Why truly healing silence is not the same as absence of sound

Do you sometimes crave a moment of peace and calm? A moment to be able to reflect and take some distance from the hectic day-to-day hustle and bustle?

This is nothing exceptional. Since the dawn of time, people have always longed for this. Silence has always played a big role in finding peace of mind and the wisdom that comes with it. Abbeys and monasteries were built in remote and silent locations, in order to create space for reflection and contemplation. For holidays, a lot of us like to go to the mountains and forests where we can immerse ourselves in nature and be away from it all.

In our contemporary society, silence seems to have become scarce. We work in open landscape offices surrounded by other people chatting and making phone calls. There's non-stop music in metro stations, shops, and even elevators. Our phones and other devices constantly buzz and beep. There's the constant hum of traffic on the city streets.

And what do we do when we finally get home? We automatically turn on the tv or the radio.

We seem to have become addicted to sound, even though deep down we can feel this constant background noise is exhausting.

I find myself doing this as well; I often switch on the radio without thinking, to be honest – it's a powerful habit to always want something playing in the background. But I try to do it less, and to make it a conscious choice whether or not to have music playing. Sometimes I just prefer silence.

Inner noise 

It's funny what happens when things around you become silent. You can observe it very clearly in meditation. You have switched off your phone, sat down, closed your eyes. And it's as if the inner noise only becomes louder. All these little voices in your mind chattering away: don't forget this, what if that happens, was that the right thing to say to my boss, oh I wish I were on holiday in Tuscany, that would be so nice, what did this or that person think when I did this or that, I should have said it more diplomatically, what Christmas present am I going to buy my mum, for heaven's sake why am I having so many thoughts again, will it ever stop, I must be doing something wrong, this meditation isn't working.

Maybe that's why we become addicted to background noise? To not have to hear the chattering in our mind?

It's true that it can drive you crazy. At least, if you think it's a problem. If you believe that there has to be something wrong with you for having so many things going on in your mind and not being able to stop them. The longing for silence becomes a struggle when you see every outside noise as a disturbance. And all these damned thoughts keeping you from the bliss of inner silence.

In our mindfulness classes or retreats, people sometimes complain about disturbing noises. There's too much traffic noise outside. That clock is ticking so loudly, can't we get rid of it?

Or, and that is very normal (certainly when you only start practicing mindfulness), thinking that you need to strive for an empty mind, without any thoughts.

A different definition of silence 

What happens when you attach to the idea of silence as emptiness is that very soon you will be disappointed. There are always noises, there will always be thoughts popping up in your head.

Maybe a different definition of silence can be more helpful. What if you could see silence not so much as the sterile absence of sounds or thoughts, but as an endless spaciousness where everything is welcome? A field of silence in which there is so much space that everything is allowed to happen.

This is the silence of mindfulness, vast as the sky, observing, allowing, and welcoming. Not resisting anything, not holding on to anything.

How would it be if you could connect with that? During a meditation, or just from time to time when there's a moment that you decide not to turn on the radio in your car, or to just take a walk and allow the city sounds to flow over you? To sit back and let the chatter of your mind drift by like clouds in the sky?

Contemporary music composer John Cage has played with this notion masterfully in his famous piece 4'33". It has the easiest score ever: 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. No notes. Still, every performance of the piece is different and unique. Because the so-called "background noises" making up the performance. The creaking of the chairs, the sniffing and coughing of the audience are the music. And perhaps even your own thoughts while listening to the piece.

Very confusing. But also very liberating. Enjoy.