Why Silence Is So Important in Meditation
To find out why silence is so important in meditation and what we can learn from it, I sat down with Morgan Dix, who runs the website AboutMeditation.com and creates course and content to help new and aspiring meditators. As background, Dix lived in a meditation and yoga ashram for 15 years and formally trained in meditation during that time. He was also an assistant director of education and developed different courses, online and in person, in meditation and spirituality.
Q: Why do we need silence?
Morgan Dix: Well, I think there are different reasons, and I’d like to begin with this quote:
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” — Aldous Huxley
- Stress: On one level, if you think about how stimulated we are all the time, it’s healthy to have silence to just calm our nervous system. All the noise in modern life triggers our sympathetic nervous system. That’s the part of us where we experience fight or flight. If you think of most of human history, we were never in this condition of constant stimulation. And often, there’s tremendous noise pollution in our environment. So, silence is the opposite. It can help you relax. If you even spend time hiking, in the woods, in the mountains, that kind of quiet can be very settling.
- Inner Quiet Is Rejuvenating: Then there’s the silence of just being quiet. Being with yourself. And silence can help us be with ourselves. Sometimes, if you put your attention on silence, you can grow very quiet inside. And that’s a pleasant experience. You can find that when you are in the presence of silence, your mind settles down.
- Solitude: But it’s important to be OK with being with yourself, and silence can help with that. It’s not always easy, especially to begin with, but I’ve found silence helps keep me from running away from myself. Often you have to deal with the noise in your mind.
- Creativity: For me, silence can be a source of great creativity. When I let everything go and focus on silence, often, after a certain amount of time, new ideas emerge and bubble up.
- Health Benefits: Silence lowers blood pressure, boosts your immune system, boosts your brain chemistry, reduces stress (lowers blood cortisol levels and adrenaline levels), allows for good hormone regulation and interaction of all the hormone-related systems in your body, and keeps plaque from forming in arteries.
- Deliberate Silence/Not Talking: In many Eastern traditions, “mauna,” or observing silence, is an integral practice. Not speaking and turning inward is thought to bring peace, clarity and spiritual purity.
- Presence: Here’s another quote I like: “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.” — Mother Teresa. Silence can bring us into the present moment like little else can. It focuses your attention on the here and now. You start to notice that the present moment is a living, dynamic thing. You notice that the silence isn’t an empty void … there’s much more to it. And on a spiritual level, it’s important for us to experience and practice that presence. We learn how to really listen.
Q: Why is silence so important in meditation?
A: In meditation, you need outer silence so that everything in you can settle down. It’s like a riverbed that gets all murky with fast-running water. But in the deeper areas of the stream, where there is less current, the water isn’t moving much — it's clear and transparent. It’s like that. All the noise stirs up our mind and fills it with activity. Silence lets your mind settle to become very still and clear and transparent.
Over time, that outer silence becomes inner silence. And when that happens, several things change. You discover a part of yourself that is perfectly still and exquisitely silent. But also, you see your mind from a different vantage point. You start to recognize that your mind may be moving, but you are not. You’re watching it from that place of stillness and silence. That’s important because then you realize that you are not your mind.
Q: What does a lack of silence do to us physically, mentally and emotionally?
A: I think a lot of things. There’s distraction and lack of focus. A lack of silence stimulates all the negative effects of stress on your body and mind. It’s emotionally taxing and depleting. Constant noise isn’t healthy for us. Also, for most of human history, we’ve been accustomed to a lot more silence. I think this quote says a lot:
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun — how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.” — Mother Teresa
Q: How can one achieve silence when so many jumbled thoughts are going on at once?
A: I think it’s a slow process. You need to be interested in silence, to pay attention and listen for silence. In meditation, it doesn’t always come quickly. It takes practice. Often your mind can be very active and wild, like a bull or a hurricane. Sometimes the only thing to do is sit with that and let it play itself out. Where most people struggle in meditation is trying to control or change or stop the jumbled thoughts. Meditation is more about paying attention to that and not trying to change it. That’s like trying to stop a river or put your hands on a hurricane. It’s more subtle than that. If you are very still and you can sit with it and let it be, it always passes. Then you’ll find that silence there.
Q: How can the silence in meditation help those who are in recovery from substance abuse? Many of these people have recurring guilt and shame and intrusive thoughts.
A: First, I would recommend working with a trained guide. But yes, I think meditation has shown to be an effective healing method for mental health and folks who are in recovery from substance abuse. While I don’t have that experience myself nor have I worked directly with someone in that context, here are some thoughts.
- Often with addiction, we are in pain and running from ourselves. Meditation or prayer can provide a point of focus. So for example, the breath. Some meditations just have you count your breath over and over again. That can be incredibly empowering and healing. It can give you a sense of self-control. It’s also a safe way to be with yourself.
- Second, I think meditation can provide a context for accepting oneself, forgiving oneself, and making friends with the negative patterns of belief, ideas, fears, feelings of unworthiness, guilt, shame, that often drive us to deal with our pain through addiction.
- So with that, mindfulness meditation helps you start to observe the triggers of addiction. As you start to practice, you can observe and note the feelings and thoughts that precipitate that addictive behavior. That gives you a chance to eventually investigate those feelings and understand what you’re running from and come to peace with it.
- It can help you in ways that are similar to the role that prayer plays in AA. It can help develop your faith that you can change.
Q: Are there tips to help you achieve silence in meditation?
A: I think one of the main things is start simple and be consistent. And when you start, you need to be patient and know that it’s natural for your mind to wander. It’s going to feel like you are a bad meditator. And that’s normal. Just stick with your practice, and, over time, incredible things can happen.
Q: How do you know when you’ve got it right?
A: That’s a tricky question to answer because meditation isn’t a particular experience. A teacher once said meditation isn’t what’s happening; it’s your relationship to what’s happening. So it’s subtle. But, if you find that you’re less reactive in your life, if you’re a little more calm, if you start to notice your mind reacting strongly to things but you recognize that you don’t have to react, those are really good signs. Especially in situations where you used to get triggered and you notice that you’re not anymore, that’s progress. That’s the power of paying attention to your mind.
I like this quote from Jack Kornfield. He said:
“In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go.”
Q: What happens when your silence is interrupted? Should you give up and try later or attempt to continue?
A: Keep going. When something happens, the point in meditation is not to stop. It’s actually the heart of meditation training to become adept at being relaxed and easy when your mind starts to wander or when someone interrupts you or a noise screeches into your space. Meditation, and the cultivation of silence, is all about repeatedly establishing an anchor for your attention, like your breath, and then coming back to it again and again knowing that you’re going to get distracted. It’s like doing reps at the gym but for your attention.
Q: What lessons can we learn from silence?
A: That there is much more to us than what we think. Silence also teaches us how to pay better attention to the world around us, our relationships, who we are and how we are in the world. In addition, silence can open you up at the level not just of your mind, but at the level of your being, your [true] self, and make you a little bit more permeable to life. Finally, silence can help you connect with life more directly, more intimately, and more richly, allowing you to become sensitive to the flow of the life force in yourself, in others, in your environment. Again, it all comes back to your attention.
By Suzanne Kane