Silence is Golden

Take time to hear the stillness within, and keep the internal dialog going.

I got up early the other day and looked outside. The desert stood silent. In the filtered moonlight, the delicate leaves of the palo verde stood as silent and unmoving as the saguaro. I could hear the silence.

I hopped in the truck and drove away, radio off, to my favorite health center. Once there, it didn't take long to break the mood.

Have you ever noticed the great lengths we go to in order to avoid ourselves? I don't think that's any more obvious anywhere than at the health club. Just try to find a quiet corner there. You can't.

At my health club, you can pick your distraction from the available televisions or radios. Or, you can bring along your own headset. All the while, people are working out on the treadmills, weight machines and stationary bikes, as waves of sound wash over them. It's no different after the workout when you retreat to the locker room for a sauna, steam bath and shower. Even there, even considering the many traditional ritual uses of the sweat, a television blares out, filling every pore with sound.

Working out could be an oasis in a bustling day of business, a few brief minutes apart from an otherwise busy schedule. It could be a place and a time to listen deeply to yourself. To hear your heart beat. To listen to your breath keep pace with your steps on the treadmill. To feel the cleansing sweat build up on your brow. A time to hear, as well as see and feel, what it is to be tired and alive.

But, no. The curious mix of morning radio DJ banter and cable news updates do more than their designed jobs of distracting exercisers from their workouts. They distract us from ourselves. It's pretty tough to hear the small voice within when the big voice from the FM station is shouting at you.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century physicist, mathematician, writer and theologian, wrote "all of our miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room." Being able to sit, or walk, or exercise in silence is part of the most basic traditions of every major religion, although it is seldom stressed in these days where behavioral modification has replaced introspection as the focus.

Silence has become our most endangered commodity. It is silence that gives us the space to be present in each moment. Silence enables us to stop the internal dialogue that keeps us living in the past and future.

But it is increasingly difficult to find the spaces for silence in a world that places such a high value on multitasking and encourages every moment to be filled with a variety of sensual stimuli.

Silence is to our lives what white space is to ink on a printed newspaper. Without the white space, it is impossible to distinguish one letter or word from another and the print becomes unreadable blobs of ink. Without periods of silence, it becomes impossible to discern the rhythm of our lives and meaning in our activities.

As a remedy to rampant noise, some people have come to practice what they call mindfulness. This is the discipline of being fully present while doing just one thing. The idea is to be fully present to our lives, moment by moment. To be fully present to what and who we are at every instant instead of tangling our attention in concerns for the future or regrets of the past.

For example, try eating a piece of fruit without conversation, radio, television or reading. Just experience each step in peeling, breaking open, chewing and tasting the fruit. Take your time and give full attention only to eating. Try the same process with typing a memo or dialing the phone or even listening.

Better yet, try eating a family meal in silence. Or taking a silent drive. You might even try going to the gym and doing your entire workout silently, although it's doubtful anyone will cooperate with you.

Most of the time, when we're doing one thing, we're focused on something else. Even when someone else is talking, we don't listen fully. Instead, we think about what we're going to say next or what we'll have for lunch, missing much of our lives in the process.

There is a wide saying that observes, "Tomorrow is wood and yesterday ashes, only today the fire burns bright." It is impossible to warm our hands at the flame of our lives when our attention is wrapped up in kindling or putting out other fires.