My husband and I were hiking on a ridge above Lake Tahoe recently when I suddenly realized I could hear almost nothing. This happens out west – if you go far enough off-road you can often find a place beyond the whine of the highway or the hum of the city. We were hiking late in the day, so there were few others around. Even the birds were quiet. The tall pines and slanting light made it feel like we were walking through holy space, the world hushed in reverence.
Since I became a Quaker and learned to sit in silence, I’ve come to seek out even more silence in my life. The noisier the world gets, the more I need to retreat to quiet places, and I know I’m not the only one.
Not surprisingly, scientists are finding that quiet can be restorative to the human brain. Recent studies found that mice experiencing two hours of silence a day built new cells in a part of the brain that manages emotion, memory and learning. Other studies have found that chronic noise leads to higher levels of stress hormones, which are associated with lower reading scores and delayed cognitive development in children. Chronic noise appears to trigger a sensory guard in the brain, while silence lets the brain relax and process some of what has been blocked by noise.
Chronic noise? Everywhere I go, there is noise. TVs at the gym, the roar of the freeway, chatter from everyone around you in a coffee shop. When I do step into a place of quiet, it always comes with a delicious hush, as if the world has sighed. Spiritual traditions that employ silence – such as meditation and silent worship – are built on the advantages silence offers. One of our Reno Friends once said that he found two great gifts in silence. The first was the gift of the self: when the world suddenly falls away, you are confronted with yourself. There’s no hiding, and nothing to distract from what is going on in your own mind. In the beginning, he said, this can be disquieting. But in time you discover that the only way to truly know yourself is to wait patiently for the revelations of your own consciousness.
The second gift of the silence, he said, is that eventually even the self falls away and you become aware of a great void. That, too, can be disquieting at first, but in time the emptiness of true silence will bring a sense of deep peace. Once you forget yourself, you can fully relax.
So how do we build a habit of silence? Certainly meditation and silent worship provide good opportunities, but we can also look for short moments for silence in everyday activities. Turn off the car radio and drive in silence; limit the hours your TV is on; walk your neighborhood in silence; pause during a conversation to allow the quiet in. Musicians know that managing the silence between notes is as important as the tones themselves.
In all our daily lives, silence can play an important role. Develop the habit; let the silence bloom.
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.