Ironically, in an age when you can watch a movie, download music, talk to friends in Japan or order groceries with just a few mouse clicks, the one commodity you can’t dial up is quiet, and the inner stillness that lies beneath it. And yet it’s more important for our mental, physical and spiritual health than almost anything.
Doctors, preachers and teachers of most spiritual traditions agree that regular retreats from both outer and inner noise is essential for human health and happiness. Why? It all comes to the s word: stress, believed to be a factor in every modern disease and malady.
Stress comes not just from too much work and not enough control, but also from the constant onslaught of daily stimulation: emails, phones and all manner of entertainment and distraction. The best antidote is the cheapest—and the hardest to come by. Yet the benefits of just sitting and breathing and ignoring your thoughts and worries for even a few minutes a day can boost your immune system and cause enough attitude adjustment to jumpstart a whole lifestyle change.
Quiet isn’t just the absence of sound. The stillness one finds in green parks or along quaint country roads streets is enough to calm the mind and lift the spirit. Says Michael Hunter, M.D., of the University of Sheffield´s Department of Neuroscience, “Tranquility is a state of calmness and reflection, which is restorative compared with the stressful effects of sustained attention in day-to-day life.”
Studies done at the Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia-based science research center, on stress and the adrenal glands show that even low-level chronic noise increases aggression and decreases cooperation and is associated with increased risk for such serious physiological problems as peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and even suicide.
Quiet, on the other hand, is a gateway to tranquility, healing and restoration, offers real physical benefits. It induces a mind-body connection that’s been demonstrated to relax muscles, lower anxiety and pain, and enhance one’s overall sense of control and well being. And all spiritual disciplines embrace it as the pathway to the divine, whether through silent meditation, prayer, chants or visual imagery.
How to Get Quiet, Inside and Out
All the external noise pollution of cars, buses, planes, sirens and construction, combined with the over-scheduling and TMI of our information age, is the main culprit. But we can learn to tune out—and in—and overwrite our self-destructive old habits with health-supportive new ones.
But it takes a strong intention and a lot of effort. Distraction-inducing behaviors, like constantly checking email, stimulates the brain to shoot dopamine into the blood stream, giving a rush that can make stopping harder. And there’s the psychological aspect: the uncertainty—fear, even—of the consequences of stopping the noise, inside and out. So we come up with all kind of believable excuses: My schedule is too packed, I might lose my edge, I thrive in chaos, I get bored when I don’t have anything to do, quiet makes me lonely.
Fortunately, there are ways to slow down, unplug and tune in. It can be as simple as taking 10 minutes first thing in the morning to engage silently in an activity like journaling, stretching, going for a walk or just sitting in silence and looking outside with a soft gaze. The opposite of that is revving up your system by turning on the TV, reading the paper or drinking coffee. In a manner of speaking, how you start your day can set you up for either war or peace. The choice is yours.
The following seven techniques to still the mind, culled from a host of disciplines, researchers and meditation teachers, will help nurture the body, mind and spirit— even if you only practice them for a few minutes a day. And your body will remember the experience, so the more you practice attaining quiet, the greater the benefits.
7 Ways to Still the Mind
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Done lying down, sequentially tense specific muscle groups for five seconds at a time, then relax them for 10 seconds. Start from the bottom up: feet, legs, hips, pelvis, back, torso, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, face. End by tensing the entire body then releasing. Rest in the stillness as long as you like. This is an excellent transition into sleep.
- Body scanning: This variation of progressive muscle relaxation is done in a similar fashion from feet to head, but instead of tensing/relaxing, use your mind to “scan” your body for tension. When you sense any, stop and inhale and exhale into that place until it dissipates, then continue moving up the body.
- Belly breathing: Lie on the floor with your eyes closed and place your hands on your belly. Become aware of your breath and inhale and exhale slowly and deeply, letting your hands get a physical experience of your breath. Continue breathing this way until it becomes involuntary for at least five minutes, longer if desired.
- Tratak meditation: Turn off the lights, light a small candle and watch the flame. This exercise stills the optic nerve, massages the ciliary reflex and stimulates the pineal gland (“the third eye”), all of which calm the nervous system. Focus on it at least five minutes.
- Guided imagery: You can buy a spoken-word recording of meditation teachers leading you to a place of deep relaxation, or you can do this exercise on your own. After focusing a while on a lit candle, imagine the flame entering your body through your eyes and illuminating your face, throat, heart and belly. Allow your eyes to close with ease. Now try to visualize the flame as if you were seeing it with open eyes.
- Counting the breath: Sit in a quiet place, in a chair or on the floor. Place your hands in a comfortable position on your lap or thighs. Become aware of your breath: where it starts on an inhale, where the inhale ends, where the exhale begins and ends. Begin to mentally count the breaths: 1, 2… but when you notice thoughts coming in, visualize them floating away like clouds and then return to 1. Don’t worry if you don’t get very far (most people can’t get past 3); the point is staying focused.
- Silent mantras: A mantra is a word or sound capable of creating deep shifts in consciousness (the rough translation from Sanskrit is “sacred utterance”). The practice, said to be the basis of the Christian rosary and the Jewish Shema, is a contemplative Hindu practice that focuses the mind on the mysteries of a higher human concept, be it love, peace or God. You can practice this technique by closing your eyes and silently saying the word “let” as you inhale, and “go” on the exhale. If you have a spiritual practice, you can use a rosary or Buddhist mala beads to count recitations of favorite prayers.
Suzanne Clores is the author of Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider. Her work has aired on Chicago Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television and appeared in Martha Stewart Living, Fit Yoga and Gaiam.com.