Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation. ~James Thurber
Do you know what the most common reaction to monks who first go into secluded meditation? Schizophrenia. Look it up! We aren’t used to complete containment and silence. I find myself with the same reaction, only not quite so full-blown. I sit to watch waves, or admire the wind through trees and what happens? My brain forgets its mission and continues going 100 mph down whatever distracted train of thought it chooses – like a child getting more and more lost in a crowd without even realizing that stopping is the best way to find his parents. My brain is all over the map…what job should I take? Why do I feel so confused in life? What do I have a right to feel and not to feel right now? Is there even such a thing as not having a right to a feeling? Should I have said something different? Do I live too much by what I should do? And around and around in a spiral my thoughts go. This can’t be true silence. The wind whispers, the waves hush up onto the shore, but my brain is screaming loudly and impatiently the whole time.
Stillness presupposes no worry, no what-ifs, no second thoughts and self-doubt. Stillness means the rambling thoughts are silenced for just a moment and are not given the free meandering range they’re used to, but instead lowered below the level of truth I have granted them. My thoughts are not truth, nor should I believe each and every one of them as if they were. Just stop and be.
I know it’s cheesy but Grey’s Anatomy on Hulu Plus has me hooked recently. There was one episode I saw this week where Sandra Oh’s character experiences a trauma, checks out of life, and quits her job. In trying to help her, Patrick Dempsey’s character takes her out fishing in the middle of a lake. After only a little bit, she grows impatient and suggests they go to another spot where the fish are, and maybe they should try another bait, and maybe change positions in the boat. Dempsey calmly says that if she keeps talking then no matter where they go, the fish will scare away, and that they will stay right there. Her reply is that she doesn’t agree and makes all her arguments again, only more loudly and impatiently. Dempsey stays calm and tells her plainly that the secret to fishing is not to overthink it, and just to turn your brain off and do nothing, to which Christina (Sandra Oh) yelled in response, “I can’t turn it off!!” That’s when my tears came – yes, I cried watching Grey’s Anatomy. That was me – I can’t turn my brain off and just sit and fish…metaphorically…well probably actually too.
As I researched it, I learned that not only is silence good for the soul, it’s physically healthy for the body too. Over time of exposure to everyday noises like buzzes, music, traffic and tv, not to mention louder noises like concerts, yelling crowds, and construction, studies show that we develop hearing loss, elevated heart rate and blood pressure and a steady release of stress hormones like cortisol. I’ve learned a lot about cortisol recently because it’s the hormone that takes its toll on PTSD brains. So it follows that the relief of noise and the gravitation toward silence, even if just a few minutes each day, replenishes our bodies and our systems. Author on silence and noise trauma, George Prochnik states, “Silence not only calms and soothes us, but also allows us to better focus. Neuroscientists find that people who do short silent retreats find that their capacity for concentration is greatly enhanced.” He goes on to urge, “Make an effort to spend time and be still. Give your ears, and physiology a rest.” A psychiatric neuroimaging study showed that, “People who meditated about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had changes in gray-matter density in the part of the brain associated with empathy, stress, memory and sense of self.”
The truth is that silence is terrifying to most people, but so are plenty of other wonderful things – rock climbing, public speaking, dancing or singing in public, travelling to foreign places – yet all are liberating in the same way silence is healing. Yeah yeah, I talk the good talk, but now it’s time for me to try to walk the silent walk. I used to be able to sit on a big boulder in the heart of a canyon and just be…it’s time to try and get back to that place…metaphorically of course. I’ll update on how the pursuit of silence goes.
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