The practice of silence has been traditionally valued across all cultures. Now, more than ever, as we talk ourselves into greater strife and chaos, there is an urgent need to get started on this practice. Discover the benefits and power of silence and how to get started on the practice of silence.
As I get older, I realize I have more rules in my life. Not just rules for me to abide by but rules for others around me to follow. Especially, for others around me to follow. Okay, ONLY for others around me to follow.
One such rule is the need for silence. For the first couple of hours, after I wake up, I’d rather not speak to anyone or even listen to other conversations. It’s almost like I’ve hung a sign around my neck that says ‘Just leave me be’.
Not because I’m not a ‘morning person’. Far from it (you can read my fascination with the superpower of mornings here).
It’s because, ever since discovering the power of silence, I’ve become hooked. I revel in the practice of silence now. I crave the quiet of mornings so much that I keep moving my wake-up time further and further up to ensure I get a couple of undisturbed hours at my disposal.
This almost addictive quality about silence made me wonder if I was turning completely anti-social as I age. So, I went about trying to research the basis for why silence is so addictive and sought after.
I’m glad I did.
Because I hit upon a veritable goldmine of information that I feel is worth sharing here.
Silence – A universal phenomenon
Silence has been revered in many ancient traditions worldwide. Hinduism, for instance, recommends a vow of silence (Maun-vrat) at certain times. Monastic traditions and even Western Christian traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism similarly endorse periods of silence.
More recently, silence has become a secular instrument to express protest or remonstrate against social issues and causes.
History is replete with examples of silence being touted as this great virtue.
Indian spiritual text
This popular Sanskrit verse appears in the spiritual text Viveka Chudamani, published in the 8th century:
Yogasya pratamam dwaram vaang nirodha
This roughly translates as “The first threshold to enlightenment is silence’’.
Spiritual leaders teach this verse thus:
You won’t find the pearl you’re looking for if you constantly keep churning the ocean water. You need to let stillness set in for the pearl to appear.
The analogy is that if you always are engaged in speech and action, you’re simply churning the desired result away. Instead, simply stand by and allow for some silence – you’ll be surprised at what comes out quite organically.
Another example comes from an English translation of a German novel, Sartor Resartus by poet Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th century. A line in the novel reads
Sprechen ist Silber, Schweigen ist gold
Translation: Speech is silver, silence is golden. The latter part of this expression (Silence is golden) is now rather ubiquitous in the English language.
Why Silence is Golden
Hindu mythology contains the story of Lord Ganesh acting as a scribe to Sage Ved Vyas as the latter recited the verses of the holy text, Bhagavad Gita. At the end of the long text, almost 20,000 words, the Sage was very impressed, especially with Ganesh’s ability to remain silent through the process.
When asked how he managed to remain silent without uttering a single word, Ganesh used an analogy of oil lamps. 'Some lamps may have a lot of oil, while others may have little – however, no lamp has an incessant supply of oil'.
He went on to add 'Similarly, we are bestowed with limited resources that need to be used judiciously. The first step towards such a disciplined existence is by conserving energy through speech, using the practice of silence'.
To understand why silence is so revered, let’s first take a look at the opposite of silence. Noise.
The opposite of silence – Noise
There is some uncertainty about the Latin root for the word noise - the opposite of silence.
Note, that noise is not restricted to just loud clatter.
Noise is anything that diminishes the quality of the result you seek. In other words, noise is anything that interferes with silence.
The word ‘noise’ could have either originated from ‘nausia’ /’nausea’ - a feeling of sickness or ‘noxia’ – hurt, injury, damage.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that neither of these definitions is pleasant or likely to be sought after. Silence sounds much more pleasant.
But why should you care about silence at all?
Benefits of silence
Allows time for thought
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Need I say more? Just because something pops into your head, is usually not a good reason to let it out through your mouth. Empty vessels make much noise. We think about 80,000 thoughts a day mostly rubbish. Silence acts like a filter.
With practice, you’ll know to filter out all the nonsense in your head and allow just meaningful and coherent thoughts to escape. Otherwise, you risk spending the rest of your life trying to clean out the metaphorical oil spills you create.
You hear more when you speak less
When you speak less you hear more. Sometimes, your own voice is like a drone that drowns out the environment. The practice of silence helps quieten the drone, so you can hear the birds chirp.
This is closely tied also to the art of listening. One of the primary reasons for communication breakdowns is because, instead of hearing what someone’s saying, we’re too busy already formulating our responses. Since multitasking is a myth, we end up missing important pieces of the initial story.
Allows time to connect dots
More often than not, we have a lot of data. It's usually a challenge to find the time and skills to distill all this data into information. Sleep helps make the dots between data points, creating connections. Silence helps us intuitively understand these connections. This is how human progress is made.
The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind - Albert Einstein
The greatest creative works – from Einstein to Van Gogh - are produced in the quiet corners of a lab or studio without much fanfare.
