In search of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever visited a place so quiet you could hear yourself digest?

For me, it was a ranch in southern New Mexico, land owned by friends of ours, land so wild we ended up confined to quarters because a mountain lion was on the prowl nearby.

We’re now in a spot almost as quiet, the “northern neck” of Virginia, about two hours’ drive southeast of Washington, D.C., a city where the sound of airplanes seems almost constant.

I sat on the dock in the sunshine here and heard only gulls squawking, a dog barking, a distant lawn-mower and wind in the trees.

Heaven!

English: SHO "Little Wonder" leaf bl...
English: SHO “Little Wonder” leaf blower in action, Washington, D.C., USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We live in a town 25 miles north of New York City where two specific, unwanted and frequent sounds drive me mad — the leaf-blowers and the constant buzz and roar of helicopters and airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. They’re constant, the routes changed since I bought our place, making our top-floor balcony less restful than it once was.

I’ve lived in much noisier places — downtown Toronto, (constant sirens from a nearby fire-hall), the edge of Paris (right on the peripherique, ring road, constant traffic) and Montreal (snow-plows in winter.) Then I moved to small-town New Hampshire and enjoyed the change from non-stop noise.

My appreciation for silence really blossomed after an eight-day silent retreat that Jose and I took two summers ago. Like everyone there, some 75 people of all ages from around the world, we were forbidden from speaking, and only occasionally whispered a bit in our room. Mostly we wrote on Post-It notes to one another and shut our traps.

It was a very powerful way to realize how exhausting it is to be chatty and charming and social, (even civil), with the many people we typically encounter every day in normal life. Here’s my post about the sounds I heard there when everything else was still.

The retreat also showed me how pleasant it is to remain silent while surrounded by others equally committed to a break from wasted words. Try it for a day and you quickly realize how much we speak, yet how little we really say, (some of us), that we truly feel or need to communicate from the depths of our heart.

Here’s a story I wrote about that experience that ran in Marie Claire.

Here’s a brief, recent lovely post from Beijing — with photos — by an American copy editor living there, describing his search for peace in that crowded and burgeoning city.

What’s the quietest place you have ever visited?

Did you enjoy it?

Silence Now Rarer Than Ever

Le Silence, painted plaster sculpture by Augus...
Image via Wikipedia

As I type this, at 11:30 on a sunny Sunday morning, I hear: my neighbor’s conversation (sigh), fully audible through our adjoining wall; traffic on the bridge a few miles away, birds in the treetops mere feet from our windows, the fridge humming, a few jets high overhead.

I live 25 miles north of New York City and revel in our (relative) silence. It is increasingly rare, as anyone living in or near a city knows. From a recent op-ed in The New York Times:

The scale of our noise problem isn’t in doubt. In recent years rigorous studies on the health consequences of noise have indicated that noise elevates heart rate, blood pressure, vasoconstriction and stress hormone levels, and increases risk for heart attacks. These reports prove that even when we’ve become mentally habituated to noise, the damage it does to our physiologies continues unchecked.

Studies done on sleeping subjects show that signs of stress surge in response to noise like air traffic even when people don’t wake. Moderate noise from white-noise machines, air-conditioners and background television, for example, can still undermine children’s language acquisition. Warnings about playing Walkmans and iPods too loudly have been around for years, but some experts now believe that even at reasonable volumes a direct sound-feed into the ears for hours on end may degrade our hearing.

Yet by focusing on the issue exclusively from a negative perspective, in a world awash with things to worry about, we may just be adding to the public’s sense of self-compassion fatigue. Rather than rant about noise, we need to create a passionate case for silence.

There are few things more healing — to some, unnerving — than deep, rich, unbroken silence. Journalists learn early to use it professionally: when conducting an interview, leave a gap in the conversation and many people, unaccustomed to it, will keep on talking to fill it, often with things they might not otherwise have said.

Those who meditate in Buddhism talk about taming, or trying to, their “monkey mind” — the thoughts and fears that too often bound around our brains like a crazed chimpanzee. For some people, the notion of sitting totally still and calm, eschewing every possible distraction and interruption, is terrifying. You’re….not needed! Not connected! Not productive.

Thank God.

We spent a week this January on an isolated and large (28,000 acres) ranch in New Mexico. The silence was so rich it echoed in my ears. I could hear myself digesting. I felt profoundly restored in a way almost nothing else had ever produced.

Here’s an interesting blog post, from Ireland, on seven benefits of silence.

What is the quietest place you have ever been? What effect did it — or does it now — have on you?