April 1, 2009


Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson, director of the Iyyun Institute and one of the main teachers of Jewish meditation in greater New York, has kindly permitted us to use this essay from his website.

The Gentle Way of Silence in a Noisy World

A Kabbalistic Perspective

Every generation defines itself in its own particular way. People who belong to a specific generation express themselves in a distinctive form-whether it is the literature or philosophy it produces or the music it creates, there is always distinctiveness. Understandably, social critics and historians have always found the need to label eras, periods and groups. The twentieth century that has just elapsed has been called by various names; Aldous Huxley, writing in the 1940's referred to his century as the age of noise. " The radio," he once wrote, "is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes." If the noise was an issue years back, today with the literal explosion of modern technology, CD's, headphones, I-pods, and what not, clearly the noise level has been upped a thousand degrees and the bombardment of noise has become drastically augmented.

Being so surrounded, invaded and inundated with noise, we have become so accustomed to that reality that an immense feeling of peculiar emptiness is felt when it is deafly quite. Imagine yourself walking into an upscale boutique and nothing is being played on the sound system, how would you feel? It's guaranteed that you will think it is strange and feel a sense of eeriness.

Noise has become so part of the fabric of our reality that when we are alone we almost instinctively reach for a noisemaker. When was the last time you took a long drive alone in your car and did not immediately flip on the music? Car manufacturers today pride themselves in installing satellite radio systems so we can pick up thousands of stations as we drive. When it is quiet we urgently sense the need to fill the empty airwaves with noise.

Noise is so much a part of our life that we have become depended on it for our very wellbeing. So many of us derive our sense of being alive from sound, and we feel existential emptiness in silence. There is a need-and almost perverse compulsion-to break any silence and talk or sing, whether in the company of others or with ourselves.

Underlining this urgency for noise is our fear of being alone, as if it's even a possibility. Simply, we are afraid to be alone with ourselves and certainly scared to experience a genuine self-encounter. And so we fill the airwaves with sound, for it is sound that creates the illusion of company. Even speaking to ourselves will do the trick, for when we are speaking there is the impression of a speaker and listener, and that the two are separate people conversing.

The dread of being alone and being alone with our own presence can be quite devastating. Sitting relaxing in a hot tub most people almost perfunctorily reach for a book or the paper. We live in a culture that compels us to relentlessly 'do' things. Even our leisure time and vocation needs to be filled with activity, we cannot rest without going crazy. For this reason there is a multibillion-dollar industry that helps us 'do' things and occupy our time while on holiday.

In an age where people seem to be addicted to noise, dependent on stress-producing loud stimuli, what we so desperately need is some quiet time, a means to clear the overflow of junk and mental pollution, and begin anew.

Hitbodedut is a classical Kabbalistic term for meditation. The Hebrew root of the word is badad, literally meaning to be alone, to detach yourself from noise and be with yourself. In the more advanced and prophetic moods of this form of meditation, hitbodedut is to seclude, separate 'intellectual everyday consciousness from imagination.' T his is referred to as hitbodedut penimit -inner isolation, but what we are speaking of presently is hitbodedut chitzonit -outer isolation. This is the practice of being alone and simply being with yourself.

To practice this discipline you don't need to run away to a mountaintop or go hide in a cave. In fact, this aloneness can be achieved even amongst other people. In the words of the American writer, Henry Thoreau, the champion of solitude, "The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert."

Most often going inward in the midst of being in the company of others is unkindly, rude and altogether a mark of arrogance, but sometimes you may find yourself being obligated to go to a certain social setting or another event and feel extremely uncomfortable or self-conscious. Or worse, sometimes you may find yourself in a setting where you feel that the others are merely sucking up your energy, or even worse distributing negative energy. In such situations, it maybe very helpful if you are able to mentally detach yourself, go inward, and feel at ease-to be alone with yourself, free of the external forced-upon influences.

Success breads success. The only way to become comfortable with silence, on all level of silence; from words or beyond words is by practicing and further practicing stints of silence. Don't begin with fantastic grand plans of taking a full month vow of silence. Rather, begin with a firm commitment to practice silence for a half hour a day, and then grow on your success.

Ultimately, as you become more comfortable with yourself, and in silence, when you do need to speak and verbally communicate, which speech itself is another spiritually powerful tool, you will do so wisely, mindfully and with wisdom. The periods of silence will also allow you to gain hegemony of your speech so that your words are meaningful and vested with intention.