Written by: Kathie Houchens
Date: July 13, 2016
“Silence is maad in heuen” [made in Heaven] according to Wyclif’s Bible, 1382. A 16th century Hebrew proverb (adapted for 21st century consumption) suggests that “Silence is a person’s best garment.” And the 19th century German proverb “Silence is golden” may be even more apropos in the modern world’s climate and culture of noise.
The original intent of these and other wise sayings on the topic of silence may have been less about finding contemplative space in a busy life than about knowing when to stop talking. You can spoil the clarity of your thoughts when you forget to allow the hearer time to consider them. We might wish our political candidates and news pundits would take up more restrained practices of speech. The daily dump of sound bites and media rebuttal often spread confusion and concern. We are overwhelmed with conflicting and sometimes unpleasant voices.
The abundance of “noise” inundates. Our health and well-being may be threatened if we fail to notice what is happening. A 2011 World Health Organization report called noise pollution a “modern plague,” concluding that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
Studies have shown the value of silence for the brain and body. Here are just a few benefits.
1. Silence relieves stress.
Noise pollution can lead to high blood pressure and heart attacks, as well as impaired hearing. Loud noises raise stress levels by causing the release of the stress hormone cortisol, according to research. If too much noise is bad for health and wellbeing, then we learn that silence has the opposite effect, releasing tension. Silence is even better for us than “relaxing” music according to a 2006 study published in the journal Heart.
2. Silence restores us.
When we feel our mental resources getting depleted from the daily overload of decision-making and problem-solving, fatigue goes beyond physical tiredness and affects our mental and emotional ability to concentrate and focus. Separation from sensory stimuli for a period of time is a gift we can give ourselves to reboot, refresh, and replenish from the inside out.
3. In silence, we can get in touch with our inner wisdom.
Whether daydreaming or meditation is your default brain mode, your inner network of thoughts, memories, emotions, and creative ideas responds to silence and helps make sense out of what is. When we choose to break away from distractions we are invited out of the shallows of surface living and into the depths of innate wisdom just waiting to be tapped.
4. A little quiet time can regenerate brain cells.
Well, at least it does in mice. Researchers in a 2013 study found that two hours of silence daily led to the development of new brain cells associated with learning, memory and emotion. Whether or not this results in specific outcomes for avoiding or treating dementia, it is hopeful and encouraging.
Thomas Merton said, “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.”
For me, as I delve into an art project I delight in silence. I sit at the drawing board to sketch or to dabble in water colors and I go deep into my “zone” where no sound is needed. The hush is a kind of cocoon that offers me time to become whole again. I emerge with new wings.
A recent trip to Vermont gave me an opportunity to canoe on a remote lake where the only sounds were the splash of jumping fish, the hoarse croak of frogs, or the buzz of dragonfly wings over the lily pads. For me “silence” may be a relative term. Nature sounds restore me. It is the electronic non-stop intrusion that distresses. In a natural setting inner peace soothes, my body relaxes, I breathe more deeply, I notice colors and movements as I sense that I am in harmony with my surroundings. It is always a gift, and one I can choose to give myself more often.
Chaim Potok in The Chosen tells us, “I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”
When have you experienced the glow of sacred silence? Might it have been on an over-busy day when jangling and clanging were everywhere until you stepped aside from the clatter of daily life to find a moment or a small space for a deep breath, perhaps closed eyes, as inner “oxygen” rekindled your spirit? What helps you find your place of quietude within and without? Do you walk outside? Does a sunset help? Maybe a rocking chair invites a change of pace?
How do we remember to hold space for each other and for ourselves in a quiet way that invites reflection or deep intimacy? Could this be a milieu that offers healing and inner peace? What opportunities have you had recently to enjoy silence? Do you seek places and experiences that are free of noise? Where might you be and how do you feel when you are in a quiet ambiance? Please share your insights in the comments.