“Turn Down the Volume” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
This week, we take the opportunity to explore how we turn down the noise that surrounds us. It’s everywhere, and we are so used to it that we often don’t even notice how much it affects our peace of mind. The good news is that we can turn it down!
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
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A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Creation (anonymous)
Oh God, we thank you for this earth, our home.
For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
for the ocean and streams,
for the towering hills and the whispering wind,
for the trees and green grass.
We thank you for our senses
by which we hear the songs of birds
and see the splendor of fields of golden wheat,
and taste autumn’s fruit,
and rejoice in the feel of snow
and smell the breath of spring flowers.
Grant us a heart opened wide to all this beauty;
and save us from being so blind that we pass unseeing
when even the common thorn bush is aflame with your glory.
A Prayer for all Creation (anonymous)
Creator God, we give thanks for the beauty, the wonder, and the wild glory that is this creation which we have been given. May we walk with humility. May we be better caretakers of this gift which has been so freely and wonderfully given. May we care for the resources of Mother Earth. May we simply do better, seeing past our divisions to understand the need to walk on the Earth lightly, to use her resources more wisely. May we restore our Mother Earth, being more careful of this beautiful planet on which we live. Bless this Earth. May we live together in community, care and love. We give thanks for the beauty that is our home, for the wonder that is Mother Earth. And so it is.
“Turn Down the Volume” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Thanks for being with us. Today we’re wrapping up our April series on creating space, and it occurred to me the best way to do that is to focus on what so often gets in our way (or at least gets in my way.) I’m talking about noise. We are surrounded by it – it is so constant that we regard it as normal. We may not even consciously notice it as it continues to assault our senses and our consciousness. We just navigate it, as part of modern life. How different can our lives be when we take steps to turn it down?
One of the resources I used for today’s talk is Christine Jackman’s Turning Down the Noise – The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World. It’s funny, wise and very readable and I recommend it to you. Ms. Jackman was a very successful Australian journalist caught up in the pace of that world – rushing from story to story, juggling two phones, racing past her family and friends on her way to the next big job. Exhaustion, noise, overwhelming external stimulation. Then her father had a fall and was seriously injured, and that event knocked her off that path and onto another that ultimately became a quest for peace and balance. Her book is her story of that journey. When she began, she was looking for a life that simply was sustainable. She just wanted off the treadmill that is modern life. What she found was a life of wonder, beauty, and joy. She discovered the gift of silence.
We live in a world of constant distraction and mental noise. We are constantly reacting to all the stimulation pouring down on us – phones, computers, social media, constant draws on our attention from devices and from other people who ask for our attention 24/7. I know I’m not the only one getting texts at 2 or 3 a.m. – what is that about?
In addition to digital noise, we are assaulted by man-made disturbances – machinery, jets overhead, car horns, trucks, doorbells – you name it. The sounds of progress, but far from the quiet, life-restoring sounds found in nature. This constant noise drains us, even when we don’t realize it.
In addition, it diminishes our ability to reduce our internal noise – the self-talk, judgments, blame, doubt. I’m not good enough – I can’t do that.
Ms. Jackman notes that the word “noise” derives from a Latin root meaning ‘queasiness’ or ‘nausea’. It’s not a neutral phenomenon, and it affects so many aspects of our lives from longevity to cognition, focus, productivity and happiness. It can even affect us at a chromosomal level.
It’s true that we can control some of the noise that surrounds us, and some of it we can’t. For example, literally as I was preparing this talk, and actually writing that last sentence, my son in the next room started yelling “fire!” I am not making that up. The last time he yelled fire he was onto something, as he’d knocked over a lamp and the rug was about to ignite. So, it made sense to stop what I was doing and check it out. Nothing was on fire – I think he was talking to the TV.
Anyway, that’s an example of external stimulation coming in that we don’t control. I’m sure you have similar examples – ok, maybe not quite similar but you know what I mean. We can’t stop it coming in. However, we can try to move through these moments with as much – equanimity as we can muster. It doesn’t help us, or anyone, for our adrenaline and cortisol to shoot through the roof.
