Upon meeting a Zen master at a social event, a psychiatrist decided to ask him a question that had been on his mind for a long time.
“Exactly how do you help people?” the man inquired.
“I get them where they can’t ask any more questions.” the master replied.
Mental noise is hurting our minds — we are continually asking questions that create busyness, not knowledge. We are in “reacting mode,” leaving no room for reflection. To regain perspective in life, you need to pause. Silence is fertile ground.
When was the last time you pushed the pause button in your life?
Silence is not just lack of noise. It’s an empty space for your mind to recover clarity. And to protect it from mental noise.
Many people believe silence is isolation. However, it’s busyness that detaches us from reality. You need to take distance and reflect. As Lao-Tzu said: “Just remain in the center, watching. And then forget that you are there.”
Silence is not about the absence of sound — it invites the presence of everything else.
Silence is an endangered species
“I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” — G.K. Chesterton
Noise keeps us busy.
Our brain is continually exposed to internal and external stimuli. Silence feels impossible, like emptying our spirit.
What creates noise in your life?
Social media notifications, Netflix binging, overthinking, constantly being surrounded by others, and overloading our calendars are just many of the infinite ways to avoid silence. We’ve turned noise into entertainment — it provides a temporary distraction so you can’t pay attention.
Gordon Hempton believes that silence is an endangered species.
He’s an acoustic ecologist — a collector of sound all over the world. For Hempton, real quietness is being present — silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. The Earth is a ‘solar-powered jukebox.’ He believes that we take in the world through its ears.
Noise is contaminating our minds.
The World Health Organization in a 2011 report called noise pollution a “modern plague,” concluding that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
Noise is not just a modern disease. It has been hurting our minds since the 19th century. Back then, a British nurse and social activist, Florence Nightingale, wrote that “Unnecessary noise is the cruelest absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” Nightingale argued that needless sounds could cause distress, sleep loss and alarm for recovering patients.
Permanent silence is not always good either. Animals must listen to survive — that’s how we anticipate danger before it happens.
The problem is when noise becomes escapism.
Psychologist Carl Jung noted that we naturally seek out noise because it suggests human company — we used to need the comfort and safety of the group to survive. Nonetheless, our lives are not under constant attack as they were many centuries ago. Detaching from our environment for a couple of hours won’t put your life in danger.
When you step back from an issue, you can spend more time on solving the right problem.
The paradox of sound
“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.” — Elbert Hubbard
Silence is not about the absence of sound but the presence of something else. Your mind is like a canvas — if it’s full of noise, you can’t paint anything new on it. When we are in silence, we make room for everything else.
Gordon Hempton wants your help in recovering the value of silence. “Not too long ago it was assumed that clean water’s not important, that seeing the stars is not that important. But now it is. I think we’re realizing quiet is important, and we need silence. That silence is not a luxury, but it’s essential.” — the acoustic ecologist said.
When you remove the noise, the essential speaks up. However, though it’s a magnificent revelatory experience, it can backfire if you don’t prepare adequately. The voices we hear in silence can create worrying noises.
Our constant social connectivity keeps us busy. What’s even worse, we let our social identity to speak louder than our true self. The fear of missing out keeps you away from your reality — you stop paying attention. Without self-reflection, there’s no understanding. Silence lets your inner voice become present.
If the brain is actively processing noise it can’t turn off — it’s impossible to rest and reset when you are always asking questions or reacting to external stimuli.
Getting rid of the noise is more an aspiration than a reality. That’s the paradox of silence: we wish we could have quiet time, but it’s not easy to pull off. Removing other voices means we need to start listening to our true thoughts and words.
Being in front of white canvas or blank page can be intimidating. That’s why most of us run away from silence.
Silence has many meanings
“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Is silence just the absence of noise? Or is there a deeper reason for you to invite sound into your life?
Silence is cultural. For the Japanese, silence is more positive than it is for other populations.
Japanese people highly value silence as an essential form of non-verbal communication — it conveys information, emotions and it’s a sign of respect and personal distance.
In his 2007 paper “The Cultural Significance of Silence in Japanese Communication,” Takie Sugiyama Lebra identifies four dimensions of silence: Truthfulness, Social Discretion, Embarrassment, and Defiance. The first three dimensions are helpful to maintain positive relations while the last one has a negative connotation.
In the Western world, silence is associated with doubt, loneliness or pain. If you tell your friends that you need silence, they might understand the feeling. But if you don’t answer their messages for 12 hours because you opted to stay silent, they will assume something is wrong with you.
Silence is always ambiguous. It’s difficult to understand its true meaning.
Rather than trying to define silence, think of it as an experience. Silence is the real sound of music. Empty spaces play a meaningful role in building the right atmosphere in architecture and space design. The white space is the most crucial element in visual design.
There are two types of silence: outer and inner. Getting rid of external distractions is not enough; you want to avoid your thoughts from eating you alive.
