Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die; life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.

—Langston Hughes

Soak in the Silence


From Body&Soul, November/December 2003


By Richard Mahler


The billboard on the interstate summed it up: "Silence is weird." Paid for by a cell-phone company with an obvious bias, I had to laugh at this arch attempt to characterize a prevailing attitude. In the sea of sound that submerges us each day, islands of quiet do seem as alien as palm trees on Manhattan. We're surrounded instead by the clamor of traffic, television, computers, aircraft, jackhammers, CD players, and, of course, cell phones. Given the commotion, it's no wonder many of us complain that we can't hear ourselves think-or talk. The League of the Hard of Hearing confirmed in a recent study that the incidence of hearing loss had increased from 15 to 60 percent in all age groups over an 18-year period that ended in 2000. But there's something else we're losing. Our cool. The news is filled with stories about din-fueled road rage and disgruntled employees wielding guns in loud factories. Health workers tell us that stress-related disorders are at an all-time high, in part because of the overstimulating racket most of us are forced to endure.


Good news is at hand, however. Silence is creeping back into our culture. The blare of fitness-center aerobics has given way to the serenity of yoga, while the bone-jarring soundtrack of night clubs is losing ground to the meditation of rural retreat centers. Responding to popular demand, Amtrak has added "quiet cars" to its commuter trains, and Wal-Mart is selling portable fountains and gentle CDs that mask unwanted sound.


Why the low-key backlash against the high-volume lifestyle? Because somewhere along the way we've lost too much "quiet alone-time," the term I use for those precious solitary moments that are essential for recharging our batteries and reconnecting with our souls. Stepping away from the uproar isn't always easy, though. Indeed, Americans are big on buzz. For millions, noise is an inevitable byproduct of distractions that delight and jobs that engage. It takes real effort to embrace tranquility while the hullabaloo around us gets louder. Yet we ignore our inner craving for peace at our peril.


I learned that lesson the hard way. Like most of my urban peers, I once prided myself on maintaining a date book filled with lists, appointments, and deadlines. I spent 10 years in Los Angeles, earning a living as a show-biz reporter and television critic. My fast-lane lifestyle took me to Hollywood parties and star-studded movie premieres. It was great fun and I earned plenty of money, but a few important things were missing amid the flash: stillness, silence, and solitude. Awash in sound and action, I felt myself pushed to live at a pace that seemed unnaturally fast and disturbingly shallow. My high blood pressure and difficulty concentrating confirmed what I knew intuitively. My sanity and well-being were suffering.


I eventually quit my job and moved to slow-paced New Mexico, where I resolved to maintain a healthier equilibrium. Yet I soon discovered that even in rural America, balance is a challenge. Small towns and villages are immune neither to the mechanical clamor of the Industrial Revolution nor to the electronic beep of the Information Age. Sadder still, the sound of "progress" has spread to our recreation lands as well.


In 1998, wilderness-sound recordist Gordon Hempton toured 15 states and found only two areas-remote parts of Colorado and Minnesota-that were free of such human-made sounds as motors, airplanes, chainsaws, voices, and gunfire for more than 15 minutes during daylight hours.


By chance, I was lucky enough to discover what could have been Hempton's third area. After trading Hollywood glitz for Santa Fe art, I took a job as the winter caretaker of an alpine ranch in the Rockies. Living alone for 97 days without electricity, indoor plumbing, television, telephone, or e-mail gave me a profound new appreciation of stillness. Upon returning to "normal life," I was shocked at the degree to which noise and activity dominate our lives, and how we encourage this to happen. Not only has unnatural and unwanted sound invaded our public spaces, we somehow feel compelled to introduce it to our precious inner sanctums. As soon as we get home, we flick on television sets, computers, or stereos; review voice mail and answering machines; and encourage our children to amuse themselves with video games or movies.


Lost from our daily routine are opportunities to be alone and rest by ourselves. Yet such solitude is where we often touch the fullness of possibility, waking up to the cause and effect of our lives. Many of us spend so little time in silence, stillness, and solitude that we rarely have a chance to reflect on what we're doing-or why. More important, we grow out of touch with who we are and how we feel. Being fully engaged in the world demands self-knowledge. If we never stop to consider what's within, how can we ever know ourselves or what we truly want?


Stopping to understand ourselves not only gives life depth, wholeness, and meaning, but also pleasure, resilience, and strength. When we create a space to find our core, all kinds of delights, mysteries, fears, longings, and amazements may reveal themselves. Through this process of discovery, we at last encounter our deepest secrets, strongest passions, fondest wishes, and happiest memories.


