The World Health Organization has officially stated that noise kills. An article by Andy Coghlan in New Scientist documents their findings:
Noise kills in much the same way as chronic stress does, by causing an accumulation of stress hormones, inflammation and changes in body chemistry that eventually lead to problems such as impaired blood circulation and heart attacks. Such insidious effects on our health can happen even when we’re asleep and unaware that we’re exposed, as our bodies still produce a similar physiological response.
This daily wear and tear on our bodies, minds and spirits has turned us into a more aggressive, less patient society. Journalist and author Richard Mahler explains in his book Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude:
In contrast to the slow, serene world of full-time spiritual seekers, the Information Age has forced many to conform to the lightning-speed processing of the computer, which is now integral to almost every device or service we use. We unwittingly believe humans should perform like microchips: fast, efficient, consistent, multitalented, and available 24/7. Computers—along with cell phones, cheap airfare, powerful cars, instant messaging, and other presumed amenities—have infected us with a sense of unbridled urgency. (15)
The frenetic lifestyle most of us maintain makes us edgy, grumpy, and angry. Worst of all, when we can’t achieve everything in a day, a month, or a year that we think we’re supposed to accomplish, we feel like failures. Exhausted, depleted, and prone to blame it all on our spouses or our jobs, we leave or quit, but we take all our noise with us, and wonder why we can’t find happiness.
We spend lots of money trying to reduce stress. We buy gym memberships, exercise equipment, yoga classes, and if those don’t work, we buy therapy sessions. We take stressful, loud vacations, thinking that getting away will take care of it, but again, we tend to take ourselves and all our noise with us wherever we go.
There is another way to reduce stress, a better way. It’s free and readily available. It is as simple as engaging in intentional silence on a daily basis. People are discovering it—or rediscovering it—and the renewing affect it has on all of our systems: mental, physical and spiritual.
Taking a moment of silence stills the mind, quiets the racing heart. It allows us to reflect upon the things that are most important. We can analyze, prioritize, and make sense of everything instead of ricocheting through our days. We can hear the still voice within only when we’re in silence. Quiet gives us the time and space to access our spirit—to pray, or to give thanks. It allows us to listen to the world around us, and be more centered so we can listen more effectively to our coworkers and loved ones.
But silence is not something that just happens. These days, we have to actively seek quiet, boldly engage with it. Quaker Brent J. Bill writes “Silence, especially in life’s busyness, leads us through the whitewater of life to gentle pools of stillness and calm” (58). Isn’t that what we all need now and then: pools of stillness and calm? Those pools are all around us, but they get lost in the tumult. We have to look for them, find them, and cherish them. Like everything else, seeking silence has to have a priority in our lives.
In “The Devil Loves Cell Phones,” Newsweek journalist Julia Baird reviews Sara Maitland’s book A Book of Silence. In that review, Baird writes:
What a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it. Most snatch it in small grabs—hot baths, long runs, lap swimming, bike rides. Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack—something that we must rush to fill—insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought.
We have all experienced switching off the blaring radio in the car and felt instant serenity and stress reduction as silence flowed over us. We should take that as irrefutable evidence that silence is something to bask in, like a warm bath. Something deep within us needs silence to help us maintain balance. Author and therapist Bruce Davis, in his book Monastery Without Walls, writes: “If life has become so noisy that we cannot hear ourselves think, how can we hearing the calling of our soul?” (2).
Artists and writers have long known that silence and solitude are essential components to creativity. Writing requires much “staring out the window” time. Fantasy author Terry Brooks has said that when he’s in his lounge chair on the beach, his wife thinks he’s just lying in the sun, when in fact, he’s working, formulating the next book. Author Anne D. LeClaire, in her book Listening Below the Noise states it succinctly: “Sitting quietly, we gently enter our own inner worlds. Daydreaming. Woolgathering. Lost in space. These are rich and fertile activities. The playgrounds of imagination” (37). Creativity as well as spirit seems to come alive in the stillness.
