There are lots of studies about the harmful effects of noise. It raises our blood pressure, weakens our immune system, makes it hard for us to learn, undermines our emotional stability, and so on.
You’d think we would seek out silence. You’d think we’d crave it. Value it above gold. And while it’s generally true that wealthy people can choose to avoid living near noisy roads or train lines, few truly embrace quiet.
What are we afraid of?
Last year, when I told friends I’d registered for a 10-day silent meditation retreat, some flat out said, “I could never do that!” Others were okay with the idea of not speaking, then became sweaty and uncomfortable when they learned “silence” also meant abstaining from reading, writing, or going online.
This near-panic at the prospect of stillness raises the question, what are we afraid of?
Before the end of the third day of last year’s retreat, more than 10% of the attendees had quit and left. The day before the rest of us would leave, silence was lifted and conversations began. Some attendees related extreme experiences. One woman had cried herself to sleep every night. Another had had spontaneous past life regressions. But the most common experiences seemed to be anxiety and difficulty in quieting the mind.
Aside from some super-realistic, otherwise un-extraordinary dreams, my experience had no such drama. My body hurt like hell a couple of days from sitting in meditation. A couple of days I felt so bored I thought I’d shout “Are we done yet?” in the middle of a group sit.
Weirdly, the thing I found most difficult was avoiding eye contact with those sharing the retreat experience. Of course, that was part of the point of silence. In silence, we cannot compare our experience with anyone else’s. And in silence, we can’t drown our thoughts with words or music. We can’t escape ourselves.
Are you scary company?
Perhaps the prospect of being left to face our true self is what makes so many of us avoid silence. What if we don’t like what we find? What if, without the validation of other people, we discover we’re completely unlikeable? What then? How would we go on?
It can take awhile to learn to defuse our self-judgement, relax in our own company and release any tendency to measure our worth against the actions (and reactions) of others. I call this process “shoveling sh*t out of the engine room,” and I’ve been digging it for years.
Happily, there are lots of tools available today to help speed the process. An online search for “How to live in the present moment” turns up thousands of suggestions, resources and videos.
My summer of silent basking
This summer offered me a different kind of retreat. For two months, I lived outside a small town, house-sitting amidst five lushly wooded acres. My daily soundtrack: the fountain by the front door, the wind chimes in the backyard, my cat’s purr, the distant lowing of cattle that freely roamed the area.
No traffic sounds to speak of. No car alarms. No neighbors’ barking dogs, loud conversations or music. Most of the time, I was alone in a huge 6-bedroom house without so much as a single ticking clock or dripping faucet.
I slipped so easily into the bliss of my quiet surroundings, a trip to a nearby mega store nearly crushed me. The giant product displays, oversized banners shouting “Great Price!” in letters as tall as the length of my arm. The 50” TV screens showing the latest children’s film releases, while classic rock music hummed over the store’s sound system.
Make it stop!
I felt sick to my stomach. I urgently wanted to leave the store. In fact, by the time I rounded the frozen food aisles and headed for the checkout, I knew if I didn’t get out soon, I would descend into hiccuping tears like a frightened toddler.
How had I ever coped with my old life, I wondered, with all the big-box stores and traffic and daily noise? How could I possibly ever go back?
Perhaps I’ve learned too well the preciousness of silence, to be so sensitive to its disruption. But go back I did, back to big-city life. Back to traffic and ticking clocks and Facebook.
It hasn’t been easy. I tire more easily, and must make allowances to take care of myself. I’ve loaded a white-noise app on my mobile electronics, which at least masks other sounds—I let it play while I’m sleeping. And when I get a quiet moment, I revel in it, free of to-do lists or food or phone calls. Just. Being.
How’s your relationship with silence? Do you seek it or shun it? What would you do if someone offered you a 10-day experience of silence? What about a 10-minute experience?
Is your reaction different than it would have been ten years ago? Hmm. Interesting how things change. Maybe you and silence are ready to take your relationship to a new level.
Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul.
Photo credit (shush): Mateus Lunardi Dutra