The Gift and Benefit of Silence

I’ve just returned from a week of silence. I attended a weeklong meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which is nestled in the vast rolling hills of Marin County about an hour north of San Francisco. I’ve been to many silent meditation retreats here and at other retreat centers around the country, and I’ve come to crave these times, and look forward to having more and longer periods of this silence.

If you know me, you know I’m truly, deeply, undeniably an extrovert. I love meeting new people and welcome the possibility of making new friends and connections anywhere. After I teach an evening class I am ready to be up for hours because I’m thoroughly charged up. I often do some of my best work when I’m tossing ideas around with others; when I’m working on a new class curriculum or article idea I reach out to friends and colleagues to talk it through to be sure I’m actually getting it right. Of course I can do this on my own, but I know my work will be better if I can work it through with another person who is prodding and asking questions that I can answer out loud. Often this is actually how I really know what I know. Perhaps this sounds familiar to those extroverts reading this. And this may sound completely peculiar to the introverts who can mull and process and work happily in solitude.

But here’s the thing: I truly love silence. Friends have been shocked when I tell them I can’t wait to go somewhere for a week and not talk with others. I explain it’s calming and delightful to meditate, to be surrounded by nature, to really feel my breath and nurture my body, and witness my mind and nervous system slowing down, settling, clearing and getting quiet. Just as when we close our eyes our hearing becomes more acute, when I stop talking everything I hear and see becomes more vibrant. When I go for walks on that land I’ve been surprised to hear the wind flowing through the wings of the birds that fly above me, and the scratching and buzzing of the busy-ness of creatures and insects in trees and bushes. I was able to watch the sun move from one side of the sky to the other, and notice the changing formations of clouds and the vapor streaks of planes crisscrossing the sky.

I have been on retreats where I am completely alone; those were times of true solitude. The retreat center retreats are a lovely blend of togetherness and silence; there can be up to 100 people participating in a silent retreat. This is the perfect balance for me, because I’m alone and simply with myself, but I’m surrounded by others who aren’t asking anything of me, nor am I offering anything. We are each on our own mindfulness journey. We eat (the most marvelous, organic, locally sourced vegetarian food!) silently, together. We walk past one another without needing to smile or nod or acknowledge the other. This silent togetherness encourages the sense that we are all on our own journey, but also the sense that our similarities are profound. Certainly the practice of becoming familiar with our minds, through this mindfulness practice, shows that kindness to ourselves and others is the only way to go when you consider having a satisfying life with oneself and alongside others in the collective of life on this planet.

While I simply know that I feel so rejuvenated during and after these retreats, research also confirms that this is simply good wellness practice. I’ve read studies that show that as little as 2 minutes of silence has been found to relieve stress, lowering cortisol – the stress hormone. Being in silence, other studies conclude, is more relaxing than listening to ‘relaxing’ music due to increased blood flow in the brain and body.  Moreover, experiencing two or more hours of silence can positively impact our brains – specifically the hippocampus, the region associated with learning and memory, increasing cell growth. Combine a prolonged period of silence with the health benefits of being surrounded by nature, and you’ve got a life generating, positive health experience for mind and body.

I returned back to busy Los Angeles after my retreat and I can still feel the reverberations of all that silence. Focus comes more easily, and my appreciation for so many little (and big) things in my life are heightened. The experience of silence and those hills and the deepest blue black starry skies… all this lives quietly inside of extroverted me.

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