The power went out at the yoga studio. Dawn’s challenging yoga class was always something I enjoyed, and the energizing playlist helped power me through some of the poses. With the power out, she told us to listen to our bodies instead.
Needless to say, it was challenging to hold a balancing posture for a long time without some music to distract me from the discomfort. However, I found that it allowed me to really focus on which side of my foot was bearing more weight, and how tightly I had been clenching my jaw.
When we turn down or turn off distracting stimuli, we can learn a lot by tuning into what’s going on within. This might be uncomfortable if we’ve become accustomed to feasting on the “smorgasbord of stimuli,” as Thich Nhat Hanh put it. We use noise to fill the awkward void.
“There is a vacuum inside us. We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away.” Thich Nhat Hanh
How often do we take moments out of our lives to engage in silence?
Of course, in some places, it might be difficult to disengage from sounds altogether. Our proximity to a quiet space might not be accessible.
I am thankful to live in the suburbs. As I write this, my window is open and the crickets and the birds are engaging in their morning chorus. I hear faint sounds of cars in the distance, but the steady symphony is calming.
Silence is the absence of noise
The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has recorded concerts of nature from all over the world. His work to maintain One Square Inch of Silence at Olympic National Park calls us to preserve these quiet places to maintain our connectedness to the planet. Silence, to him, is less about a sensory deprivation tank.
“Silence isn’t the absence of sound. It’s the absence of noise.”
Models to study communication consider noise to interfere with the communication process, even when we communicate with ourselves.
How can we absorb necessary information about our environment, one another, or ourselves if we are continually distracted by noise? How do we understand ourselves when we use noise to replace our capacity for self-reflection?
Consider the “noise” that interrupts the messages in your own life. This might include your phone interrupting your work, your music interfering with your body’s messages during a workout, or your television interceding for your family dinner conversation.
How we can practice silence
For those of us who live in a city with inescapable urban sounds, perhaps employing noise-canceling headphones can help us find silence. This might be something we could do on a daily basis, but perhaps we could retreat to a park on the weekends.
If you’re not used to silence, it might take some practice. It might start with a moment of quiet while brushing your teeth. You’re already not speaking, so it’s just a matter of turning off any media.
I walk my dogs at 4:30 a.m. and refrain from using any media. If I know that I’m going to have a hectic day at my job, I spend some additional time in silence to prepare for it. During my half-hour commute, I’ll turn off my radio for the last 15 minutes.
Eventually, you might find comfort in the silence and want to spend several hours there. My stereo had been broken in my Jeep Wrangler, so I would drive from Alabama to Maryland with the whirring of the air going through my soft top. When I got a new car, I was so used to driving without any music that I continued to do so for a long while (I’ve since stopped).
If you’re used to running outdoors with headphones, consider spending one run — or part of a run — without them. You’d be surprised at what you notice when you aren’t thumbing through your playlist.
Silence as awakening
“Silence is the space in which one awakens, and the noisy mind is the space in which one remains asleep.” Osho
Our noisy minds become comfortable because they become identified with our ego and how others see us. We compare and compete without knowing our true selves. Excessive noise can cause us to live in a constant state of reactivity, which results in more conflict with ourselves and others.
On the other hand, silence calls us to find out who we are when we don’t have others to affirm or negate us. We find in silence that the “I” we show to others might mask our deepest longings and repressed pain. Silence reveals this to us so we can bring truth, light and healing to ourselves.
Therefore, silence is necessary to cultivate our inner life. Georg Feuerstein wrote that silence helps us discover our authentic self.
“In spiritual life, we cultivate sacred silence to regenerate our inner being so that we can return to our daily activities and to speech from a new perspective.”
This new perspective can help us live lives of deeper meaning, genuine peace, and balanced compassion.