Gandhi Had a Secret For Finding Calm in Turbulent Times

The legendary political and spiritual leader had a smart strategy for managing information overload.

Darren Robb/ Getty Images
Darren Robb/ Getty Images

What’s the healthiest way to engage with the news in times like these?

The scale and intensity of today’s headlines is leaving many people depressed and depleted in a perpetual doom-scrolling abyss. It’s driving many others to simply unplug and withdraw.

It’s hard to be simultaneously informed and centered right now.

While the bad-news barrage of the current era might seem unprecedented, the global situation has been this ragged at other times in history. Consider Gandhi’s world. As the leader of a grueling independence campaign that spanned the duration of two world wars, he had to contend with raucous discord within in his own movement, massacres at the hands of the British, and news from abroad of genocide and atomic bombs.  

Still—if anyone could stay simultaneously engaged and calm—it was him. 

When people asked Gandhi how he kept his equilibrium and clarity amidst his circumstances, he often described a simple practice for finding silence. Every Monday, through all his years as a prominent public figure, Gandhi observed a “day of silence.” He didn’t necessarily spend the whole day meditating. But he didn’t speak a word. He let go of the responsibility of having to offer opinions or make decisions, so that he could listen deeply and clarify what was important to him. 

Gandhi didn’t live as a total monk on Mondays. Given the requirements of his life as a movement leader, he sometimes had to step away from meditation to receive visitors or even attend events. But he still didn’t speak.

When his weekly “day of silence” ended, Gandhi would go back to his regular routine. Friends and colleagues sometimes noted that when Tuesdays arrived and Gandhi returned to speaking, he’d often deliver especially deliberate and eloquent speeches, without notes, in a kind of rapturous flow.

In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote: “A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word.” He lamented that this respect for silence was so rare in his line of work. At most meetings he attended, he wrote that the norm was “people impatient to talk” and the chairman “pestered with notes for permission to speak.” He observed that, “Whenever the permission is given the speaker generally exceeds the time limit, asks for more time, and keeps on talking without permission. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time.”

Once, after a period of fifteen days of silence, just months before his assassination, he offered a reflection: One cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the world would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence.” He noted that “before modern civilization came upon us, at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty-four were vouchsafed to us.”

Through his practice of safeguarding silence, Gandhi found the clarity to navigate a world of bewildering news.

For him, silence wasn’t just a strategy for maintaining his own calm and resilience. It was also a core element of his approach to political leadership—and even his rhetoric. 

In a recent piece for The Hindu, Rajeev Kadambi, a political scientist at O.P Jindal Global University, examined the question of why Gandhi didn’t immediately condemn the news of America’s use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Kadambi notes that Gandhi’s refusal to offer a verbal response, at the time, fed rumors that the “global apostle of non-violence and a critic of Western imperialism” somehow approved of the use of the atomic bomb. Gandhi broke his silence to say only this: “The more I think of it, the more I feel that I must not speak on the atomic bomb. I must act if I can.” 

In an age when politicians compete to own the cable news cycle and dominate Twitter, it’s hard to imagine any public figure having such profound reverence for what’s left unspoken.  While Gandhi was obviously as immersed as anyone in political struggle, he saw silence as a requirement for discernment and a force for social transformation.  He was a master of what Kadambi calls, “the magical quality of unspoken-action.”

“It has often occurred to me,” Gandhi wrote late in his life, “that a seeker after truth has to be silent.”

At a personal level, Gandhi’s reverence for silence offers us an example of what it can mean for us to be deeply engaged in the struggles of the world, yet still grounded in a deep practice of reflection and centeredness.  Gandhi gives us a simple practice that we can actually use to navigate the fear, disappointment, and overwhelm of the times in which we’re living: 

Try not speaking for a day.  

Notice how your mind shifts. See if the time in silence changes your orientation toward the world, your relationship to the news, and—perhaps—your capacity to act skillfully and bring about positive change. 

We get it: with the demands of work, childcare, eldercare, and all the other considerations of modern life, it might not be possible to spend your whole Monday in silence.  But you might try a few hours on a day of your choosing. Check in with the people in your life and set realistic expectations. Think of it as a little vacation from the responsibility of having to think of what to say. 

When you return to regular life, notice if you’re able to relate to the news in a healthier way. See if you find a little more capacity for discernment in these disorienting times.

Rajeev Kadambi suggests that Gandhi’s silence was an act to “break from the circulation of violence and counter-violence.”  In our own lives, ritualized silence is a way to break from the grinding cycles of blame and judgment that often define the news these days.  Between today’s obvious options of “burnout” on one hand and “apathy” on the other, Gandhi’s ritual of weekly silence offers a “middle way”—a model for how to find some calm and clarity in an age of overwhelm.  

Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz are the co-authors of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, published by HarperCollins in the US and Penguin/Ebury in the UK. Zorn has served as both a policy adviser and a meditation teacher in the US Congress. Marz is a collaboration consultant and leadership coach for cross-sector coalitions, major universities, and federal agencies.  

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