Hello, Silence, My Old Friend

The silence in our lives is under assault on all fronts: blaring headline news, squawking car alarms, buzzing and chirping smartphones, wailing sirens (especially if you live in New York, as I do), numbing elevator music, and screens fitted into every available space. We are wired, plugged in, constantly catered to, and increasingly terrified of silence, unaware of what it has to offer. We drown out the big but simple questions of life with the simplistic sound bites of our 500- channel- and- nothing- on universe.

I used to walk into my apartment or a hotel room and immediately turn on the news. And then, one day, not too long ago, I stopped. And I realized two things. First, that I didn’t miss anything — not even anything helpful in running a 24/7 media operation — except hearing the same regurgitated talking points being repeated again and again by different people. But the second and more important thing is that I allowed some silence into my day, in which I could hear that still, small voice that we rarely give our time and attention to. I lost nothing, but I gained a lot. And then I got better at listening to others — my children, my colleagues, my friends.

“Ask your soul!” pleads German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse in My Belief: “Ask her who means freedom, whose name is love. Do not inquire of your intellect, do not search backwards through world history. Your soul will not blame you for having cared too little about politics, for having exerted yourself too little, hated your enemies too little, or too little fortified your frontiers. But she will perhaps blame you for so often having feared and fled from her demands, for never having had time to give her, your youngest and fairest child, no time to play with her, no time to listen to her song, for often having sold her for money, betrayed her for advancement. . . . You will be neurotic and a foe to life — so says your soul — if you neglect me, and you will be destroyed if you do not turn to me with a wholly new love and concern.”

Many postmodern pilgrims, seeking to find quiet and learning to listen to the silence and make room for the soul to awaken, are taking the path into retreats, monasteries, temples, and the “cathedral of the outdoors.”

Holidays were traditionally intended as a time to recharge ourselves spiritually as well as physically — to make ourselves slow down, tap into our inborn but suppressed ability to wonder, and to make us recognize the breadth and the bounty in our lives. I remember one such holiday when my daughters were little, in a small village on the island of Rhodes. That same week, coincidentally, Time magazine had run a cover story about the healing power of faith. The people in the village where we stayed would have giggled at the thought of needing scientific experiments with control groups to prove the power of silence, of contemplation, of prayer — and of God. Women would come from all over Greece to climb the nearby mountain to the little Tsambika Monastery, where they prayed to the Virgin Mary — for a child, for healing, for a job. The villagers were full of stories of her miracles. The naturalness with which everyone there spoke of miracles was, in itself, a cause for wonder — flushing away the dross of our everyday lives.

I could completely identify. I think I was three when, with no parental prompting, I knelt by my bed and prayed to the Virgin Mary. Whenever I felt alone and afraid, I prayed to her. When schoolyard squabbles broke out, when my sister got sick, when my father moved away and didn’t come home one night, I prayed to her. And when I started meditating at thirteen, I kept praying to her. Whether I was in India studying comparative religion, learning Buddhist meditation, or exploring the Kabbalah, I kept coming back to her. She was a mother figure, a guide — unconditional love personified. Throughout my childhood, my two favorite summer days were July 15, my birthday, and August 15 — the date when the whole of Greece paid homage to the Virgin Mary. I fasted on her feast day, even though no one else in my family did. And even if I didn’t go to church any other day of the year, I went on her Assumption Day and sat quietly among the widows in black kerchiefs and younger women smelling of summer wool and candle smoke — heads bent in prayer, communing.

One day when we were on Rhodes, we went to the nearby Tharri Monastery, a vine- covered tenth- century monastery that its abbot, Father Amfilochios, had brought back to life. Steeped in Orthodox theology, the abbot (who is now head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of New Zealand) exuded a mischievous joy that clearly did not come from his divinity degrees. Monks and children alike called him Geronda, which means “old man.” The identification of old age in Greece with wisdom and closeness to God is a startling contrast with the way we often treat aging today: like a disease, to be quarantined and forgotten.

Geronda was not even that old — he was probably in his late fifties then. “Old man” was a title bestowed on him because of the love and respect he inspired. His eyes sparkled, but his enthusiasm was tempered by humility: “Thank God,” he said of what he’d accomplished. “God willing,” he would say of what he had yet to do. His spirituality was fi lled with a reverence for nature. “There are other countries as beautiful as our homeland,” he told me on a morning walk in the hills. “But there is no country with the perfumes of Greece.” Every few steps, he stopped to pick up a sprig of thyme or rosemary, a twig from a pine tree, or any number of wildflowers, which he, unlike me, was on a first- name basis with.

Being with the monks on Rhodes was food for the soul. Listening to Father Christodoulos, another monk at Tharri, speak about his faith strengthened my own. Born in Denver, of Greek parents, he had moved to Los Angeles to try to leverage his talent at impersonation into a Hollywood career. Instead, he waited tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory and whiled away his time at celebrity parties, where cocaine was passed around like Greek olives. Finally, through a series of coincidences — known around the monastery as the miracles God performs anonymously — he entered the monastery in Tharri. His days started at four in the morning with matins and the Divine Liturgy. He worked with those in need in the community, and, in his time alone, he painted icons — exquisite Byzantine images into which he poured all his devotion. He gave a small icon to my children and in return, Isabella, then five years old, drew a picture of him, long and thin with a beard down to his waist — artistic license — and a smile from ear to ear. She offered it to him at the beach while sitting on his lap — she in her pink bikini, he in his gray monk’s habit. He asked if she had slept well the previous night. “No, I had a nightmirror,” little Miss Malaprop replied. “A big mosquito in tennis shoes running all over me.”

That was the kind of week that puts the “holy” back in holidays. But for far too many of us, vacations often serve only to amplify our stress and busyness and desire to do and accomplish — with our smartphones keeping us fully connected to the world we’ve ostensibly left behind. We all know the feeling of coming back from a vacation more drained than when we set off. In fact, according to a study by Fierce Inc., which provides leadership development and training, 58 percent of workers feel absolutely no reduction in stress from their vacations, and 28 percent return even more stressed than they were before they left.

For me, whether I’m on a visit to a monastery in Greece or an elaborately planned staycation (that involves disengaging from all my devices, going on long hikes or walks, yoga classes and unhurried meditations, sleeping in with no alarms, and reading actual books you can underline that have nothing to do with work), the essential element is to regain that sense of wonder. It means disconnecting from the outside world and setting out — for however short a time — on an inner journey.

Without such spiritual renewal, we may be left with only negative experiences to draw from. And as Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness, writes, “The brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences.” But our brains are relatively poor at doing the same thing with positive experiences. To fight this, he explains, we need to “install” the positive experiences, “taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into neural structure.” In other words, we need to take the time to wonder at the world around us, feel gratitude for the good in our lives, and overcome our natural bias toward focusing on the negative. And in order for it to “take,” to become part of us, we need to slow down and let wonder do its job, at its own pace.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 188–194