Noises off: The two channels of chatter

IMG_0926“In a sense, silence is God.” –Anthony de Mello

No one can dispute the lack of silence these days. Gone are the days when your boss could only contact you between 9 and 5. Gone are the days when you had to actually be home to get a phone call. Gone are the days when TV was a family event that took place after the dinner hour. No Hulu or Netflix or on demand programming to access on a variety of devices in a variety of places. It has all crept up on us so… silently. And now here we are–if our lives were a forest and noisy distractions were weeds–we would be an overgrown mess.

But there is another form of chatter that gets in the way of silence. My husband and I once went to a 3-day silent retreat. Initially I thought it would be great to get away from it all with my book and chill out from my busy life. But this silence? This was deafening silence. It was like quitting  heroin and dealing with withdrawal. I couldn’t focus on my book, because this silence kept ringing in my ears. When I saw my husband at dinner, his face confirmed he had the same experience–but his withdrawal had been even more crippling. “Whoa–that freaked me out!” he told me. “I had to sit with my thoughts!  That was scary!” IMG_1422To go back to the forest analogy, many say that silence is like the sun to us.  Silence is not just a microsecond of space between two sounds. It’s active. It’s real. We need it in order to be a fully realized human being. If we allow the weeds of busyness, human interaction, and constant distractions to proliferate unattended, the sun can’t reach our souls.

When I went on that retreat, I thought that all that was going to happen would be the absence of external noise. But as my husband testified, after the external noise is gone, what is left is an internal noise that remained to be dealt with. Now that’s the hard part. You can shut off your computer, but it’s harder to shut off your thoughts. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this RNST: Radio Non-Stop Thinking.

When we listen to music, read a book, or pick up a newspaper, it’s usually not because we truly need that activity or information. We often do it mechanically–perhaps because we’re used to doing it or because we want to ‘kill time’ and fill up the discomfiting sense of empty space. –Thich Nhat Hanh in Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World full of Noise

So my discovery at that Benedictine retreat is that there are two kinds of noise: exterior and interior. The exterior noise is the bombardment of Facebook news feeds, text messages, advertising messages, ringtones, superficial human interactions, TV shows, CNN headlines.  Interior noise is the mental chatter that keeps our mind from setting down–the replaying of the past and the fears and hopes of the future–in other words, stuff that doesn’t even exist. The antidote to exterior noise is unplugging from the outside chatter. The antidote to interior noise is plugging in–to the present moment.

Thankfully we don’t need a three-day retreat to face silence head-on. All we need is mindfulness and awareness. As anyone who has practiced meditation can attest, growing in awareness is like practicing any discipline–you start and take few steps and expect it to be difficult until it isn’t. But on the other hand, those who are more practiced agree that you can’t “achieve” meditation results, because unlike our bucket lists and our financial goals, success in meditation is success at just being. Often silence and beingness just come in a flash. The Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, author of Seek God Everywhere, Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, relays one of his singular experiences in awareness:

The day before yesterday I went to say Mass for some people in the seminary. I rose early in the morning and went outside to wait for a group of scholastics (Jesuits in training who have not taken final vows). It was quite cold. I was looking up at the sky and this thing hit me, this silence. It lasted for about a minute, but I am still experiencing the effects of it. It is the world we know but there is no knowing. We suddenly sense it. Each of us experiences it in different ways.

What has your experience been in mindfulness? How do you cultivate it in your life? When has it caught you by surprise? Please feel free to comment.

My theme for Lent: Speaking up about silence

Yawn.. stretch…Good morning!  Has a year really gone by already?

The name of the blog is Silent Entry and that title has proven to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. I haven’t wanted to write. Words just weren’t coming! The past year has been a chrysalis of words and ideas in hibernation. Yet I haven’t wanted to disturb this foment of wordlessness or prod it prematurely. Words this past year have been unwanted, and diversionary, and writing itself felt like a tailoring a cloak for a manikin . Yes, having a blog in which a silence is a journey becomes its own enemy.

But now, Ash Wednesday seems like a good time to wake up and explore silence itself: explore the everyday tension between silence and words; silence and thought; silence and movement; silence and the physical world; silence and the interior world.

Alrighty then.. where’s that snooze button?  That’s enough stretching of my atrophied writer’s sea legs for now. But moving forward, this Lent I intend to provide support and ideas for growing the spaces between our thoughts and turning down the noise in everyday life.  I think this quote by Kierkegaard is a nice place to start:

As my prayer become more attentive and inward
I had less and less to say.
I finally became completely silent.
I started to listen
– which is even further removed from speaking.
I first thought that praying entailed speaking.
I then learnt that praying is hearing,
not merely being silent.
This is how it is.
To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking,
Prayer involves becoming silent,
And being silent,
And waiting until God is heard.

–Søren Kierkegaard, quoted by Joachim Berendt in The Third Ear, translated by Tim Nevill (Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1988).


Letting Go of the Need to Talk: Dealing with Word Pollution


Words, words, words–I’m so sick of wordschp_magpoetry2
I hear words all day through, first from him now
from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
                                  “Show Me” from My Fair Lady

Emporer Joseph II:  Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect. 
Mozart:  Which few did you have in mind, Majesty? 
                                   From the movie Amadeus

I haven’t heard of the term word pollution, but I think there’s a language smog in our culture that we seriously have to address.   

Think about it:

  • You wake up in the morning to 24-hour news shows–either Fox, or CNN, or maybe you watch international news such as the BBC.  
  • You pick up your paper at the door and read another 40 pages of words.
  • You go for your morning jog and listen to an audiobook.
  • You get in the car and turn on the radio–and hear news, or banter, or call-ins, or NPR political analysis.
  • At work, you have to keep up in your profession so you spend the first half hour scanning print and on-line trade news.
  • You go to three meetings and talk.  You listen.   You take notes.
  • You go back to your desk and read 20 emails and respond to half of them.  
  • You take 15 phone calls.
  • On the way home you stop at Barnes & Noble for a book to read on the plane for your next business trip and you’re faced with a choice of thousands of titles.
  • You eat dinner watching Bill O’Reilly, or Keith Olberman, or Greta Van Sustern or any other of the hundreds of news commentators, reporters, and pundits.
  • You work on your blog.  You contribute some of the 71,810,645 words is boasting on that day.  
  • You go to bed and pick a novel from your nightstand to wind down.
  • And then you can’t get to sleep because of the words swimming in your head.

When–WHEN–do we have time to actually do anything?

Or more importantly, when do we make time to just be?

I have reached my saturation point with words.  I feel like the fountain I have in my office, overflowing with the sound of words, the look of words on the page, the words turning around in my mind, the choices of which words to read and which to ignore and which to recycle and which to file and which to delete and which to respond to and which will make me a better person and which will make me smarter and which will make me mad.

I have been trying to think about how to address word pollution in my life, and how to pull myself off, like a suction cup, from the reliance on the constant presence of words.    I think I’ve hit bottom.  

So here’s the first step:  We admitted that we were powerless to live our lives wordlessly.  

The test:  Give up words for just one hour.  Give up thinking in words, reading words, listening to words, writing words.  Just try it.  I did.  It’s not easy.  It leaves a void.

So, in that void, be still.


Breathe again.  Deeply.

Meditate.  Wordlessly.