Boston Women’s Journal - Feb/March 2008

The Sound of Silence

This morning at 5:30 I awoke to the alarm, it was a soft voice singing, but still an alarm saying “get up and get going.” Then I heard footsteps getting up and beginning to move through the day, more sounds, the thud of the cat jumping, the shower running, flushing and shaving and a light switch, the swishing noise of fabric, more footsteps and kitchen noises, doors opening and closing,the local train coming to the street crossing, early trucks and cars. Then NPR and kitchen noises, the beep of the microwave. The work day starts and the sounds of the phone constantly ringing, my clients voices, happy, sad, frustrated, angry, and content. The day goes by with all its noises and rhythms. 6:00 PM, the sounds of people coming home, dinner started, the Lehrer report’s familiar theme, and on and on till bedtime with its own closing down the day noises. Then finally the still night and sleep.

Do you ever long for silence? Not the unconscious silence of sleep but waking time silence? The total absence of noise in your life. Is it ever really quiet? And what do we lose in a world where the noise just never stops? Take a moment to try and remember the last time you heard almost nothing. When you stopped and listened to the silence.

I can remember times in my childhood away from the city lights and sounds. I was at summer camp laying outside on the grass and I heard nothing except for an occasional cricket or night bird. Then blessed silence, and oh, was it luxurious, sweet and dark and quiet. Is it a surprise that we run a constant noisy tape in our head to go along with the constant noisy tape of the world? Or do we drown out the beeping, engine, snow blower, truck, yelling, ticking noises that are part of our soundscape with frantic thought?

People today often choose their own noise landscape. They can plug in, tune in, and turn off the world. The availability of iPods and Bluetooth devices means the regular sounds of the world, and often the sounds of human conversation, are provided as a constant backdrop of music, a constant availability to phone calls, a wallpaper for the mind. Often this occurs at higher and higher decibels to just drown out the sound. Walking and driving, once relatively quiet activities, are no long “down time”.

I like to imagine myself walking down the street with headphones that just turn off the noise and don’t provide any counterpoint. I understand there are such things “noise canceling headphones” that if I understand the technology, create a white noise wall of sound to cancel out the rest of the world. Yikes! In order to have quiet I need competing noise to cover the ambient noise? This feels to me like another “stop the world I want to get off” moment.

I have been a serious meditator since I was fourteen years old and I know that the core of meditation is silence. Silencing the mind and allowing the thought river to flow by without comment, and to eventually achieve silence. Heartbeat, blood going through veins, breath, the almost silent landscape of the body and mind.

I invite you to consider stopping the world for a small amount of time each day. Many meditators only “do” 20 minutes in the morning and night. Do you know that with just 20 minutes of daily meditation you can extend your life span by an average of seven years?

Would you try something for me? Find a quiet place. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Direct your attention to your breath and the rising and falling of your chest and belly as your breath moves in and out. Find a one syllable word and match it to your outward breath. “Peace” or “love” is good, or anything that resonates for you. When distracted just go back to the breath. Try to do this for a minute at first then increase until you find your comfortable time. You may feel a little silly at first but hang in there and you will start feeling refreshed and renewed.

I meditate between ten minutes and an hour twice a day. I also teach meditation and relaxation response to many of my clients, and they find great increase in calm and it creates a little oasis in their day. We may not be able to shut off the world and its noise, but we can turn it off internally and create a needed quiet space for ourselves.