Throughout history, personal retreats have been a proven technique for maintaining psychological equilibrium and finding inner peace. The sanctuary of stillness is honored as a source of renewal and insight by every major religious tradition, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. As I find during the short breaks I now intentionally take each day, silence and stillness allow me to open a door to my unconscious mind, to feel my heart's yearning, to follow the wisdom of my intuition, to probe the origin of my fears, and to understand the truth of my experience.


Taking time out has value at any point along life's journey, but particularly during times of stress and change. It is a natural reaction-indeed, a survival response-to pull away from overstimulation. Both clinical and casual observation confirm that humans often heal themselves-physically, psychologically, and spiritually-when afforded sufficient time and space. The value of an ongoing "practice" of quiet alone-time is that inner resources can be directed toward whatever personal crisis is at hand. In this way, we acquire the tools, skills, imagination, and resilience for handling life's inevitable stresses, traumas, and challenges.


A growing body of clinical research suggests that the benefits of quiet alone-time-as experienced during meditation, for example-may include mental clarity, stress reduction, a greater sense of well-being, and a stronger immune system. Studies conducted by University of Wisconsin researchers, for example, have found that practitioners of meditation are less likely to be shocked, flustered, angry, or surprised as other people and more likely to be feel happiness and other positive emotions. As reported in The New York Times in early 2003, research by Richard Davidson concluded that meditators have fewer troubling moods, less depression, and a quicker recovery from emotional upsets than the general population.


Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has used mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga to measurably reduce chronic pain and stress among patients who were considered untreatable by some of New England's finest physicians. In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are Kabat-Zinn describes how the exploration of silence, stillness, and solitude allows us to deepen our awareness, to cultivate and explore the exquisite textures and poignant fullness of the ephemeral "now": "We have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better. Only then can we accept the truth of this moment of our life, learn from it, and move on."


I agree that if you're like most people, your life seems filled to overflowing. But I believe each one of us already has plenty of time to incorporate silence, stillness, and solitude-quiet alone-time-into daily life. The key is to revise your definition of those words and, as you do so, to use the discretionary moments of life in new ways.


The first step is to disavow yourself of the notion that quiet-alone time means carving big blocks of time out of your busy day. In my own life, I've found that taking as few as five or 10 minutes each day can make a world of difference.


The second step is understanding that a desire for such a break is not about escaping from reality or wasting precious time. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Being still on a regular basis may pay for itself by making you more aware of your situation in life and effective in how you respond to it. Quiet alone-time does not necessarily require being physically alone, sitting still, or meditating. True silence, I learned during my time on the ranch, is as human-made as a honking horn. Left on its own, nature is pretty noisy, from the whoosh of the wind to the calls of the birds. One of the surprises to many New Yorkers during last August's blackout was not the silence but the sounds they heard-cicadas, crickets, birds. The goal is not silence so much as escaping the nerve-rattling cacophony.


There is a continuum of quiet, an infinite number of ways to inhabit stillness and solitude. . . . And one of the best things about these states of being is that they are accessible to each of us and cost nothing. They require no special handshake, equipment, class, guru, therapist, diet, pill, technique, or jargon. They are as easy to find as an empty room, as soothing as a bubble bath, and as illuminating as a bright idea.


You can find quiet alone-time driving in a car, waiting in a line, taking a shower, cooking, puttering in a garden, swimming laps, or walking a dog. Of course, you could also be doing nothing. Coaxed from the idle moments that exist in any life, quiet interludes wait to realign themselves. If we make it our intention to seek silence, stillness, and solitude-on the assumption that a fuller, richer, and healthier life will result-we quickly see how easy it is to find. Once we have access to the perspective gained by observing ourselves from a detached and neutral place, we can return to the aggressive workaday world renewed. A fresh outlook has the power to change a great deal in our lives-perhaps everything. Maybe we will willingly let go of some of the overbooked schedule that brought us to this point in the first place. We may discover that less really can be more.


Let the music rest for a while. Let the chatter cease. Limit the background hum and thrum until you can hear whatever you hear without a driving back-beat or an artificially anxious pitch aimed deliberately at stimulating your nerves. Inevitably, as we continue filling the physical world with human-made sounds and structures, we will keep craving calm pools of psychic serenity. They are ours to step into if we make the effort to find them.

© Content copyright 2015 by Richard Mahler. All rights reserved.