So where are these moments of stillness? Everywhere, in tiny snippets. Closing the office door for a five-minute time-out with eyes closed can be astonishingly renewing. Locking one’s self in the bathroom for a few minutes of solitude is better than nothing. But if we try, we can do much better than this. We can take walks in nature. We can create a personal silent refuge in our homes. We can join a meditation group or class.
Solitude and silence are two completely different things, however. Writers and artists spend much of their time in solitude, but not silence. There is always the radio, telephone, internet, email, cell phone, editors, deadlines, negative self-talk, all the pressures of life. Solitude is something separate and apart from stillness. You can have solitude with or without silence, and you can have stillness with or without solitude.
Author, psychotherapist and meditation instructor Gunilla Norris reminds us that there is silence all around us if we will look for it. “With more awareness we may discover that small gaps in our daily round can be places of silence” (21). We may discover that taking advantage of these small gaps throughout the day gives us more energy, puts our lives into better perspective, provides a stabilizing influence. These little glimpses of serenity oftentimes ignite the desire for longer, more frequent access to the stillness, which can be had in a variety of ways.
First, and easiest, is to set aside time each day for meditation or centering prayer. Ten minutes per day may seem impossible at first, but a ten-minute daily investment in our mental health is a small price. Soon, that calm time becomes mandatory—an oasis in the day. For some, that’s enough. Others may eventually extend the time for daily silence to a half hour or even an hour.
A second way to appreciate silence is to be silent. Anne D. LeClaire, in her book Listening Below the Noise chronicles her experiences spending the first and third Monday of every month in silence. She goes about her daily life without speaking, and has kept to that schedule for over nine years despite public appearances, writing retreats, conventions, and book tours, as well as all the social and familial responsibilities of life. Her husband, at first inconvenienced, came to understand, appreciate, and respect her spiritual practice. She writes: “It seemed that silence was serving as a tuning fork, awakening the five-string harp of my senses” (28). She states that even waiting to speak is a noise in her head that silences when she does not speak, and allows her to listen more fully to others.
A third way to find silence is to go on a silent retreat, where you dwell in silence either alone or with others who are also retreating in silence.
Many churches sponsor silent retreats, as do secular retreat centers, but you do not need to be part of an organized event. You could find a beautiful place to be alone and silent, a place where you can be with nature, to walk, to listen, to be alone. A cabin in the woods. A hotel at the beach. A spa in the desert. Sister Carol Higgins, who goes on an organized silent retreat at least once every year, notes that one advantage to being part of a silent retreat with others is that “Even though you do not speak to those with whom you are silent, when it’s over, you feel as though you know them intimately.” Another advantage of an organized retreat is that meals are prepared and served in silence. You need do nothing but be present and serve your intention.
Whichever way you choose to spend a day, a week, or more in silence, here are some guidelines that might help make your first experience an extraordinary one.
1. Have an intention.
Why do you want to go away and be silent? Is there something specific you wish to accomplish? Silence takes effort and intentionality, like all worthwhile endeavors. Write down your intention and take it with you.
2. Have a plan.
What will you do? Read? Write? Draw? Paint? Create a collage? Meditate? Pray? Take long walks? Knit a prayer shawl? Be clear about what activities you intend to engage in and prepare to take everything that you will need with you. Include a small note that says “I’m silent today” to pin to your clothing, especially if you’re going to be among people who are likely to speak to you and expect a courteous response.
3. Have a plan B.
The power occasionally goes out. Nature walks are sometimes thwarted by nature herself. Things that you expect to happen frequently don’t. Be prepared, and be flexible.
4. Speak with those who have gone before.
Read books on silence. Talk to those who have gone on a silent retreat and ask their experience and advice.
5. Be gentle with yourself.
You are on retreat to escape the noise of daily life. Let the noise in your head dissipate at its own pace. Its chattering will subside, but not likely in the first fifteen minutes of silence. Be patient. Be a kind and gentle traveling companion to yourself on this journey.
6. Try something new.
While the silent retreat is itself new, you might investigate some practices to enhance your experience. There are techniques to centering prayer, meditation, and journaling. There are spiritual artistic endeavors. Anything that involves sincere reflection can become a spiritual endeavor. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “spiritual” person, take at least one spiritual book with you, just in case. Find something that appeals and be willing. Anne LeClaire practiced her silent Mondays twice a month for nine years before she realized it was a spiritual practice.
7. Be open.
As all of these suggestions are also good rules for life, being open is a particularly important way to approach silence. Sometimes what we experience is something other than what we expected, or wanted. Sometimes it takes a week back amidst the noise for the fullness of what we learned, achieved, or came to appreciate comes to infuse our conscious mind.
The benefits of silence and solitude are difficult to quantify, although they are legion, according to anyone who engages in stillness on a regular basis. Richard Mahler counts these among the gifts:
Freedom to fantasize. Development of the imagination. Cultivation of abstract thought. Heightened awareness. Healing during stress, mourning or other trauma. Improved concentration. Access to religious, spiritual or mystical experiences. Better problem-solving abilities. Liberation from unwanted distractions. Effective pain-management skills. The rich company of one’s mind, body, and spirit. Expanded self-understanding. (43)
Who among us could not profit from any one of these? And yet every one’s experience is different. And every retreat is different, just as every day is fresh and new. The important thing is to embrace the concept of incorporating silence as a small treat, a reward, a delicious morsel created only for you. A moment of silence is not just one more item to pack into your overcrowded and noisy daily schedule like a hard-pounding aerobics class, something to stress over as you try to fit it in. Be gentle with the concept of silence, as it is a tender, liberating practice.
Former priest and professor of English at Kean University James A. Conner writes in his book Silent Fire:
At the core of every human soul is an imperishable flame, the same energy that permeates all things—the fire of the comet, the twinkle of the stars. Like a campfire broadcasting light in wide circles, that flame illuminates the world, and as I move inward in silence, the world brightens (9).
This magical aspect of silence has been the subject of authors through the ages. Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, John Muir and Sara Maitland, are but a few writers who have loved to write about their experience in silence. Poets have always tried to capture the attributes of silence with words. Even the title of the famous Robert Frost poem, “Walking Through Woods on a Snowing Evening” is a poem, as it so clearly evokes a pleasant, peaceful silence. Some, like explorers, deep-sea divers, sailors, hermits, monks and nuns, choose professions with silence as an integral aspect of their work, day after day. A profession in silence might seem extreme, but the benefits of silence are catching on in the normal every day world.
The Ashland Institute in Oregon has established a “pulse” of silence, the last Sunday of every month, in the manner of author Anne D. LeClaire’s twice-monthly silent Mondays. “The invitation is for women who resonate with the practice of Silence to join us in spending the last Sunday of each month in Silence. Each person will organize these days in the ways that fit for her. The distribution of our time zones will form a wave of Silence and connection round the world.” As of this writing, over four hundred women around the world have committed to this practice and blog their insights at www.insilencetogether.com.
As with most things, as soon as you voice your intention to learn more, you’ll come upon opportunities for silence everywhere, and you’ll meet others who employ silence as a regular spiritual pursuit. Soon, you’ll turn off the radio, the television, and the iPod, and grant yourself a respite from the noise of the everyday world. That will be a good thing. You could start today. It will be good for your mental health, your spiritual health, and as the World Health Organization has already noted, it will be good for your physical health as well.
Here are some resources to get you started on your quest for more silence and less noise.