I remember that Rev. Sydney Magill-Lindquist, our prayer chaplain for so long and mentor to so many of us, once said “we are not defined by the externals, but by how we internalize the externals.” She was so right – our challenge is to change the way we internalize these external assaults on our senses.
We are also assaulted by noise we do control. Much of this is digital noise. I learned a great word last week that many of you may already know – doomscrolling. That involves staring fixedly at the monitor, clicking from bad news to worse news. Sometimes we intersperse it with human interest stories (celebrity marriages, breakups, scandals), popup articles telling us to find out today if we have liver disease, or pictures of puppies doing cute things, but whatever it is, I always feel it’s time that I’m never getting back, and that I could have used it very differently.
And at the end of it, I don’t feel better. I’ve inundated myself with random information – click, click, click. I’m off balance, irritated. Jackman identified this feeling of overstimulation as being drained of energy but mentally jittery.
We also have this to thank (Iphone). The first Iphone was introduced in 2007, and since then they, and their android equivalents, have spread like kudzu on a georgia hillside. However, before we each carried a computer in our pockets, if we wanted to obsess over the internet or remain in constant contact with each other we had to do it seated at a computer. Now, we take this capability with us and we can do it whenever and wherever. How often have I been at a restaurant (before Covid) and looked over to a table of people enjoying each other’s company by each looking down at their phone?
We are so careful about what we ingest physically – the foods, medicines or supplements we eat. But how freely we let anything get into our heads, and occupy our attention.
There are so many reasons we need to be better custodians of our consciousness and our peace of mind. The noise around us, and within us, can overwhelm.
In her book, Ms. Jackman uses the example of Andrew Sullivan, who many may remember as the well known and talented commentator who wrote the Daily Dish blog. In 2015 he threw in the towel, and explained why in an essay titled ‘I Used to Be a Human Being’, published the following year in New York magazine. He wrote: ‘Over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamour grew louder and louder,’ ‘Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades—a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”
So he quit, and walked away from an online audience of over 100K people a day. He took four years off writing intermittently, and in 2020 started a weekly blog.
The problem of noise, of continual activity and distraction, isn’t new. In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, first published in 1966, Thomas Merton wrote ‘There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist … most easily succumbs: activism and over-work … ‘The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.” He was speaking about constant activity and overcommitment, but I think we have an idea what he’d say about today’s digital cacophony.
What does this violence to do us? In addition to adding to our stress and overload, it diminishes our ability to be fully aware of what is going on around us, to focus, to appreciate. When we talk on the phone, respond to an email, and check the news, all at the same time, we are not more productive. Multitasking is a myth – it means only that we are doing several things at the same time badly.
We can’t live on overload, and our threshold is lower than we think it is.
So why have we become so tied to our devices? One reason surely is the uncanny ability of these platform developers to create content that draws us in, that activates the same dopamine loops that light up in a gambler when she pulls the lever on the slots. Millions of dollars are spent on making these platforms addictive, and they are.
But some of the reason also lies directly with us. Jackman points out that another reason these digital interruptions are so popular is that so many of us have no interest in spending time with our own selves. Our devices are an easy out when we have that ten minutes with nothing to do, and the prospect of being alone with our thoughts.
Jackman gives us an extreme example. She describes two 2014 studies published in the journalScience described a study in which researchers asked a number of people to sit alone for 15 minutes – just them and their thoughts. The participants were also supplied with a machine that, at their discretion, would give them an electric shock. Prior to the study, each participant had said they’d pay money to avoid receiving an electric shock.
12 out of 18 men and 6 out of 24 women gave themselves an electric shock at some point during the 15 minutes of solitary “thinking time.” The researchers concluded that these folks would rather cause themselves physical pain than sit and simply be, with themselves.
Now I’m guessing most listening here wouldn’t go that far, but I’m betting we’ve felt that need to pick up the phone and distract ourselves when we have that ten minutes of, as we put it, nothing to do.
