People who don’t know me reasonably well are typically very surprised to hear this and frequently don’t even believe me: I am an introvert. At times, I’m a pretty severe introvert. So, it’s not much of a surprise that I, as an introvert, have decided to write about being quite – because, frankly, I love being quite.
I also love stories. So, let’s start with a story I read awhile back on social media.
“Once a farmer lost his precious watch while working in his barn. It all attributes it appeared to be an ordinary watch, but it held a deep sentimental value for him.
After searching high and low among the hay for a long time, the old farmer got exhausted. But, the farmer didn’t want to give up the search for his watch, so requested a group of children playing outside the barn to help. He even promised a reward for the person who can find his beloved watch.
After hearing about the reward, the children hurried inside the barn and went through and around the entire stack of hay to find the watch. After a long time looking for a watch, some of the children got tired and gave up. Slowly, the number of children looking for the watch decreased until only a few tired children were left. The farmer gave up all his hope to find the watch and called off the search.
Just when the farmer was closing the barn door, a little boy came up to him and requested the farmer to give him another chance. Well, the farmer did not want to miss any chance of finding the watch so let the little boy in the barn.
After a little while the little boy came out with the watch in his hand. The farmer was happily surprised and asked how the boy succeeded to get the watch when everyone, including himself, had failed.
The boy replied ‘I just sat there and tried listening to the ticking of the watch. In silence, it was much easier to listen to it and direct the search in the direction of the sound.’”
Our lives are engulfed in noise. In reality, it is very hard to escape all the noise. Even if we do seek out silence, the odds are we won’t truly find silence – there’s still the hum of the HVAC system, the whir of a computer fan, incidental creeks and squeaks. We live in a world where silence has become increasingly difficult to come buy.
Writer, George Prochnick, claims that he has had a passion for silence for nearly as long as he can remember. In his most recent book he goes on a quest for silence. The book’s title is “In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.” In it, he leaves his home in New York City (I think we now know why he has a passion for silence) and goes on a quest around the world to find others like him who still value silence.
Part of what he learned as he visited people and places that valued silence is that absolute silence is impossible to find, but what you can find is quiet spaces, quite moments – and those quiet moments are essential in our lives both biologically and mentally. I would add spiritually as well.
Biologically, as Prochnick points out, “There’s increasing evidence that harm goes across our systems [from noise]… There’s been a long association with noise and hearing loss… — but there’s also new studies just completed that show danger to our cardiovascular systems. Even when not awakened, blood pressure goes up and hours later, the blood pressure is still elevated.”
Florence Nightingale, the 19th century British nurse and social activist, seems to have understood the issues with noise and health long before others. She once wrote that “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel 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. If you’ve ever spent any time in a hospital, you know they could really stand to heed her advice.
The activity of our modern life puts a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain most dedicated to high-order thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving.
Not surprisingly, that means our attentional resources regularly become drained. And when that happens, we become easily distracted and mentally fatigued; we can struggle to focus, to solve problems, and to come up with new ideas.
But according to something that those who study the brain call Attention Restoration Theory, the brain can restore its cognitive abilities when we put ourselves in environments that have lower levels of sensory input than usual. Silence is one of the major ways to practice Attention Restoration Theory.
I for one have found this to be very true. Writers block is a real and frustrating thing. When I’m honest about it, it most happens when I have had a particularly long stretch of sensory overload. So, when I’m thinking about it (which isn’t every time I experience writer’s block), I seek out quite moments. For me, it takes at least 10 minutes – sometimes half an hour.
I just sit in the chair where I am, reduce the number of things that are making noise as much as possible and close my eyes gently. Sometimes I simply breathe in and out – deeply and slowly. Sometimes, I let my mind wander in the silence – letting thoughts come and go or as I like to say “I let them bounce around until something starts to stick.” I literally cannot tell you the number of times it not only overcame my writer’s block but I also ended up with a rather creative perspective that I’m not sure I would have been capable of before the quite time.
Scientists call this quite time: “self-generated cognition.” It can be meditating, daydreaming, fantasizing about the future, or (as I do) letting our minds wander. It turns out that when our brains are more quite and disengaged from external stimuli, we more easily tap into our inner stream of thoughts, emotions, memories, and ideas. It helps us to make meaning out of our experiences, to empathize with others, to be more creative, and to reflect on our own mental and emotional states.
Ravi Shankar, Indian musician and a composer of Hindustani classical music once said, “Whether you are aware of them or not, whether you recognize them as spiritual or not, you probably have had the experiences of silence, or transcendence, or the Divine—a few seconds, a few minutes that seem out of time; a moment when the ordinary looks beautiful, glowing; a deep sense of being at peace, feeling happy for no reason. When these experiences come…believe in them. They reflect your true nature.”
Most spiritual movements have recognized the value of silence. I believe that is because silence cultivates awareness – awareness of self, awareness of environment, awareness of others, awareness of our connectedness, and for some of us, awareness of something larger than us. At its core, spirituality is about these kinds of awareness.
Intellectually, we can study and observe the importance of each of them. We can make the necissary arguments needed to convince ourselves and possibly even convince others about how important it is to have an awareness of the value of self, environment, others, and our connectedness. But, it isn’t until we quiet the world around us, all the sensory stimuli, and reach out in our silence that we begin to embody, take to heart, become somewhat entangled in those realities.
Being quite, impacts our physical, mental, and spiritual lives more than most people recognize. Perhaps that is why so few (including myself) practice it on a regular basis.
So now, please, be quiet.