Do you immediately turn on the radio every time you get into the car? Do you often have the TV on at home when no-one is watching it? Do you have your earphones in when you go for a walk? Sometimes it feels as though we are afraid of silence, or that we find it uncomfortable. Every time there is a gap between sounds, we have an urge to fill it with something. This need to avoid silence can even spill over into our conversations. How often do you feel an urge to jump in with a comment the second the other person stops talking?
But when we avoid silence in this way, we deny ourselves the opportunity of enjoying its benefits. In our everyday lives, our ears are constantly bombarded by sounds, and our minds have to work overtime trying to process that constant influx of information. When we allow the sounds to stop for a few minutes – when we pause to cherish silence – we give our minds a chance to rest, to reflect, to recharge.
In practicing mindfulness, we learn to value silence and to be comfortable in its presence. We can also learn to be mindful of the small sounds that are all around us, which we all too often drown out with sounds of our own making. As I am writing this, the only sounds I can hear are the wind in the trees, birds singing in the garden and the soft trickle of running water. It’s beautiful. And I should pause to appreciate it far more often than I do.
During mindfulness meditation I sometimes practice mindful listening – instead of focusing on my breathing, I open my ears and focus on the sounds that I can hear around me. Not thinking about the sounds, not analysing what they signify or wondering when they will start or end, but just listening – really, actively listening without thinking or interacting with the sound in any way. One of the most magical things I hear during mindful listening is silence. The stillness of silence has this amazing calming quality that never fails to leave me feeling both relaxed and energized.
I wonder whether our urge to fill every moment with sound comes from a reluctance to be alone with our thoughts. Are we afraid to have time to think and reflect? Or is it that we equate silence, the absence of auditory stimulation, with boredom? Are we so used to the constant influx of information that it feels strange – even uncomfortable – to be without it for just a few minutes? Whatever the reason, I think we are missing out on something special when we seek to avoid silence. So, the next time you are tempted to play some music or turn on the TV just to fill a quiet space, stop and think – do you really need all that extra stimulation right now? Or would your mind be grateful for a few minutes break to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet?