A few weeks ago, after a very poor sleep, I got up one morning with unhappy thoughts racing through my head. I got ready for work with my usual array of podcasts, though I wasn’t really able to hear any of them. Finally, as I was walking down the hill which forms the first part of my morning commute, I recognized the noise coming from my earbuds as just that, noise. I ripped the earbuds out and was instantly awed and calmed by the silence around me. Of course it wasn’t really silent. I was walking down a busy street. But still, the stillness of listening to the silence and the noises that obscured it was very helpful in calming my mind. Since that morning, I’ve been thinking about silence and the role it plays in my life. I used to have quite a bit more silence than I do now. There was a time when I would get ready for work in silence every morning. I stopped this because I found that my mind would take that opportunity to fill itself with unhappy memories, unhelpful narratives, and replay old conversations and hypothetical confrontations on loop. Not wanting these kinds of miserable thoughts to the tone of my days, I decided to fill that time with spiritual and educational podcasts. It’s been a boon to my wellbeing, but my recent helpful experience of intentional silence made me wonder if I could benefit from a more regular engagement with silence. And, Lent seemed like a perfect season in which to try.
There is perhaps no more universal practice than silence: Time to intentionally be in one’s situation and in one’s thoughts with awareness. From within my own Christian tradition, it is impossible to think of silence without thinking of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God, where upon fleeing into the mountains, Elijah met God not in a firestorm, windstorm, or earthquake, but in the silence that followed. Silence has therefore long been associated with communion with God. It is said to allow us to be able to hear God better, to rebuild our spiritual defenses, to re-establish a sense of equilibrium, to bring up old unhealed wounds to the the light of day so we can be healed, and to increase our sense of awe and wonder. In recent years, benefits in physiological and mental health and performance have joined these traditional spiritual reasons for incorporating silence into one’s life. These include:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Regrowth of brain cells
- Decrease of hormones associated with stress and improved hormonal balance overall
- Prevention of growth of plaque in arterial walls
- Increased creativity
- Increased connection to the world and environment
- Improved sleep
With claimed benefits like this, silence is certainly worth a try!
What is it?
A practice of silence can mean different things to different people. For me, I took 20-40 min a day to be intentionally quiet. No music, no podcasts, no television, not actively thinking about anything. Time just to be silent, to hear what there is to hear and to see what arises in my mind. This is similar to a kind of mindfulness meditation, only instead of intentionally turning the awareness back to an object of focus, such as the breath or a body part, the goal of this practice it simply to see what arises in this spaciousness and stay with it unless there is reason not to.
I found I was able to engage with and enjoy this practice for most of the week. On all of the days but one, I did it as a kind of walking meditation. This was fascinating and worked pretty well. I will say though that the ‘best’ experience I had with it was the day I did the practice sitting in my apartment. While there was something special about the awareness of the changes of scenery and sound involved in walking with intentional silence, the further act of stilling my body definitely seemed to add to the meditative quality of the practice.
While I was concerned about the potential infiltration of the negative scripts I mentioned in the introduction, this was only an issue one day, and I was able to invoke (with some degree of success) the “stay with what arises unless there is reason not to” clause and return my awareness to the silence when this happened.
I liked this practice, but I have to say I didn’t find it particularly beneficial, at least not in the small sample size provided by the one week. I don’t think this is necessarily a fault of the practice. I do definitely believe silence is beneficial. But, as I was reflecting on my week, I realized that I already do have a lot of silence in my life, whether it’s intentional or not. I regularly engage with a lot of practices that are silent — journaling, meditation, examinations of conscience, Scripture reading — and I prefer to engage in hobbies like illustrating, writing and reading in silence as well. I play music in my apartment for fun, but not as a matter of course. And so I wonder if part of why I was underwhelmed by this practice this week was simply because it didn’t contribute much new to my life. If I didn’t have the practices I do, or had music on all of the time, I’m sure it would have been more noticeably meaningful.
The ‘best’ moments were the more meditative ones, the times when I was either turning or returning to the silence. I appreciated hearing the birds, and how their songs went in and out of my attention depending on the patterns of the traffic going by. Even the traffic and construction noises that are the constant background music of city life were fascinating to experience in such an intentional way. And, when I practiced silence in my apartment, I found myself far more attuned to the sounds around me for quite a while after I had finished the practice. This seemed a more helpful, and, well, interesting, approach to mindfulness than others I’ve tried. And so, I think if I were to revisit the practice of silence in the future, I would do so in a more intentionally meditative way, to observe the thoughts that arise but then let them go and return to the silence.
While for the most part the thoughts and ideas that did arise throughout my practice this week were interesting and positive, the day when the negative scripts returned was sobering and it took a lot of effort to get my thoughts and my day back on track. This is hardly the result I want from a sacred practice! It’s not that I think there’s no room for thinking through negative experiences or sad stories; not at all. But, when they are accompanied by the negative and false scripts (the automatic thoughts that play up all of our insecurities and interpret our lives in the most dramatic, victimized, and catastrophic way possible), then we are no longer in a place where we can deal with those negative experiences in a healthy way.
So while I definitely like the practice of silence, and think it’s important to have quiet times built into one’s day, if you’re like me and the ‘thorn in your side’ is a mind that delights in making itself — and you by extension — miserable, it’s probably helpful to have a way of focusing that silence, whether that’s a practice like journaling or whether you turn your silent time into a period of focused meditation, so that your mind doesn’t have the opportunity to fill the silence with unhelpful things. And that, I think, is how I’ll approach a practice of intentional silence in the future.
What have your experiences with silence been? How do you incorporate silence in your life? What benefits do you find it brings?