Most of us think of silence as something external to our being or as the complete absence of sound. In environments crowded with a myriad loud noises –the sound of traffic, airplanes, people, construction sites, sirens, children playing, machinery, or just random honking– true silence has more to do with learning to listen to the actual sound of stillness (both within us and without) than with looking for its absence. As Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “[t]o hear, one must be silent.”
While some people may not be so fond of the idea of taking time to be in stillness, there are few things out there that feel as naturally pleasurable, and are as affordable to the majority of us mortals, as the sound of true silence.
To look for quiet and peace and rest is, indeed, a natural human instinct, and one we’d be very intelligent to try and get more off considering the many health benefits it offers. Because the absence of silence has been linked throughout the decades to conditions such as sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, tinnitus, or heightened stress levels.
Ironically, however, for the majority of us raised in the west at the turn of the century, finding time for silence, or even silent spaces, is becoming harder and harder. Living now predominantly around urban nuclei, juggling work, study, family life, or social engagements with time for quiet is not an easy feat! In fact, some of us are not even used to silence anymore and quickly mistake the ‘lack of sound’ for boredom, switching to our devices for rapid comfort. The question then is how to make room for silence in everyday life, and, more importantly, what to listen for?
Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows without travelling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.
Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu - chapter 47
One of the main reasons to look for silence in our lives has to do with its ability to help us assimilate change, come to terms with our emotions, and allow for space for growth. As the common saying goes “silence isn’t empty, it’s full of answers,” and the nature of those answers largely depends on the quality of the silence and the intention we put into the act of looking for stillness.
But when we speak of silence we are actually speaking of two different things: the type of silence one gets from external stimuli, and the one you get from internal exploration.
It’s within everyone’s reach, for example, to make room daily for a bit more external silence. From an early morning stroll while the streets are still empty, or a hike out in nature in a rural spot, to a quiet walk in the forest or the park, time for reading in a peaceful corner, or a nice and quiet bath late at night, there are many easy sources of external silence we can try to accommodate into our routine. The point here is not so much to completely cancel sound, but rather to find space for quiet and stillness on the regular.
Doing so will positively impact our relationship to, ourselves allowing for more moments of spontaneous solitude in an 'I-don't-feel-lonely' kind of way, which may trigger also independent thinking and creativity, and enable us to develop an easy survival strategy to better cruise through stressful situations in life.
Internal silence, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. It’s a process within a process, in fact, and one that grows on you the more you sit down to listen to the silence within. But the word silence here is actually a misnomer for the type of sounds we actually can learn to perceive and experience once we start listening with our 'inner ear.’
Yoga, for example, has an entire tradition built around searching and nurturing inner silence so that universal sound can manifest into our being –it's called Nada yoga, or the yoga of sound and vibration. And the whole point of listening to the stillness within is to become increasingly attuned to the inner vibrations and sounds and rhythms of our own bodies –things such as our breathing, the sounds produced by the ear, our heartbeat... It is by relaxing into them that we progressively learn to relax as well into our true inner being!
So... how do I make the best of both?
Certainly, inner silence, when properly mastered, will take you to a nice spot of unconscious and simple being, automatic non-thinking, and just honest and uncomplicated bliss. To a state in which both external silence and inner stillness finally merge. And so, the more you ease into the inner quiet and progressively focus your awareness on the silence within, the more external sounds will disappear. The sounds will still be there, of course, but your awareness of them will vanish to such a point that only internal being will exist. And though it 'sounds' unimpressive, it is a truly mind-blowing experience! And it is precisely in this state of absolute inner self-absorption that the suspension of thought (so hard to achieve otherwise) will turn into almost spontaneous.
The bottomline here, then, is that while almost everybody agrees on the need for our physical bodies to rest, recharge, and regenerate, the level of awareness about the benefits of a well-rested mind is much lower. The need for it, however, could not be higher!
Meditation, and inner silence meditation, provide our thinking machine a much needed break from the type of frontal overkill we often experience in our hyper-rational world. And by learning to look for stillness and listen to the silence within us, we learn to disidentify with the stressors in our lives and make more room for positive experiences where comfort, wholeness, the acceptance of change, and the integration of life can finally begin to take place.
So... what are you waiting for?!