Allows us to reflect
Notice how moments of silence are observed as a mark of respect typically for the loss of a valuable life (or lives). The point of these silent moments is to ponder and reflect on the value that the deceased person brought to us or to society in general. It is during these quiet moments of reflection we understand what values are passed on to us.
Science has proven that just a 2-minute period of silence has a better effect on calming the respiratory system than soothing music does. This study was the most downloaded study when it was published in the Heart magazine in 2006.
The flip side of this is just how just a little disruption to silence can shake things up quite badly.
Just last night, a car alarm went off at 3 am in my neighborhood. It was loud and grating (obviously, car alarms are designed that way for a reason). It interrupted the quiet of the night. I’m sure a lot of blood pressures were raised during this process. Lights turned on in neighbor’s homes. Dogs started to bark. It took the household a while to get back to sleep. Just an hour of interrupted sleep resulted in a lot of grumpiness in the morning.
This is the value of silence.
Noise pollution is a real thing. Just being in a silent environment calms you down. This is because there you typically only have to deal with your own neuroses instead of everyone else’s too!
How many times have you said something, you think 'in jest', only for it to be misconstrued and end up causing a mini world war?
Gossip is a classic example. While it may be exhilarating, at the moment to vent and get some juicy gossip going, it never bodes well in the long run. The practice of silence helps us to control the problem at source by keeping our traps shut.
There is a reason, the 5th amendment is written into the US Constitution. When in doubt, plead the 5th, so you don’t self-incriminate and make a bad situation worse.
Helps create new brain cells
A research paper published in 2013 made people sit up and take notice. The paper, authored by I.Kirste and Zeina Nicola, was titled ‘Is silence golden? Effects of auditory stimuli and their absence on adult hippocampal neurogenesis’.
The researchers noted that over time, mice exposed to silence started to show signs of new brain cell growth. In contrast, other auditory stimuli did not produce any cellular changes.
This finding, by its very nature, has tremendous potential for the treatment of debilitating brain diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s.
With all these benefits, no wonder silence has had an exalted place in history and continues to be a sought after commodity.
What silence is not
I have seen people, apparently in the midst of their vows of silence, indulging in actions that would put mime artists to shame. They gesticulate wildly or their faces are full of expressions. You know exactly what they’re trying to communicate. Words are unnecessary.
Or sometimes, they use the power of their bodies or movement to indicate what’s going on. When you notice someone stomping their foot or loudly banging a door shut, do you wonder ‘Gee, if only I could tell whether he’s happy or sad or angry’? Never. Because words are unnecessary when the rest of the body is doing the talking.
Silence is not a license to be a jerk. If you’ve ever been victim to the ‘silent treatment’ either in a relationship or a ghosting episode, you’ll know how infuriating it can be. The line between saying nothing and saying anything is a fine one. The only way to get better at toeing that line is through practice.
Silence is not about becoming an introvert if you identify as an extrovert. Nor is it a case for introverts to strengthen their ‘introvertism’. It is a skill that provides equal value regardless of your personality type.
In short, silence is not about simply staying quiet while the rest of your body and mind are raging.
Now let’s see what silence is about…
What silence is
Silence is a step above simply living in your head. It means to add a layer of detachment between you and the environment while you are still very much, consciously in it.
Silence is very much about being present. It is to observe and take in everything around you without comment or judgment knowing you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that later.
A spreadsheet analogy
As someone who spends a good percentage of her time analyzing spreadsheets, I’ll use a spreadsheet analogy. To perform good data analysis, you need high-quality raw data since your analysis is only as good as the data you use.
Let’s say I’m asked to analyze some survey responses on whether dogs, cats, or hamsters make the best pets. I input the surveys but forget to load up data relating to hamsters.
While I may arrive at the same conclusion, that dogs make the best pets (sorry cat and hamster owners), even if I had correctly made my hamster-input, my process is flawed. Not only am I doing hamster-owners a disservice by underrepresenting their lot, but ultimately my report isn’t credible anymore.
The truth is I get lucky some times, but if I don’t fix the process, it’s only a matter of time before I reach diametrically opposite conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.
Silence and spreadsheets
What’s this long story on spreadsheets got to do with silence, you ask? A lot.
Silence will help you ensure a solid input-capture process. When you are silent and take the time to listen, observe, and absorb, you are likely to eventually end up with the correct analyses of any situation.
Silence helps you to avoid snap judgments, forcing you to listen to facts instead of reinforcing your own cognitive biases. Trust your brain and memory to support you through this process. It will get better with practice.
Being quiet and in silence enables us to learn from the environment. When we are not constantly engaged in ‘doing’ we lend ourselves to receiving. This is the way to fairness and empathy.
Finland’s marketing story
One of the best anecdotes I’ve seen about silence was published in the online magazine Nautilus in 2014. The article describes how Finland Tourism came up with a unique and creative country branding and marketing concept.
