As we end another year, it seems natural to reflect on it. We take inventory, question assumptions, and pause. The notion of reflection requires a relationship with silence, a willingness to cultivate and appreciate moments of silence.
Silence can be a confusing topic—it may also be our best teacher.
In working with clients — coaching, and facilitating practice and meditation sessions — the idea of sitting in silence has surfaced, with appreciation for some and anxiety for many.
Some professionals become anxious in silence. They may not know themselves without the many distractions that invade our minds. Technology and related chatter are becoming systematically woven into our identity to alter our expectations.
For others, silence may reveal much: perhaps experiences they’ve identified with and would rather leave aside or perhaps doubts, insecurities, or fears from now or long ago. In silence, some may be confronted by waves of sadness.
Even with these reservations, I’ve found that most professionals wish to experience and increase moments of silence during mindfulness practice. That silence is key to increasing awareness and recovering our memory of the whole self.
Mental and Emotional Demands
Learning to engage silence may be the hidden gem of our modern day. Our lives involve interacting with mental and emotional demands, larger in quantity and frequency than ever in human history.
Mental Demands involve the degree to which you must exert mental effort to complete tasks at home and work. The fast pace and overload of our distracting lives require us to sustain the effort to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment. This takes energy that can drain us.
Consider how language shapes our affective life as well. New terms, acronyms, symbols, and concepts impact systems, processes, tasks, and applications with more updates and upgrades—all of which have become essential just to “prepare to work.”
Emotional Demands involve our affective lives. These include absorbing an exacting saturation of information: an avalanche of opinions, ideas, and attitudes from different perspectives and viewpoints that cascade without the time to decompress or recover to reflect.
Increasing amounts of content trigger anxiety and emotions that require a release. The everydayness of life—meetings, reports, traffic, packed subways, email/text messages, and reacting to comments, notifications, and emojis—activates emotions that shape our affective lives.
Silence offers the possibility of venturing beyond our preoccupations. Only quieting the mind can access the depth beyond the surface rhythm of life that shapes our views: our imagination, creativity, spiritual connection, and deep learning arising from insights tucked below.
In his book Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, author and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explores the types of noise we consume. With awareness of noise, we can focus on something bigger than ourselves. (This brief video offers an instructive summary.)
Creating silence requires that we investigate the question, what is noise? Examining this question ventures beyond the auditory. Noise exists in both tangible and mental forms:
— Continual bells, dings, and pings of notifications pull us from any intended task.
— Pop-ups on websites, emojis, signs, symbols, snap-chats, and texts assault us, demanding a response.
— Commercials seed our minds through pop-up screens, billboards, grocery bags, park benches, and even receipts.
— Acronyms now crawl across our screens to convey and confuse us with vast details and information.
— Newsy-entertainment now monetizes attention, baits for clicks, and addicts us emotionally.
— Programmers engineer phone apps and social media to hook our attention (see 60 Minutes clip “Brain Hacking” or, if international, this link).
— Small print agreements and warnings gild gadgets and services to convey risks and rights.
— TV narrators warn of the side effects and conditions of prescription drugs.
— Lights glow—bright, flickering, or subtle—in rooms creating “moods” that cloud perceptions.
— Multiple TV screens and channels line the walls in bars, restaurants, airports, and coffee shops, “entertaining us” while we eat, drink, or rest.
— Shelves full of clutter and trinkets fill space and grab our attention.
— Ruminations churn inside us as we fixate on assumptions, judgments, beliefs, or conditions.
Navigating the labels, signs, and signals often prevent us from enjoying the direct experience of life’s little pleasures. As you notice the noise, reflect on where you might reduce its tangible and mental forms.
Rescuing Our Attention
Noise pollutes our mind, mesmerizes us, and steals pieces of our attention. Like the low hum of an air conditioner, it becomes normal. Over time it fragments the self, increasing anxiety. Then one day, the AC is off, and we experience clean silence: our eyes rest, attention dwells, and listening expands.
In the silence, something new emerges.
In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford offers silence as “a luxury good”:
In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls and no TVs. This silence . . . is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax and after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts.
Crawford rightly notes that “because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back, you’re going to have to pay for it.”
From silence, we experience what is often ignored, unspoken, or not yet sorted out.
Adding silence in a conversation often leaves others sorting through deeper thoughts beyond reflexive or automatic responses. Managing the silence can be a struggle, as it invites the ultimate surrender: to give up control and accept the unpredictable.
Most of us avoid silence in a conversation, either to avoid the discomfort of another’s struggle or to satisfy our impatience for a quick answer. And yet, silence becomes a source of deep listening beyond our habitual assumptions, thoughts, and observations. With practice, listening becomes restful, new interest emerges, a connection is felt, and we are enlivened to be with another.
Teachers, health professionals, and managers can discover much here. If you want to connect deeply or receive something new, offer silence for others to sort through their often-concealed thoughts and for you to notice yours as well.
Cultivating Moments of Silence
In his book the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh poetically states, “Nirvana is the complete silencing of concepts.”
Most of us live concepts of our lives rather than experience it directly. Consider the many times we have eaten food without tasting it, listened to a song without hearing it, or viewed something without seeing it? Unfortunately, this has become an all-too-familiar part of the everyday concepts of our lives that masquerade as experiences.
As we venture beyond these concepts, moments of silence connect us more fully with our experience. We can experience joy in simple tasks, the beauty of art, the smell of coffee, the wholeness of our self in each moment.
- Begin with connecting intentionally to your breath throughout the day. Pause regularly and take three conscious breaths.
- Create a pause between meetings and tasks. Add silence in conversations between speaking and listening. Sit in silence for five minutes periodically in the day.
- When pausing, focus on stopping the habitual energies, calming the breath, and resting into the silence of the moment.
- Bring silence to the final hour of each day. This can include calming, stillness, and reflection (see previous blog) that can support restful sleep and renewal.
With silence, we connect deeply with our whole self through our breath, body, and sensations. We can begin to concentrate and stay with a thought until it passes. With time and in silence, we can look deeply into the source of what arises and gain insight into our true nature.
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