Monday, January 25, 2010

Finding Silence

Silence is a rare commodity in this city. We are constantly bombarded by sound, and on top of that, are too busy to even witness the sounds bombarding us. The result is a sort of sensory habituation that is necessary in order for us to process all our busy thoughts, sort through all our Blackberry and Iphone text messages and emails, and get from one place to another without getting a headache. But, let's face it, this city is noisy. I live on a busy street in Brooklyn, and had to get used to the fact that a bus stops outside my window every seven or so minutes, and every hour or so in the early morning. There is a hushed sound of tires on the gravel, a screech of gears as it comes to a halt, a loud beeping noise as the doors swing open, and the engine churning away as passengers get on, a series of short beeping noises and a creaking sound as the doors close, finishing with a crescendo of sound as the bus accelerates and dissolves into the constant hush and swoosh of traffic.

While it's necessary to habituate these noises to some degree, it does involve a lot of psychological energy and the whole process can be physically exhausting over time. We might not even notice it, until we get caught in a rush of thoughts and lose track of what someone is saying to us, or one thought is dampened under a louder one and we forget to do something important.

So, my point is, silence is healthy. The good news is, this city does have a lot of quiet nooks and patches. Here are a few I'd recommend:

*The inner workings of Prospect Park: as soon as you get off the main road that circles around the park, you get into a network of small pathways weaving through the trees. Unlike Central Park, it is easy to find a place to sit under a tree without being trampled by a troop of toddlers or frisbee enthusiasts. During the winter, I've found a few really beautiful quiet spots along the lake, where a couple of swans have joined the other birds, all peacefully perched on the ice together.

*Museums: there are a thousand of them in the city, it seems. But have you ever tried going to one specifically to appreciate the quietness? Pay close attention to how everyone is deeply respectful of the quiet atmosphere, speaking in very soft tones, generally keeping a comfortable distance from one another. Sit in front of a beloved statue, painting, or photograph and just appreciate the silence for a while. I like to sit in front of paintings by impressionists like Monet in the Met, and just bask in the colors. It is a sort of sensory rejuvenation; it makes me more receptive and appreciative to the sights and sounds of the urban landscape when I return to it.

*The Day of Silence Retreat: the day of silence meditation retreats in Manhattan are dana based, meaning completely by donation. As I recently attended a silent retreat, I can vouch for the power of sitting in stillness and peace with others for an extended period of time. It allows us to quiet the mental torrent of thoughts and become more accepting of the world exactly as it is. At the insight center, you occasionally hear cars or other urban sounds around you, and you bring all of this into your awareness. So seeking silence has nothing to do with escaping the city, and everything to do with being in it.

And when you are being in this city, you are, quite simply, alive, and I don't know about you, but since life is relatively fleeting, I would like to be alive for as much of it as I can. So find a quiet space to concentrate your state of being. There's an urban symphony playing, every moment, all around us. Can you hear it?

The Day of Silence upcoming retreats:
Saturday, January 30
Saturday, February 13
New York City Insight Meditation Center, 28 W 27th Street, 10th Floor