04/22/2015 05:54 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2015

Silence Is Golden

The world is a noisy place. Most of us experience a constant level of background buzz in our everyday lives: alarm clocks, cell phones, and traffic jams. This is especially true for those of us on the East Coast. Often times, the noisiness is tied to busyness: The alarm clock reminds us about an upcoming deadline, the cell phone rings for a conference call, we're in traffic because we have to be somewhere other than where we are. What sounds would we hear if we stopped running around? What could we learn about ourselves and the world in silence?

In his most recent book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that silence is the basic condition for us to be able to listen to our hearts. For Hanh, noise isn't just something that we experience through our ears from the outside word, but also something that is constantly occurring in our minds. "There's a radio playing in our head," he writes, "Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking." If we could set aside time to turn down the volume, through the practice of mindfulness, we would be able to get in touch with our deepest aspirations in life. Only then can we begin to embody our truest selves and tune in to our interconnectedness with others.

When we experience real silence -- both outside and inside -- we have access to the inner space where we can ask the big questions about who we are and what we can do with our lives that is of the greatest benefit to others. And, as writer Wendy Kagan recently observed in Chronogram magazine after speaking with people on retreat at the Garrison Institute, there are other benefits for people practicing silence as well. "They appreciate the peace, the restfulness, and the way that the present moment becomes more available and more vivid. Eating food in silence becomes really about eating food and tasting it, because you're not distracted by a conversation with the person sitting next to you."

Recent research in cognitive neuroscience and other scientific fields indicates that meditation can change how we view and engage with others and the world in which we live. We begin to listen more carefully, recognize ourselves in others, and realize that separateness is an illusion. Awareness calls us to live life authentically, from our deepest self, to understand that we are single threads woven into a complex, textured and multi-layered fabric. We see that others' well being is just as important as our own, and that, in caring for them, we are embedded in an ecosystem of compassionate concern.

Not only does meditation inspire and motivate us to act on behalf of others, it also helps us develop effective skills to do so. One of these skills is resilience, the capacity to adapt to adversity and bounce back stronger than ever. This is central to the Garrison Institute's work with humanitarian aid workers in the Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) Project. Grounded in research on human resilience, CBR training enables participants to enhance their levels of awareness, balance, and connection through yoga, meditation, and psychosocial education. Compassion meditation is especially important in overcoming the chronic stress and exposure to others' suffering that aid workers experience. By turning inward to foster self-compassion -- in effect, by listening to ourselves from a place of silence -- we will be of greatest benefit to those most in need around us.

It probably isn't a coincidence that we are learning about the benefits of silence and meditation just at the moment that the world is becoming noisier and busier than ever. However, it is one thing to hear this, read this, and know this fundamental truth in an abstract way. It's something completely different to feel it and understand it through direct experience. What happens when you leave behind all the noise, clear your mind, and sit in silence? What happens after you get in touch with your deepest aspirations? Out of silence the answer will come.