Sunday, August 26, 2012

Finding Peace in the Quiet

I first became aware of how much I valued quiet within days of the birth of my twin daughters who arrived 15 months after the birth of my son.  It wasn't actually their synchronized, soul penetrating cries of hunger that made me first crave total silence, but rather the awareness of the calm that befell me the first time all three fell blissfully asleep for the same ten minutes.

It doesn't really matter if its the yowls of babies, the chatter of co-workers or the incessant blare of radios, stereos and televisions.  Overwhelming assaults on our auditory senses can take its toll on our nerves and on our health.  As obvious as this may seem, I am convinced that we don't really appreciate the value of silence until we can't find it.

As a teenager I enjoyed but didn't really appreciate the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle's "Sounds of Silence."  The melody was beautiful but I didn't really ponder if their was any deep meaning to be inferred from the rhythmic lines.  I'm still not sure there was any deep meaning intended by a 21 year old Paul Simon, but as I grew older and found myself craving moments of solitude, I imparted my own  meaning and used the song title as a reminder of what I needed in times of sensory overload.  It became a sort of mantra I called upon to guide me to a physical or internal state of quiet.

There have been many scientific studies that have confirmed that excessive noise and commotion can trigger our sympathetic nervous system releasing the stress hormones and chemicals that are responsible for leaving us in a state of stress and anxiety.  If the perceived threat or noise remains constant, the symptoms of stress can continue to plague us.  If you wish to research some of these studies on your own, her is a link to an article in The Washington Post which provides a good starting place. For purposes of this article, I am more focused on helping you find ways to control and eliminate unwanted noise and recognize the benefits of peace found "In The Sounds Of Silence."

Clearly, there is a great deal of unwelcome and excessive noise  in our daily environment that is beyond our control.  We can't stop the traffic at will, or cease the cries and whines of young children on demand, or silence every loud cell phone screamer in our immediate vicinity.  These are the times when trying to find inner peace is our best option.  Not easy, but not impossible.  The most effective techniques I have found to do this are deep breathing and what I call "withdrawing into inner stillness". This is a simple technique, but does take a little practice.  Start by sitting in a genuinely quiet place if only for a few minutes.  Close your eyes and take a few deep belly breaths.  Then visualize yourself sitting in the middle of a very active location. It can be a town square, a busy restaurant, a noisy outdoor cafe.  Just close your eyes and see yourself sitting quietly, smiling as you observe the noise and turmoil swirling around you but allow yourself to stay emotionally detached.  Notice your pulse and breathing. If you feel calm, just continue with the practice for a few more minutes.  If you sense any anxiety, shallow breathing or quickening pulse, continue with the practice coming back to the deep breathing and then the visualization until you find it easy to stay still in the middle of the imagined noisy chaos.

Then comes the hard part, trying to implement this practice when you are in a real situation and the loud persistent noise swirling around you starts to make you feel anxious or irritable.   If you can only manage a minute, then do a minute.  If you an steal 5 minutes all the better.  To some of you this practice may sound too simple and to others it may sound unrealistic.  But to all of you,  I would say "try it."  You may be pleasantly surprised at the calming effect this simple technique along with deep breathing can have on your nervous system.

Now, have you noticed how frequently you choose to surround yourself with noise?  You may not think of it as noise, but our most common habits result in exactly that.   Flipping on the radio or iPod in the car, and switching on the T.V. or stereo in your home are amongst the most routine and automatic noise makers we willingly activate.  You may not think of this as noise, but it really is even if you are enjoying the music, talk or T.V. show.  The constant bombardment of noise on our senses increases our level of stress whether we realize it or not. "Study after study has found that community noise is interrupting our sleep, interfering with our children's learning, suppressing our immune systems and even increasing--albeit just a little-- our chances of having a heart attack.  Studies have also shown that chronic night noise not only leaves you shrouded in a fog of fatigue, irritability and poor concentration, but also activates the stress response as you sleep.  And while the number of awakenings per night may decrease as you adjust to the din, the increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing changes persist." (Rick Weiss, Washington Post, June 5, 2007.)

I began eliminating just these two noise makers and was rewarded with not only less noise in my ears but less noise in my mind.  In the car, I left the radio off and simply drove focusing on the road and challenging myself to not allow errant or rude drivers to interrupt the sense of calm I was managing to maintain without the pulsing of bass vibrating through my body.

At home, I now find it incredibly peaceful and enjoyable to settle down with or without a glass of wine, close my eyes and breathe through the stillness. Some might view this as a form of mediation, and so it may be.  I have several different types of meditation practices and all serve me well.  What I have found in these moments was not unexpected given my current focus on yoga, meditation and healthy living choices.  What did surprise me was how long it took me to figure it out.  If turning off the radio, stereo and T.V. can reduce blood pressure, slow your breathing, improve your concentration and help you sleep better, why not give it a try?  All you have to lose is stress and irritability and what you may discover is that there is much to be gained by finding peace in the quiet.


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