“The silence allows you to do each thing right.” — Robert Pirsig
In the modern world, our lives have been upended by the constant influx of technology. New apps, sites, and gadgets are invented every day, and with it comes endless nudges and beeps that keep everyone abuzz. People are ceaselessly competing for other people’s attention, every second of every minute of every day.
This milieu has transformed the absence of sound into a luxury and I could no longer afford it. In my erstwhile 9–5 grind, the only semblance of peace I could get was 6 hours of sleep, and that was lucky. I was jolted daily by the alarm, which starts off days of endless activity and mindless interruptions. I was alerted by cars honking as early as 5:30 AM when the streets of Manila are already gridlocked despite my extra effort to escape the morning rush hour hell. There was no escaping the noise.
So I did what used to be unthinkable: I wrote down what I wanted to do with my life. Simple yet profound, but I had been too busy to do it. The busyness kept me away from what truly mattered. I was driving in the same direction as everyone else, thinking it was the right course for me. It was not, and I wanted to stop the madness.
I came up with four answers: travel, read, sing and write. If I have these four things in my life, I will be happy and will have achieved success.
The common denominator among the four is the need for silence. To travel and recharge, I would need to break away from my phone. To devour an Ishiguro masterpiece, I would need isolation. To entertain through my music, I would need private time for practice. To write, I would need solitude.
I need quiet.
It has been a long journey of rediscovery because habits, good and bad, are contagious. I had adopted changes in my lifestyle that were not necessary or beneficial to my growth. Without realizing it, I had morphed into a person in relentless pursuit of success without clearly defining first what success to me was.
What has helped in my slow redemption is a conscious effort to talk less. Talking is not that helpful anyway to what I want to achieve. If anything, I need to listen more. I try to work on that every day.
When tuning in to music, I have become more selective and intentional even though this is mandatory for me as a musician. Spotify knows my tastes, so when relying on the daily mix, the experience is not that regrettable. When learning new music for my band, I block time for it, usually before going to bed. But when I do feel the need for music to provide the right mood, inspiration, and energy only it can provide, I let it rip.
I take advantage of the “Do Not Disturb” function on my phone, which I turn on whenever I am writing. When someone texts me within the DND window, which is usually from 6 AM to 10 AM, it activates an auto-reply that politely informs the sender that I cannot be distracted. If the message is urgent, the sender just needs to send “urgent” so that the message gets through.
I have turned off all social media notifications on my phone. Frequent checking of Facebook and Instagram is a time-consuming exercise in futility. It leads us down to rabbit holes with no end in sight. I do not encourage removing the apps from your mobile phone, just the notifications that annoyingly disturb our thought processes, lunch dates, and family dinners.
I still have access to email on my phone sans the real-time notifications. I batch the process by logging in to check incoming mail at 11 AM and 4 PM only.
I even went to the extreme. I quit my job so I could consult from home and serve just a handful of clients. This does not apply to everyone, but if you are considering it, I recommend doing a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. In my case, the opportunity cost that surpassed my pay was the 4-hour daily commute, four noisy, unproductive hours that could have been better spent on thinking, writing and learning. I would go home spent with nothing left for my family, and then wake up the next day to torture myself all over again. The invisible effects of daily traffic to both my physical and mental health were also considered. It was time to go it alone.
An easier way to buy some alone time is through transcendental meditation. Anyone can do this anywhere. This effortless technique that is most effective in complete silence is perhaps the most important investment I have made for my health.
I have written previously about miracle mornings, a term adopted from Hal Elrod’s book. It basically describes how getting up much earlier than everyone else, and not being bothered by other people’s demands, allows for deep work. I do my best writing in a flow state at 7 AM and only respond to messages or calls at 11 AM.
True nirvana, for me at least, is silence away from the crowds and the sheer volume of frenetic activity that city life demands. Almost every day, I yearn for the slower cadence and calming signs of bucolic living: roosters crowing, waves lapping, gushing creek. But that dream will have to wait. The mega-metropolis is still where the work I do can be achieved most effectively. All I can do for now is to calendar silence and make it a priority. If it is not on the agenda, “peacetime” will be forgotten and I will always be at war with myself. The substance and strength of my work could be diminished, and I know that only through work that was done well will I be content.
“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.”
― Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer