The world is a noisy place. Our minds are noisy places. It’s hard to find quiet and stillness. But quiet—an inner stillness—is what allows us to give our attention to what matters most to us. It allows us to tap into our yearnings and inner truths.
In his book Callings, Gregg Levoy describes the practice of stilling our minds as hushing. Hushing, he says, quiets and opens us. It’s a “posture of receptivity in relation to whatever shy thing hankers for our attention.” What hankers for your attention? How will you find out? We find out when we meditate or gaze at the stars. We find out when we hush. Hushing is a way of pressing the pause button in order to discover what is crying out for our attention.
I hit that pause button on a daily basis through yoga and meditation, and other practices. But sometimes I need a longer pause. When that happens, I go on a spiritual retreat. Early last summer I went on a Pure Relaxation Retreat. It was here in Pennsylvania. I drove 2 ½ hours to get there. I was feeling depleted emotionally and physically.
But when I turned into the long driveway of the retreat center, I felt an instant melting away of tension. What lay ahead were days of rich integrated practice. What lay ahead was engaging in yoga, meditation, morning and evening prayer times, mini-practicums, massage, biofeedback, healthy vegetarian meals, medical consultation, and other offerings as well. What lay ahead was stillness. All in a facility that includes 400 acres of beautiful Pocono woodland and hiking trails.
I settled in happily that first night. The next morning, I rose early to make it to 7 am yoga, followed by breakfast, and a consultation. When I headed back to my room for a short break, I noticed some activity and sound not far from where my windows faced. There, machines were busily at work. It turned out that the center was in the midst of building a new temple, which is very exciting. Except for this first-time visitor.
I was looking to retreat from the sounds of construction and machines. I wanted to escape from the noisiness of the world. From cars and loud sounds. Not to encounter more of the same there on retreat. And these weren’t just any machines, by the way. These were the machines with backup beepers that make that piercing noise every time they move in reverse. You know that sound, right? Boop boop boop. The workers did take breaks at lunch, and they ended by mid-afternoon. But the rest of the time they made their loud progress. I wasn’t expecting to need to use earbuds to replace the unpleasant noise.
When the weekend came, I thought, ah, finally, the machines will stop. Not so. Instead, a different crew showed up on Saturday to fix a problem with the roof. A section of the roof right outside my room. Unluckily I just happened to be in one of the rooms closest to all the work being done.
The curious thing is, even amid all that noise, I entered a quiet zone. Sure, I was hoping for external quiet, I really was. I wanted the kind of external hushing that would help me to cultivate an inner one. But the relaxation time, spiritual practices, and attention to healing were restorative. I found myself feeling lighter and energized.
The truth is it’s nearly impossible to find true quiet. No matter where we go. Even a retreat center. The noise whether of refrigerators, furnaces, air conditioners, dishwashers, lawn mowers and trimmers, cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, cell phones, televisions, computers, and even our own and other’s non-stop chatter follows us nearly everywhere we go.
Scientists studying silence say there are only 12 to 15 silent places left on earth. I don’t know about you but that worries me. Only 12 to 15 places! These are places where unnatural silence is absent. The sounds of birds, insects, streams, your own beating heart can still be heard. These places include the Hoh River Valley in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, and Haleakala National Park in Hawaii. The others are best-kept secrets. Because if everyone learns about them, they will likely soon be overtaken by tourists and spiritual seekers.
The thing is, actual real silence is important. Our emotional and physical well-being is enhanced by it. The Environmental Pollution Centers warn that noise can cause serious health issues. These include high blood pressure, anxiety, hearing loss, and health issues related to sleep deprivation. And it’s helpful to remember that even those with hearing loss can experience sensitivity to loud sounds and discomfort as a result.
Part of the problem is with ourselves. We’ve created loud and busy lives. And too often there is fear and avoidance of silence. Rather than trying to embrace silence, we crave stimulation and distraction. Even sometimes without realizing it. Turning off all the distractions would mean coming face to face with ourselves—our fears, worries, anxieties, angers, failures, all our emotions both negative and positive. And that can be intimidating. And yet it’s essential for our spiritual and emotional growth.
To embrace silence has to do with learning to turn off the noise of machines and the noise in our minds. Jonah Malin, writing about “Embracing Silence in an Increasingly Noisy World,” says:
To embrace silence, we have to be comfortable in our own skin and understand that finding peace and quiet may require some effort. Modern connectivity makes this very difficult–but it is a necessary step in our personal development.
As technology advances us into the future, stimulation will become an ever-growing part of daily life. Just remember that busyness and noise lead to distraction, not growth. . . . Silence is an art and takes careful practice and dedication.“Embracing Silence in an Increasingly Noisy World,” Jonah Malin, https://medium.com/swlh/embracing-silence-in-an-increasingly-noisy-world-188633b55af8
To find stillness requires making the time and giving effort. It means adopting practices that help to quiet down the mind and body so that we can attend to the cry of the spirit. Only when we enter the quiet zone can we discover what matters most to us. There we can discover our deepest longings. This is how we learn to know what is true. The soul truths that help us know who we are and why we are here.
This is how we get in touch with our own internal navigation system that lets us know who to trust, when to say yes and when to say no. That navigation system is what allows us to discern what’s right for us, to know when we need to slow down or let go and when we need to persevere. When we are able to stop, pause, and pay attention, we can discover when to be patient, when to be firm, and when to soften. (ref. to Levoy, Callings)
Rather than attending to whatever pops up, whatever someone else pushes our way, or whatever society insists we use ourselves up on, the practice of hushing returns us to ourselves. Our true selves, our true values. And through that the process, it is possible to regain a sense of direction and purpose and vision. We learn to listen to what nurtures and heals us. We learn to give our attention to natural sounds of living—crickets, raindrops, gentle breezes, birdsong, babies cooing, a beating heart.
What hankers for your attention? I hope we will each cultivate within ourselves quiet zones so that we can answer that question for ourselves and our world. I hope we will each learn to take a few moments each day to stop, to pause, to breathe. I hope we will each take time every year to find a more extended respite in which to stop, pause, and breathe. And I hope we will each encourage and support quiet zones for each other.
What hankers for your attention? Hush. Let us endeavor to find out. Let us pause and catch our breath.
Amen. Blessed be.