Silent Retreats Online is a guide to silent retreats. Many are ongoing, meaning they are in a state of perpetual silence; you just join in when you arrive. Others have workshops and classes and silence is a component part of the retreat experience. They range from the US and Canada to India, Europe and elsewhere. http://www.retreatsonline.com/guide/silent.htm
Contemplative Outreach is “a spiritual network of individuals and small faith communities committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel.” They hold silent retreats of varying lengths in many locations. www.contemplativeoutreach.org
Yoga Bound lists a variety of locations that hold regular silent retreats in the U.S. “Most include yoga and moving meditation, while others are composed entirely of quiet contemplation. They are offered in traditions ranging from Buddhism and Hinduism to Judaism and Christianity, as well as nonsectarian formats. http://www.yogabound.com/yoga/art_silent_retreats.htm
Find the Divine is a directory of various retreat centers that list the types of retreats they offer. http://www.findthedivine.com/
The best way to find a silent retreat that suits you is begin your search within your spiritual discipline.
Baird, Julia. “The Devil Loves Cell Phones: Silence Isn’t Just Golden, it’s Heavenly.” Newsweek. October 22, 2009. http://www.newsweek.com/id/219010. An excellent book review of Sara Maitland’s book of her experience on a silent retreat alone for forty days on a windy moor, A Book of Silence. I’ll get Maitland’s book and read it.
Bill, J. Brent. Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005. This was another small, sweet book about the Quaker way to practice silence. Most Quaker services are silent meditations, and he discusses not only the value of that, but the reasoning behind it, from George Fox to William Penn. “Silence, especially in life’s busyness, leads us through the whitewater of life to gentle pools of stillness and calm” (59).
Coghlan, Andy. New Scientist; 12/22/2007, Vol. 196 Issue 2635/2636, p25-25, 1p. An alarming article showing that the World Health Organization has documented that traffic noise contributes to the deaths of 3% of Europeans via stress hormones that affect the heart. Noise kills. Imagine what living in a big city does to the health.
Conner, James A. Silent Fire: Bringing the Spirituality of Silence to Everyday Life. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002. This is the author’s autobiography of silence. He’s a former priest and chronicles what he calls the “four circles of silence”: No Words, No Thought, No Self, and Embracing All. While the book was dotted with little gems, it wasn’t all that impressive.
Davis, Bruce. Monastery Without Walls: Daily Life in the Silence. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1990. If Anne LeClaire’s journal of nine years of twice-monthly silence was a gentle reminder that we can make silence a priority, this is the opposite, discussing not only silence, but the disciplines of poverty, chastity, fasting, obedience, etc. and therefore he lost me right at the beginning. The way he considers it, it all seems like too much work. While a spiritual practice has to be a mindful activity in order to be effective, to my way of thinking, he’s a bit of an edgy purist.
LeClaire, Anne D. Listening Below the Noise. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
This is a wonderfully insightful book about the author’s experience in her busy life with being silent amidst her daily life and inconvenienced husband. She seeks to “tune the five-string harp”, or to activate all five senses. This book chronicled her journey from the first day of silence through the nine years it took for her to recognize it as a spiritual practice.
Mahler, Richard. Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude. Boston, MA: Redwheel, 2003.
The author spent a winter isolated in the mountains of New Mexico, and a year after he returned, he reviewed his journal and decided he ought to write a book about solitude and stillness. One of his main points—well taken—is that we’re too busy and too noisy because we’re trying to maintain too much stuff. Simplicity goes hand in hand with solitude and silence.
Norris, Gunilla. Inviting Silence. New York: Bluebridge Books, 2004.
A very sweet little book, almost like an extended poem. I will keep this book and refer to it, as she points out that silence doesn’t need to be practiced only in a retreat, but can be accessed in tiny little moments throughout the day.
In Silence Together. “The Original Invitation” 2/8/2010. www.insilencetogether.com/?page_id=2. This kicked off the “pulse” of silence where currently over 400 women worldwide are silent on the last Sunday of the month. Anne LeClaire believes this movement will grow in strength and character. How could that be anything but positive for our planet?