The cultivation of mindfulness requires periods of focused attention. Many proponents of mindfulness maintain that this is best developed through seated, silent meditation. So, while I’d like to investigate how to focus the attention, we must first consider our relationship with silence.
Whether in the center of a city or deep in a forest, the cacophony of sounds around us makes it apparent that true silence is impossible. Composer John Cage wrote music that included long periods of silence. When the musicians stopped playing, concertgoers were quickly confronted with the shuffling, shifting, and coughing sounds in the concert hall. So what is silence? I like to think of it as the absence of intentional sound. Intentional sounds are the things we turn on such as TVs and iPods, the words spoken or heard in a conversation we are engaged in, music we make such as humming or tapping, and the noise of tools, keyboards, or other objects we are interacting with. Sounds that remain are unavoidable. So silence is when we are purposefully quiet. For many of us, this can be unsettling.
A study of 580 undergraduate students undertaken over six years, reported by Bruce Fell on The Conversation website, shows that the constant accessibility and exposure to background media has created a mass of people who fear silence. This study, along with research by Drs. Michael Bittman of the University of New England and Mark Sipthorp of the Australian Institute of Family Studies argues that “their need for noise and their struggle with silence is a learnt behavior.” This cannot be blamed on the relatively recent rise of social media and 24 hour availability. For so many of these students’ lives the TV was always on, even when no one was watching, and that was often the case for their parents while growing up as well. If the background noise of media has always been with us, it’s no wonder we can become so uncomfortable when it’s taken away.
Lest I try to pass myself off as a contemplative or a meditation master, I confess that I have my own difficulty with silence. My wife and I, city dwellers, were staying in a house far from the city. It was rustic, with no TV, radio, or internet. When we went to bed it was so dark and quiet it was unsettling. We couldn’t sleep! If I miss a few days meditating in a row, as I did in the busyness of the recent holidays, I find it very challenging to break away and begin my practice again. And when I am in a difficult episode, riddled with self-doubt, nervousness or anxiety, the last thing I want to do is turn off all of the media that distracts me from my insecurity. But I soon realize that distractions can exacerbate the difficulty. I get back to fixed periods of silence, return to the discipline of my practice, and heal.
If the fear of silence is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. This can be undertaken through mindfulness meditation and focused attention. To develop focused attention, you may want to begin by confronting the experience of silence. Turn everything off, go to as quiet a place as you can find, and sit for a few minutes. Take in the environment. Just experience the present moment and allow what is around you to exert itself. If you find yourself agitated or ill-at-ease, start with very short periods of quiet. Turn off the TV when washing the dishes. Drive without the radio on. Walk the dog without the iPod or phone. You will reap benefits. And slowly, as silence is embraced, you will find comfort there.