Over the weekend, I went on a retreat with my youth group. We spent it in Potts Mansion, a beautiful, old house in the rural hills of Elverson, PA. For most, it was just as much a social experience as it was a spiritual one; not for me. I and several others adopted the “silent tract,” in which we spent the retreat alone and in total silence.
The goal was to shut out as much distraction as possible, to forget everything not in the present moment, as a means of fostering peace. And while it was difficult, it undoubtedly helped me realize how helpful and necessary silence is for the soul.
We live in a very noisy world. Modern technology has made it so easy to communicate so much information in so many different formats, that almost every minute of every day we’re being bombarded with it from all sides, whether we like it or not.
A lot of it, we like such as streaming services, social media, music, YouTube, etc. A lot of it is necessary like email or shared cloud drives. Most of it goes unnoticed, like ads, but they’re still there and have just as much of an effect on us.
My point is that modern life, for better or worse, is largely built upon constantly dividing our attention between innumerable sources of information. Even when we think we’re resting, we remain distracted by our thoughts of everything we’ve seen and everything we need to plan for in the immediate future.
This constant processing of information causes a slow-burn form of sensory overload. It causes anxiety and paranoia because even though everything may seem alight at the moment, we are fundamentally off-balance. And since the solution isn’t obvious (often times it seems as though there is no solution), we resort to drugs or other outlets to “fix” something that isn’t actually broken.
The only way to heal this extreme overloading of the senses is, naturally, to do the opposite. By finding the time to be truly silent. Free, not just from the auditory stimulus, but from any distracting thoughts or actions, we give our minds and spirits room to stretch and breathe.
When every second of every day is consumed by analysis of things outside ourselves, we lose touch with who we actually are and what we actually value. But in silence, where there is no distraction, those things slowly come back into focus, since they are intrinsic to us.
These things I describe are more than just our interests; they’re our heartfelt beliefs and desires, our driving principles without which we lose meaning and purpose in life. For me and millions of others, this is a deeply spiritual experience, with potent religious significance, which I try to engage in as frequently as possible.
Of course, this kind of meditation can be uncomfortable, even frightening; some of us would rather not face who we are, because we’re afraid or ashamed of it, or because it requires a great deal of humility to admit that we’re incomplete.
Meditation of this quality is what I consider to be “the training of the spirit.” We are beings of body and mind, yes, but also of the spirit, which you may call heart or soul as you see fit.
Both the mind and the body, simply because they are so much more present in daily life, often take the reins for months or even years at a time, which brings about these disastrous personal consequences. Depriving the spirit of silence is just as damaging as depriving the body of oxygen—it just takes longer to notice.
Regardless of what you believe, I urge you to give it a try. When you get a minute, even a single moment, alone to yourself, be silent. No phone, no music, no talking. Close yourself off to the rest of the universe, and don’t think. Simply breathe, and let time move around you.
You might experience a variety of feelings—impatience, longing, sadness, rage. Anything you feel will point you in the right direction in your life. And once you start moving in that direction, those feelings will begin to change. The idea is to meditate and not feel unrest, but peace— the true and lasting inner peace that only comes from a sound mind and a sound body in line with a sound spirit.
In this way, you see, silence can speak volumes.
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