In 2010 Finland created a marketing campaign for the country that emphasized its remoteness. Called “Silence, Please,” the campaign effectively turned silence into a resource. But that wasn’t the only time that people paid for silence — noise-canceling headphones sell for hundreds of dollars and some weeklong silent meditation retreats can cost thousands.
For many people silence is a pre-requisite for starting on the road to enlightenment — like choosing the best pen before sitting down to write your award-winning novel. So it’s no wonder that “Silence, Please” is one of the most popular pages on Finland’s tourism website.
But what effect does silence have on our brain, and how does that, in turn, affect us on the path toward liberation?
Chronic noise, like that from highways and airports, can negatively affect our health: raising blood pressure, interfering with sleep and increasing the risk of heart disease. Does that mean silence has the opposite effect? Not quite. While less noise can be beneficial to our health, the brain can still act as if it is processing sound, even in the complete absence of noise — like when a song continues playing in your mind after the radio cuts out.
“There isn’t really such a thing as silence,” Robert Zatorre, an expert on the neurology of sound, told Nautilus. “In the absence of sound, the brain often tends to produce internal representations of sound.”
So the default state of the brain is not stillness, but activity. Those who have attempted mindfulness meditation may have experienced this dynamic nature of the mind firsthand, as a never-ending stream of thoughts rising up to distract you from your object of attention—whether it is the breath, a picture or a candle flame.
This type of mindfulness meditation is all the rage these days — sold as a panacea for conditions like depression, anxiety and sleep problems. And while you can benefit from bringing your attention to your mind, or to the task at hand, instead of being carried away by thoughts rushing like a river out of sight, the path to liberation doesn’t stop there.
“Letting go” of the mind is as much an essential part of meditation as noticing your thoughts in the first place, in the same way that realizing that the handle of a pot is hot, allowing you to release your grip on it.
The Indian spiritual teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it like this: “Leave your mind alone, that is all. Don’t go along with it. After all, there is no such thing as mind apart from thoughts which come and go obeying their own laws, not yours. They dominate you only because you are interested in them.”
According to Nisargadatta, as you watch your mind, you begin to realize that your true self is the watcher. As you continue to stand in stillness, you realize that you are also the light behind the watcher, rising out of the unknown darkness that is the source of knowledge.
The eventual goal of liberation is to step beyond the mind in this way to the ultimate source. But the starting point on your journey is here and now. For many, that journey begins much more smoothly without the constant distraction of a noisy environment, which is why serene forests and lakes have always drawn spiritual seekers.
“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself,” Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist, and a consultant on silence for Finland’s marketers, explained to Nautilus.
Noise and silence, though, are external. When you move into — and beyond — the realm of your mind, those distinctions cease to matter. Nisargadatta Maharaj reminds us of that when he says: “You are not the mind. If you know you are not the mind, then what difference does it make if it’s busy or quiet? You are not the mind.”