I said earlier that the story of Ms. Jackman’s journey is her discovery of the power of silence. Her first step on that journey was developing a meditation practice.
I’ve spoken before about the many benefits of a meditation practice. Meditation is a brain changing activity – it can literally change the way our brain functions and the connections that exist. Through MRI studies, we’ve learned that meditation seems to cause brain cells fire together in different patterns that strengthen functions such as memory, emotional resilience and stress management, and executive functioning or decision-making.
Jackman recognizes and talks about the many benefits of a meditation practice, and she shares the science as well. However, for her, the aha gift was the life, the complexity and texture she found in silence. In meditation, she found that entering silence felt like coming home. After all, she thought, it’s where we spend our first nine months – enveloped, literally, in dark, warm silence. Why would we feel foreign when we return?
She discovered the richness of not only the silence in meditation itself, but in the ability to be still elsewhere – to walk a mountain trail and experience it fully, to look out over a cliff and really hear the ocean, to simply be wherever she was, still, aware, alive.
She found that the depth and texture of silence is so different than the idea we normally have about it. We often don’t think of silence as a positive thing at all. What do we tell our kids when they misbehave? We put them on silence – we make it a punishment. When Jackman told her friends she was headed to a ten day silent retreat they acted like she’d lost her mind, and several of them swore they couldn’t be silent for even half a day. What is the point, they wanted to know.
At the beginning, she wondered herself. But as she moved forward in her journey, she discovered that silence, for her, was a palpable, living presence. It had vitality, and depth, and texture. She describes an experience she had simply standing on a hill, overlooking the ocean. She heard birds calling, lizards moving, insects whining and buzzing. She wrote:
“It wasn’t silent. And yet it felt stripped of extraneous noise. … Resisting the urge to move, to fidget, to add anything to what was here already, I simply stood. Every cell in my skin seemed to expand slightly, to reach out to greet the air and everything else that was present here on the hill. I felt the breeze shift slightly, and the precise moment a cloud drifted past the sun, my face cool and then warm again. Had the world around me, I wondered, always been capable of provoking this sensory play, so acute that I could stand still in its thrall and know that this was enough?” As she put it – In silence, there is space for everything.
I was drawn to her book, in part, because I’ve found such richness in silence, and in stillness. Whether it’s in sitting and breathing through a challenging moment, or listening to a friend share a difficult time, or looking at the beauty in nature, it is silence that so often gives the moment its clarity and depth. It is simply being there, and being still – not overthinking it, or even trying to think at all. As she put it, not adding anything to the moment.
Jackmon writes about a friendship she developed with a soundscape artist named Gordon Hempton. Hempton has traveled the world and captured thousands of hours of sounds – birds, water, wind, trees – the interplay of all of them. Immersed as he is in the world of sound, and likely because of it, he is dedicated to the preservation of silence.
But silence for him is not the absence of sound. Instead, he defines silence as a natural acoustic state, free of intrusions from modern, man-made noise. The birds, the water, the trees, the wind. Over the years, he has seen the quality of this silence diminish and even disappear from many of the beautiful environments he’s known.
In 2016 Hempton wrote a book about hearing and recording the sounds of nature, entitled Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox. In it he writes that “silence is the think-tank of the soul—not the absence of something, but the presence of everything … In quiet, we hear who we were, who we are, and who we need to be … The art of listening is the art of self-quieting. The art of self-quieting is the art of being. Simply be still and observe.’
Resting in the silence changes us. In his letters, the Stoic Seneca wrote about so many people he knew who would travel the known world to find peace, but for them it remained elusive. That’s because they brought their own distractions and disruptions with them. He cautioned his friend Lucilius “if you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you are needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” Silence can lead us there.
It takes so little from us. No equipment, no special outfits – just a willingness to put down the phone, breathe and be. The ability to be silent, to be still, adds such texture and depth to our lives. It is the first and the best way we create space, to create, to wonder, to be joyful, to be alive.
Thanks for listening.
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
“Be Still and Know” – Penelope Williams
“In the Silence” – Jack Fowler
This service aired on April 25, 2021