+ Zen rocks in green water Aug 14 Blog 12432395_sIt’s been a noisy summer. The town has been working on the streets and sidewalks next to my house since mid-April – tearing up pavement, moving pipes, digging new sidewalks, pouring concrete – you get the picture.

My husband and I are getting an ear full. As fresh-air lovers, we keep our house’s windows open as much as possible and only close things up to turn on the a/c units when the humidity and heat are at their worst. The trade off for the open house, of course, is that along with the fresh air’s billowy breeze comes all the noise of the construction project.

The work crew has been quite disciplined, too, showing up consistently by 7 a.m. every day. If Lawrence and I haven’t been timely with our early morning routine, we find ourselves attempting our twenty-minute morning meditation to the accompaniment of trucks beep-beeping their “We’re backing up!” warning, jack hammers pounding into the pavement, and diesel motors idling ad nauseam. Frankly, we’re not such good meditators that the world evaporates when we close our eyes, so we can get pretty distracted by all this noise.

The weekends provide relief from the construction, though the park across the street has its own din – squeaky swings, squealing children’s voices, and bouncing balls. And then there are my neighbors who devotedly mow their lawns for hours on end and clean up their sidewalks with their leaf blowers. (Really? Could you please use a broom instead?)

Did I mention it’s been a noisy summer?

Extremes can be good teachers. All of this noise has heightened my awareness of those rare moments when there is quiet. I really appreciate both the absence of sound and the sounds I hear that are natural – the leaves rustling in the trees, my neighbor’s Zen fountain splashing water on its rocks, or the mourning doves softly cooing. These are gentle, healing sound waves on my construction-weary ears.

I’m not a total curmudgeon when it comes to sound, but I do love silence. The deepest quiet I remember experiencing was in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Our guide took my family off the beaten path so we could be alone in the wide-open expanse of earth and sky. Walking towards the remains of an ancient kiva, I was keenly aware of the only sound I heard – the soft stepping of our shoes across the desert sand.

Once we were in the kiva, we stood still. The silence around us was so intense it felt like a sound. When we spoke, we modulated our voices and found that our hushed tone was completely audible. It didn’t take much to be heard in the depths of this silence. It was reverent, divine, and created an aural mirror image inside of me – a peaceful, quiet, space within.

This is the silence I listen for in my everyday meditation, in my spiritual life, but which I seldom find. Granted, it’s easier to find in a place like Chaco Canyon than in my noisy neighborhood, but I know that counting on the exterior to create the interior is not a reliable formula. The true task is to have an interior quiet – no matter what the exterior circumstances might be.

Perhaps desperate times inspire us to dig a little deeper or try a different strategy. In my attempt to find inner silence and calm, I’ve changed my approach. Instead of trying to cultivate silence, I’ve been invoking stillness. This change of word and quality are making a difference. Whereas silence has felt hard to attain, stillness is a little more accepting of both the exterior activity around me and my monkey mind’s active thinking. I’m not asking myself to transcend all the noise and activity within and without, I’m just inviting stillness. As my body sits still, my breathing slows, and my mind settles a bit. I use stillness as my mantra, and a feeling of calm and peace comes into my heart, at the center of my chest.

Though this is a new experience, its taking hold. And, I can call in this feeling wherever I am, in whatever active environment I find myself. This, I think, is the real point. Our sitting meditation serves as a touchstone, a place where we sink into the stillness without distraction. Then, we bring that feeling from our inner meditation to our outer lives.

My neighborhood’s construction project will eventually be complete. The streets will be paved, the trucks will roll away for the last time. But my exterior life will likely always have a certain level of noise in it. I’m not inclined to live in the New Mexico desert or to shut my house up with central air conditioning for the summer’s duration. So, cultivating quiet from the inside out, rather than relying on a quiet and sedate environment (which I would probably tire of soon, anyhow), is going to serve me well.

There are many paths to silence – that mecca of calm and serenity. From what I’ve glimpsed so far, it’s worth the search to find our way in. For now, my gateway is stillness.

What’s yours?


  1. I like to mediate on the space between the sounds. Like when you listen to a train Listen for the silence between the sounds. That helps me come into stillness. I do this when the kids are fighting or I feel overwhelmed by the noise around me. I do it at cocktail parties and some days just to practice. And I always am stimulated to practice when I hear a train!

  2. Hi Janet. I loved your vivid description of trying to find peace in your noisy Watertown neighborhood with your windows open in the summertime and the contrast with the perfect sacred stillness of Chaco Canyon. It is a real challenge to find quiet in the noisy environment of city neighborhoods, and I agree, that we are in trouble if we are hoping that external conditions will provide the conditions for inner peacefulness. It was a good reminded about the importance of regulating my state from within and cultivating independence from circumstance, not only when it comes to noise, but in relationship to everything that life throws at us. Thank you.

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