(Written for Books for Better Living)
“Please don’t take it personally, or think I’m odd. I just love being in silence,” I uttered nervously to my partner in the early days of our relationship before heading to a 10-day silent retreat. He’s now used to it. I got back two weeks ago from my second silent stint this year, and have already booked another for 2018.
Onlookers consider my passion for silence somewhere between weird and downright peculiar, chiefly because I already live a tranquil life. My home is in a part of the city nestled between a graveyard and a park. “No quieter neighbors than the dead!” is a quip I often make to friends that is, ironically, met with silence. I also work from home (alone), and the only sounds I can hear from my desk most days are the blue jays and the faint whirring of the fridge.
But to limit silence to a purely aural experience is a mistake. Silence, or the lack thereof, affects our mental, emotional and physical state. For example, there’s a type of noise that has become increasingly familiar in our society — the noise of constant stimulus.
Beyond just the usual sounds of humanity going about its daily business, we now suffer a mental and emotional noise that comes with juggling 15 tabs and four applications open on a computer. There’s the incessant ‘noise’ of a cell phone signaling a text message from a friend, an email from the boss, mom’s voicemail, a doctor’s appointment, one of 10 possible app push notifications, anyone doing anything LIVE on social media, a UPS delivery, a local flood warning…
An opportunity for peace evades us now, and instead, we inhabit a world that prevents us from daydreaming by imposing minute-by-minute demands for our attention.
We’re losing our connection to silence and stillness to such an extent that younger generations are even afraid of it. In a joint study from the universities of Virginia and Harvard, researchers left individuals between 18 and 27 years of age on their own in a room from six to fifteen minutes in silence without reading material or phones to distract them. The majority reported discomfort. A third said they were unable to complete the task. In an extension of the study, participants could administer themselves with an electric shock to reduce their silent time — almost half pushed the button.
I understand this discomfort. On a silent retreat, there is an initial excitement and some relief at not having to make chitchat with other people. But then, in the silence and with no phone, no books, and not even a pen, the mind has no option but to turn and look upon itself for distraction — and what it finds is chaos. There are thoughts you never knew you were having, or could have. There are thoughts you can’t stop. There are some thoughts are not even your own. And in the midst of it, you feel like there’s nowhere you can go to escape — because the noise is coming from inside your own head.
In his beautiful book, Silence: In the Age of Noise, explorer and writer Erling Kagge speaks of the fear that silence brings, and the constant “busyness” we adopt to avoid “allowing that restlessness to lead us somewhere further.” Kagge has experience with silence having walked alone to the South Pole, but he is keen to point out that silence can be attained standing under a shower, walking in a forest, or gazing up the stars.
In a letter he shares from Norwegian author and playwright John Fosse, Fosse describes silence as having “a kind of majesty to it, . . . and whoever does not stand in wonder at this majesty, fears it.” This fear, Kagge suspects, is actually a fear of getting to know ourselves better. Somewhere in the silence with no distractions, we become aware of our tendencies to be hard on ourselves and others. We can recognize thought-patterns and beliefs we have held rigid. We also see a deeper underlying desire to be free of all of that. And if we sit in stillness long enough we uncover something else — a deep capacity for peace. Just like that, the fear of silence turns into the wonder that Fosse speaks of.
Silence grants us a chance to become present, and to experience what it means to be alive. “Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, says Kagge, “but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.”