Why silence is the think tank of the mind
When you pause, you don’t just stop talking. You also choose not to listen to external distractions. Everything is within you.
Silence enables something else to emerge. Perspective, reflection, distance, ideas, and solutions, all show up unexpectedly when you silence the mind. It’s a whole ‘team’ that comes to help you. Gordon Hempton said: “Quiet is a think tank of the soul. We take the world through its ears.”
Lao-Tzu believed that “Silence is the great revelation.” He said that we turn to books for revelation, but their authors found the interlude of silence as their source of inspiration. Silence can bring you directly to the original source of knowledge.
Silence adds intentionality and rhythm to your life.
The same happens with music. Without silence, the various notes would all feel the same. Utilizing silence for very brief — less than a few beats — or for longer periods, creates a different impact on the listener.
Silence is more than a beautiful state of mind; it positively benefits your health:
- It helps grow new brain cells. A 2013 study found that two hours of silence could create new cells in the hippocampus region, a brain area linked to learning, remembering, and emotions.
- It decreases stress by lowering blood cortisol levels and adrenaline. A 2006 study in Heart showed that two minutes of silence relieves tension in the body and brain — it’s more relaxing than listening to music.
How to recover the power of silence
Practicing silence is not easy.
Going for a walk outside in nature, taking a deliberate break or practicing deep breathing exercises are easy ways to get you started.
Try the following exercises and see which works best for you. Start in small doses. Being silent can backfire at the beginning. It takes time to enjoy the benefits of not being distracted by noise.
1. The Silence Exercise
David Swartz, a history professor, uses this exercise as a transition after one of his courses. He invites students to write a short paper on silence. During 90 minutes, everyone focuses on the task without speaking.
Students are instructed to put away their smartphones and leave the presence of other people. The paper is a reflection on the experience and includes a historical perspective too. What does it feel like to be silent? What happens when we don’t have constant access to a smartphone? How is our lifestyle different to premodern times ones?
2. Beyond the word
This exercise is based on an ancient Indian prescription: read for one hour, write for two hours and meditate for three hours. The purpose of such proportion is to avoid being blind recorders of other people’s words or ideas. You can stick to the ratio but start with a shorter duration for each part.
The exercise encourages a personal dialogue and self-reflection. It’s a nice transition: from being in the company of someone else’s words to being surrounded by your ideas as you write, and, finally, focusing on silencing your mind.
3. The Silence Game
This Montessori Exercise builds on the concept that, deeper awareness and sensitivity to noise, help us get into a “more refined and subtle world.” Constant noise can create irritability, frustration, confusion, and even sleepiness.
The purpose of this exercise is to make silence collectively. A board with the word “silence” and a picture of a tranquil place, reminds that every child might do its part. The silence is not only a positive outcome but is the byproduct of everyone’s effort.
4. The sound of one hand clapping
Our logic says that we need two hands to clap. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a Zen challenge that has several interpretations. Some say that it’s a way to help you listen to other sounds — your heart, the rhythm of your breathing or the awareness of your mind. Others believe it’s a metaphor how we see life with a dualistic approach: cause and effect.
I use this question when coaching teams to invite them to reflect on the power of silence. Sometimes to inspire creative ways to make sound with just one hand. Other times, simply to challenge logical thinking; by putting our rationality aside, we let the think tank of the mind show up.
5. Meditation: The Silence That is Listening
This guided meditation by Tara Brach emphasizes the anchor of listening; it guides us to relax through our body and let sounds wash our thoughts out. You don’t need any previous meditation experience to benefit from it.
Listening to sounds is powerful to quiet the thinking mind. It will help you connect with the natural openness of awareness. By becoming more receptive, you can welcome your full presence and the peace of quietness.
6. Building a tower with a constraint
Imposing constraints challenges individuals and those who interact with them alike — everyone must adjust their behaviors. A set of teams are challenged to build the tallest tower using Jenga blocks. It seems simple until most team members are assigned a specific constraint: one cannot speak, another is blindfolded, one cannot use the hands, etc.
Not being able to speak reframes the interaction. The person who’s silent pays more attention. The rest of the team becomes more attentive to the quiet person’s feedback. It dramatically increases both collaboration and self-awareness.
7. Become silent for a day
This exercise is about cutting the chord literally and metaphorically without attending a silent retreat. You can define what ‘a day’ means for you. I would suggest that you aim for at least four to six hours. And then gradually increase it.
Becoming silence is about unplugging from social media, emails, phone calls, and every other form of communication — including face-to-face dialogue. You need to set up some grounding rules to those close to you.
I just finished a conference in Istanbul and was mentally exhausted after three days of speaking, workshops, and social events. I took a 14-hour break: no Internet, no phone, alone, and without talking to anyone. It was a powerful experience to reset my mind and regain peace as I wandered around the Old City without any plan at all.
How do you deal with silence?
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Originally published at medium.com