took personal notes of how my stride felt. I took inventory of how I felt moving through campus, the small social performance of being seen amongst a jury of my peers.

Or so I thought. It shocked me just how many people had their heads buried in their phones, blasting music I could often hear when I passed them. I felt 45. However, as soon as I’d get near someone I knew, even if they were nose deep in screen, they always looked up, noticed me, and stopped to say hi. You can’t tell me that was a coincidence. Body language is everything.

As I ran into more and more people on my “mindful walks,” they became a personal hallmark. I always entered class with a bit of an oxytocin high from dapping someone up or giving a hug, feeling way better than I would if I had listened to the same playlist I was just listening to in my apartment.

I tried to get everyone I knew into doing them, but nobody bit, which tore me up inside. All I ever heard from Senior Hoyas throughout my 4 years was that theirs flew by and they took campus for granted, which in my mind was fucking obvious given how much of it they deprived themselves of. It’s easy to miss something you don’t let yourself fully experience. Time really doesn’t go by that fast when you cut out the bullshit.

In my 3.5 “mindful” semesters, I saw every nook and cranny of Georgetown. Even now, I could probably describe the campus perfectly, down to what the trees and bushes look like in each area. I’m so happy I didn’t sleep walk through the space like so many others I saw, because when COVID hit, I didn’t miss any of it. I’ve gone back twice since then to see friends and still don’t.

Living in New York now, it pains me even more to see the same type of people walking around. A place full of action and stimulation at every turn, full of people looking at TikTok.

We say we’re lonely but distract ourselves from the community and companionship the world is throwing at us. In a city of 8 million people, how much more do you need to feel a part of something bigger than yourself?

I don’t bring my headphones with me any more and deleted the music app off my phone to force myself to tap into my surroundings, which is a bit extreme, but a challenge I relish. I rather go for a walk than watch TV because it’s more entertaining to me. I know I’m extremely wired for intimacy, but I think we all are.

This is a double edged sword, so I understand why people don't do it. Making myself available to my NYC world brings more harm than good. I stand out for not burying my head in the sand. I still haven’t made a friend on the street yet, and always get approached by homeless people and charity workers. I have a lot of social interactions I don’t have to. I even get punched on the subway for looking in the general direction of someone who does not want to be seen.

But I don’t care — reps in the art of making myself vulnerable is invaluable to the real journey I’m on. I rather take what comes from that than shut myself out from the world in fear of what it might to do me. If school taught me anything, it’s that regret hurts way worse. That song or podcast can wait until the other 12 hours you’re stuck inside, wishing you were out.

I 100% would’ve missed this bus if I hadn’t been walking by with my head up

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Carter Owen

Carter Owen

Aspiring author and humble observer of human behavior writing from NYC — sharing my journey and what I’m learning along the way. Think more, feel better.