The Sounds of SilenceListening for What Matters

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Sounds of Silence

Listening for What Matters

About ten years ago, my son was spending a semester studying in Costa Rica and my husband and I decided to join him for a week. After meeting up in San Jose, we boarded a prop plane right out of "Indiana Jones" and bounced our way south along the coast to Puerto Viejo and the Corcovado rainforest, where we stayed at a place called Crocodile Bay. (Yes, there were crocodiles there...big ones!) The electricity was unreliable and always seemed to go out when I was in the shower, and I discovered there is nothing darker than a rainforest at night. One evening, as I walked by flashlight to the main building (where a generator provided light), I stopped to listen. On impulse, I switched off my flashlight and stood there in utter darkness, and was overwhelmed by what I heard. I couldn't identify most of the noises that surrounded me, but I suddenly was aware of myself as just another animal moving through the forest at night and I felt connected to the world around me in a deep and poignant way. 

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says that silence is not an absence, but a presence. It is in silence that we encounter our own thoughts, reflect on life, and explore our own hearts. Research tells us that where there is too much noise, people are less willing to help one another and behave in antisocial ways. Parents often tell me that their children "won't listen" (which usually means their children refuse to do as they're told), but I find myself wondering how well any of us really listen these days.

Think about it: how much quiet space is there in your home? Most of us wake up to an alarm clock; we turn on the morning news and the bustle of life begins around us. We are inundated by electronic buzzings and beepings, which we seem unable to ignore. We hear the noise of traffic and passing planes. Doctor's offices and restaurants all feature television sets. It's as though we are allergic to quiet, and unable to hear the sounds that are part of the world of nature. But where in this buzzing and roaring are we able to listen to what matters? 

Try a short experiment. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Let your body relax into your seat. Now, what do you hear? You may think you hear nothing at all, but give it some time. After a few minutes, you may notice the sound of your own breath or your heart thumping quietly. You may hear birdsong from outside, or your office mate's keyboard clacking away. You may hear a ticking clock, a passing car, a barking dog, or the voices of children. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and let yourself listen. What do you notice happening to your body? 

I have been lucky in my life. I've sat on deserted beaches and listened to the rush of water over pebbles and sand. I've floated in a kayak off the coast of Alaska and realized I could hear nothing but the wind and the gentle slap of the ocean against the hull of my boat. I've stood on the south rim of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, so far out in the Chihuahuan Desert that there are no contrails overhead, and listened to small desert creatures scrabbling through the rocks. I remember these moments because I felt a deep sense of connection to myself and to the world around me. My life is richer--and I am healthier--because of moments like these.

Our children need to learn the value of quiet; they need to listen to the natural world and to their own inner experience. But how many of them get the opportunity? Consider creating quiet spaces in your life together. Take your little ones outside; close your eyes and play a "what do you hear" guessing game. Even better, stand together outside at night and listen. Turn off the machines and electronics; have a conversation in the silence and see what you hear that you might otherwise miss. If you can, get away from the city and out into the world where you can hear water flowing, leaves rustling, and wind whispering. 

The quiet spaces are disappearing from the world; even in our parks, the noise of human activity intrudes. But it is still possible to listen to beauty and silence, to be thoughtfully aware--and to teach your children to do the same. How well might they listen if you could listen to the quiet together?

| Posted by cheryl | Monday, February 18, 2013|


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