In a world of constant activity with a steady onslaught of attention-grabbing distractions, the idea of a silent mind can seem like a distant and unlikely possibility. However, the need for silence is profound and can be crucial across life circumstances.
As children we were often told by my mum ‘Shh, silence is golden”, I’d never heard the second part until today. Growing up I never quiet understood the phrase “silence is golden” until I had my own children. While they weren't particularly noisy per se, it felt very noisy to me. And how I would yearn for silence when they were young. And now as an adult juggling multiple projects at work and at home, I have found myself regularly seeking out silence in the form of a 10-day silent retreat to help me rejuvenate and get back to myself. It quickly became one of my annual self-care activities.
I attended my first retreat in 2015. This was not by choice, rather it was a pre-requisite for a mindfulness teacher training course I wanted to enroll in. At that time, I thought the concept of a silent retreat was a little odd. And I was a bit nervous about doing it however my desire to attend the teacher training for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was stronger, so I signed up and went. Looking back, it was a fantastic experience for me, and I have been attending silent retreats annually since then. This week I am attending my first silent retreat in 3 years thanks to COVID-19.
A meditation retreat is an experiential activity that can last for any length of time. Some last for half-day, while others can last up to a month, or even a year. The one I am on is for 10 days. Meditation retreats are designed to support you to explore and deepen your meditation practice and they can also introduce you to other ways of meditating.
Essentially a meditation retreat, no matter the duration, provides a space for retreat participants to be still and quiet their monkey mind through deliberate focusing of attention and concentration, without the distractions of modern life. With the focusing of attention, you become aware of your mental chatter and over time it subsides to allow clarity of mind to arise.
Often we hear mindfulness and meditation used interchangeably however they are quite different. Mindfulness can be considered a type of meditation however meditation is not a type of mindfulness. Rather mindfulness is part of the meditation experience. So, you can be mindful without meditating but you cannot meditate without being mindful. All forms of meditation require mindfulness.
The goal of meditation is to connect the mind and the body, to bring mental and physical peace. Meditation requires more than just pausing in your day, like mindfulness, because meditation also requires attention and concentration. What you choose to concentrate on in meditation can vary. This week my retreat is focused on ‘Cultivating serenity, insight and the four heart qualities’.
While attending a silent meditation retreat may sound like a stretch for you, here are seven reasons why silence is good for you.
Research shows that silence operates in partnership with speech to support communication where words are inadequate.
Let’s look at seven main benefits to silence, knowing full well that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Silence builds a bigger brain
Studies show that silence is neurogenerative which means it encourages new brain cells to develop in our hippocampus, which is encouraging, as this is a region associated with learning, memory, and emotion.
It is thought this happens because silence is quite uncommon and when you experience it, the brain tunes in, preparing itself for what might follow.
2. Silence reduces blood pressure
When studies looked at the impact of music on the heart, they found that the silences in the pieces of music induced a variety of health benefits including reducing blood pressure. The silences alternated with the music which generated a spontaneous relaxation (silence) and arousal (music) response. This controlled alteration between arousal and relaxation is also thought to be at the root of the pleasure derived from listening to music.
So, why not alternate between listening to some great music and sitting quietly? The result could be a healthier heart and a happier more peaceful you.
3. Silence promotes reflection
When you practice silence, your self-awareness increases as the removal of auditory input heightens your other senses. As you become more practiced with silence, your perspective changes and you’re able to look at yourself and the world around you with that new perspective.
This creation of space for serious thought and consideration is a valuable tool for navigating your increasingly complicated world. It also serves to slow you down, an invaluable thing for you to do if you want to reduce the size and weight of your footprint on the earth.
4. Silence helps with information processing
Your brain is constantly pruning, i.e., deciding what the keep and what to discard. As your life speeds up it has less reflection time or silence, meaning it has less opportunity to prune effectively. And so, it’s pruning isn’t as effective.
Your brain needs time to think, reflect, and rest and it needs time to file away the information it has already learned and make room for the new information.
If you create opportunities for silence across your day, you’re giving your brain the time to properly process any new information coming in.
5. Silence teaches us to listen
If you’re talking, you’re not listening. Getting in the habit of speaking less and contemplating more will increase your ability to hear others. Taking time out to listen in silence will open a wide world of sounds. Your quietude creates opportunities for the emergence of other life, a process that could lead you to experience awe.
In addition, listening is an invaluable tool for healthy relationships. According to Psychology Today, deep listening for understanding leads to growth and change, greater adaptability, less judgment, and is generally pivotal in healthy in relationships.
6. Silence reduces stress
At the heart of mindfulness practices is the act of quieting the mind, or at least of bringing it back to the present moment. These practices, from meditation to qigong, harness silence to great benefit for the person practicing.
Meditation is a simple, fast and effective way to reduce stress. It is so beneficial that dismissing it could be detrimental to your own effectiveness. Meditation enables you to gain new perspective, increase patience and tolerance, and further develop your creativity and imagination. The list of physical benefits is also extensive assisting with anything from headaches to heart disease. For these benefits to be realised you need silence.
7. Silence raises your intelligence
Research shows that people who say less in meetings are perceived to be more intelligent. So, by saying less you get to be thought of as smarter, and you get to encourage neuro-generation i.e., new brain cells developing in your hippocampus!
Intelligence is understood to be the ability to solve problems quickly and ingeniously, the ability to reason at the abstract level and to apply logical reasoning. Intelligence recognises and understands emotional states, creativity and even the ability to withstand pressure without collapsing. It also involves deep metacognition, i.e., understanding how our mind works. Recognising this, a few of the above characteristics of intelligence cannot occur without the ability to be silent.
So there you have it, seven benefits of silence which I believe are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of benefits. While it might sound extreme attending a silent retreat, I encourage you to think about how you can get more silence in your days and weeks. Finding moments of silence can give you significant psychological and mental health benefits to not to mention a greater sense of peace.
If you struggle to quieten your monkey mind or struggle with silence, then get in touch for a confidential call with me and we can explore together how you can start to calm your monkey mind.
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