“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
We live in a world where individuals are constantly surrounded by some kind of noise. Whether it comes from traffic, advertisements, music, podcasts, TV, movies, or conversations; the external world is saturated. Something is always begging for our attention which could create experiences of sensory overload and anxiety among individuals. People sleep less today compared to just a decade ago and nervous systems remain in active states.
Specifically, the sympathetic nervous system remains on, and in the ready-to-react state for learning, social interaction, alertness, and fight or flight. If an individual remains in this state without the ability to rest, then anxiety, anger, restlessness, panic, and hyperactivity can result. Due to these feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and so on, we find ourselves in a loop. We continue to use noisy distractions to mask the depleting emotions. In turn, we constantly stay engaged and active, leading to feelings of anxiety and the like, then masking them with distractions. The loop continues.
As individuals have come to use noise as a distraction from their internal world, much of society is unsure of how to sit in stillness and silence. The emotions feel heavy, out of control. The mind can feel like a tornado of thoughts, also out of control. When we use distractions, we feel in control and safe. Although we may feel safe, these constant distractions are causing harm by keeping the body in the physical state of hyperarousal. Without the aid of external distractions, we may feel naked, vulnerable, restless, and uncomfortable sitting in silence. Out of our comfort zone.
As we come to practice sitting in stillness and silence, the body taps into the complementary parasympathetic nervous system. This contrasting nervous system is the state of rest and reset. Research suggests sitting in silence physically changes our bodies. Our blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, blood circulation to the brain improves, and cortisol adrenaline levels reduce. In a 2013 study on mice, researchers found silence for two hours a day increased brain cells where learning and memory functions are primarily located, in the hippocampus.
Although the first few times sitting in silence can feel uncomfortable, it’s the first step in emotional healing. The silence allows for internal reflection and mindfulness. It allows the emotions and thoughts that have been suppressed to rise to the surface and be acknowledged. That can sound scary. Just know, it’s ok. Psychology shows that when we acknowledge fear or uncomfortable emotions, they tend to subside and become less. When we practice sitting in silence as the observer of our internal world, we can bring understanding and compassion to ourselves.
Naturally, the human body is equipped with yin and yang in the form of a parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. These systems have opposite functions and support each other through their differences. Staying in one state vs the other can result in harmful effects to the physical, emotional, and mental body. The key to a healthy life is playing in and with the balance of activity and rest. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Through reflection and compassion, we find our own unique symphony of sound and silence.
By Shannon Potter, February 2023