Noise & Quiet

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
January 12, 2015
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We have more stimuli than ever. According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans between the ages of 18-24 check their smart phones 53 times a day. How can we pause to think and reflect when there is an incessant flood of emails, text messages, and non-stop social media?

Scientists have proposed a name for one of these obsessions. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) has been proposed as an officially designated psychiatric disorder, with the researchers citing American and European studies showing that up to 8 percent of people have neurologic, psychological, and social dysfunction relating to their overuse of technology. Indeed, while the disorder may have arisen too recently to be included in the fifth and latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,, China and South Korea already view this as an addictive disorder.

Interestingly, although about a billion people use Facebook, and about half log in daily, research is only now emerging about the effects of constant use of Facebook on well-being. An admittedly small study (eighty-two students) conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan in 2013 concluded that the more participants used Facebook, the worse they felt at the moment as well as how satisfied they felt about their lives. One might draw from this study that millions of obsessed Facebook users might be doing harm to their psychological well-being.

Of course most people may, at times, feel pressure, but are not addicted. To be sure, this noise is often important and valuable. Few of us would want to return to a prior era where we did not have Internet, phones, and all kinds of gadgets. On the other hand, few of us know how to manage the complexity that is coming at us. Have a perfect plan for email management? Able to limit one’s Internet use? Have quiet spaces in life to pause and reflect?

The notion of the Sabbath is a big part of the answer. Taking one day a week to completely unplug from the world and be present in relationships is the best way to recuperate. Consider how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained this value.

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath? (The Sabbath, 28).

It’s also really important to have a prayer and meditation practice that enables one to pause, reflect, and unplug. Further, we need a plan for face-to-face social interaction.

When our systems go unchecked, gain our unquestioning loyalty, and take over our minds, it can lead to the greatest atrocities. Philosopher Susan Neiman writes:

When it worshipped anything, the Enlightenment worshipped the technology it believed would solve all problems. But instead of bringing the progress it held to be inevitable, it led straight to Auschwitz (Moral Clarity, 124-125).

Placing progress solely on machines and taking it off human choices presents great risks. We cannot go down that road again. We must be able to hear listen to ourselves.

According to theologians of every religion, something very spiritually powerful happens during periods of silence. For example, Buddhists maintain a large room devoted to meditation, called a zendo, usually in a temple.Many Catholics go on silent religious retreats. Bede Griffiths wrote:

There is a final transcendent state of Being and Consciousness, in which alone perfect bliss is to be found, to which every religion bears witness. This state transcends all concepts of the mind and images of the senses, and is known only when the Divine Being chooses to reveal himself to man. This is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate truth, to which everything in nature aspires, but which so transcends the whole order of nature that it appears as darkness rather than light, as something unreal and illusory, as a Void, a Silence, a Negation of Being. And yet such is the witness of every great religious tradition: in this Void, in this Darkness, in this Silence, all fullness, all light, all truth, all goodness, all love, all joy, all peace, all happiness is to be found (Vedanta and Christian Faith, 163).

We may feel that we risk losing ourselves when we can sit in silence, and some may be initially frightened at the loss of external distractions. But there is urgency. Something really deep inside of us breaks every time we disregard our spiritual authenticity. Our soul illuminates and heals every time we live by our inner truth. Look inward; grant space for revelation, Vulnerability. Spiritual Discomfort. Focus. Soul Hunger. Deep Compassion. Yearning. They will get us there. It is the most challenging, and the easiest thing we can do. The truth is sitting right there inside of us. We know it. We can just grab it. The light is so bright, ready to be seen, but it requires immense patience, courage, humility, integrity, and a lifelong commitment to have spiritual breakthroughs and paradigm shifts of the soul. Each of us is sitting on a goldmine, and when we discover it, it will indeed make our lives so much richer.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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