Finland Tourism’s marketing experts were struggling to find an appealing Unique selling proposition for the country. Eventually, they settled on marketing Finland as a QUIET destination, a place you can find silence in. Obviously, this was based on their market research which indicated society’s desperate need for silence.
Wilderness photos with the tagline ‘Silence, please’ were used. A novel concept for sure, but they were spot-on!
The how-to of silence
This would make the shortest book in the world because there are just two words.
As in, simply stop talking or doing. Unfortunately, the simplest sounding things are usually the hardest to do.
We can learn a lot from the humble turtle. How it’s able to retract its head, legs, and tail in adverse circumstances. The turtle does this as a defense mechanism to protect itself against predators.
We can practice silence similarly to protect us not just from outside influences but from our own selves by withdrawing our senses and withholding responses to stimuli.
Ultimately, we could all benefit from taking a version of the Hippocratic oath, as physicians do. Do no harm. The practice of silence will take you much farther down that road than any other discipline.
Don’t speak unless you can improve upon the silence.
Here are a few suggestions on how to incorporate silence into your life.
Especially if you’re the kind of person who cannot walk into a room without announcing your entrance. Loudly. Try to hold yourself back. At least for a couple of minutes. The practice of silence is not going to diminish your big personality. Next time you are at a gathering, try to hear more than speak.
Set periodic silent timers on your watch for, say, 5 minutes at a time, 3-4 times a day. When the timers go off, simply stop doing and start observing. Goes without saying, use prudence on when to set these timers. For instance, not in the middle of a work presentation. Especially not when you are the presenter.
Like any skill, it’s hard to practice with your feet to the fire. So, practice in non-threatening situations. Meditation is a great way to do this.
Yes. Here I’m again, harping on about the power of Meditation. But do it. Turn off your phones, shut the door just and let yourself quieten down. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes.
Over time you may experience the oxymoronic deafening silence. Silent meditation retreats are classic examples where you encounter this. I have been to a few. If you’re an experienced meditator, used to silence, I encourage looking up a silent meditation retreat in your area. These are difficult, demanding yet incredible experiences.
This is where you are simply left alone, devoid of distractions. Most of the time it is just you with your thoughts. Believe me, they can get very loud, almost deafening.
No wonder we are tempted to use noise and chatter to distract ourselves to avoid this uncomfortable situation. But, persist. You’ll uncover wisdom beneath the noise.
Word of caution: if you have trouble staying quiet for 20 minutes, a day or week-long silent retreat may be a bad choice. Start first by scheduling stillness and silence breaks into your day in your own environment.
Set aside time to avoid social graces
Typically, at the silent meditation retreats, you are encouraged to shift your gaze down. You’re told to watch the ground instead of the horizon. This is to discourage you from making eye contact with another person.
That’s because we are conditioned to act a certain way when we encounter another person. We feel compelled to smile, nod, wave, or whatever other social graces we were taught.
Silence is about getting away from it all for a little bit to focus inward.
When you have too much mental clutter going on in your head, it needs an outlet. A lot of times, we use the power of words. Mix it up, by choosing a calming pursuit such as exercising. Quietly. Your head will usually sort itself out.
Everything in moderation
Don’t overdo the silence thing. We are a social species. Use silence judiciously to know how to be a better social animal. This is not monk-training.
I recently had a dental cleaning. I have, let’s just say a chatty dentist. Not the most ideal vocation for a chatty person to have. Here’s what happened.
I was on my dental chair with my mouth wide open and all manner of contraptions inserted into it. Then my dentist began a conversation. This wasn’t simply a one-way anecdote-reciting story she told me. Instead, it was a full-on conversation, pauses included, where she expected the counter-party to the conversation – Me – to respond.
With the dental assistant spraying water into my teeth, my dear dentist peppered me with questions. How was my day going? What diet advice would I give to someone that has trouble sticking to a vegetarian diet? When was the last time I went to India? Have I started to make holiday plans? Really.
All through this, I sat there with my mouth gaping – quite literally – barely able to eke out words because it was physically quite impossible.
I understand. Cleaning teeth can get monotonous after a while. But if we can’t engage in the practice of silence here, then where???
I may just have a very gregarious dentist – bless her heart, but this gregariousness is reinforced by the expectations that our society places on people. Especially, those in the service industry are EXPECTED to be warm, friendly, talkative ALL the TIME. A dentist who barely converses probably gets a 2-star review on Yelp.
A few last words
Silence somehow seems to mess with the ‘cult-of-personality’ definition that we’ve given ourselves, especially in the Western world.
The point here is not just that we shouldn’t be talking all the time but we should also expect others to not be talking all the time. Because there is power in the practice of silence. And sometimes, it’s just senseless to initiate conversations.
Go on and get started on your own vows of silence. Even it’s just for a couple of minutes. You'll be amazed at what you uncover.
The quieter you become the more you are able to hear – Rumi