For many of us, true silence only comes when we close our eyes and turn in for the night.
Even when we’re “listening,” our minds churn an inner dialogue: We’re deciding what we’ll say next, contemplating the way the speaker’s mouth is moving, thinking about what’s for lunch.
A healthy fix of silence — whether its a week-long retreat or a few, simple moments focusing on the breath — could do you some good.
In many eastern traditions, Mauna, or observing silence, is an integral practice: Not speaking, and turning inward is thought to bring peace, clarity and spiritual purity. And in the west, even during secular events, we practice “moments of silence,” to respect and reflect.
And in our hyper-connected, buzzing world where there’s a constant soundtrack to our lives (be it a whizzing car, the bark of a dog or the low hum of a computer at work) you’ll have to seek silence deliberately in order to reap its benefits. But, you’ll find it to be worth the effort: Your relationship with quiet — and the act of restoring — could improve your skills when it comes to work, friendships and happiness.
The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
To start, creative types swear by it. In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes about a soprano who had to give up speaking for three weeks to allow her strained vocal cords to recuperate. The opera singer enjoyed the forced silence so much, Tharp recounts, that she turned going mute into an annual ritual.
“It’s not only a rest of her chief artistic-muscle — her voice — it’s also a stark reminder of the difference between what’s worth saying and what isn’t. It’s the perfect editor for the creative soul.” Tharp herself challenges those in search of a creative spark to go on a speaking diet.
Creativity, as writer Mark McGuinness puts it, is a “side-effect” of meditation: In silence, you gain perspective on what matters, and can more comfortably do away with the nonesense. “When you spend time just being present and observing your breath, thoughts, feelings, and moment-to-moment experience, you start to realize how trivial most of our daily worries really are. Even in the midst of the daily grind, you can let go of the small stuff, and keep the big picture in view.”
Davis holds week-long, silent retreats in Assisi, Italy for people to experience life without the noise. “As a psychologist, this is what I think is perfect therapy,” he says. “When you find peace and quiet, you think more clearly, feel more clearly and the body heals itself.”
Most people don’t know what to do with the “free” time that quiet offers. “Their lives are so busy and so structured,” Davis explains. Part of healing requires something as simple as figuring out how you want to spend your afternoon — without distraction to fall back on. That alone can be therapeutic.
Sister Geralyn Schmidt, who took a silent retreat structured similarly to the kind that Davis organizes, discovered that silence is a catalyst for focus. “I found myself observing the unique colors of the houses, the textures of the marble and the awesome samples of flora and fauna,” she wrote on Powerful Learning Practice.
Schmidt is not alone in her experience: We’ve all felt the need for library-quiet when struggling to concentrate. But being in quiet, Davis says, take practice.
Being quiet can make you more thoughtful. As the saying goes, “In silence, we can hear our soul speak.” Without the surface noise, the insignificant chatter will default to mute. “It’s often the quiet ones who out-produce everyone else,” Roberta Matuson wrote in Fast Company last year. You’re able to complete a task, without the secondary, often distracting role of talking it out.
Silence can make you a better listener. We are “losing our listening,” says Julian Treasure in his 2011 TED Talk, “5 Ways To Listen Better. There is plenty to be distracted by, and as a result our skill to really pay attention has weakened. “Listening is our access to understanding,” Treasure explains. “Just three minutes a day of silence is a wonderful exercise to reset your ears and to recalibrate so that you can hear the quiet again. If you can’t get absolute silence, go for quiet, that’s absolutely fine.”
Again, practice is important here. “Listening is one of the most difficult skills on the planet,” Nicole Lipkin, author of “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night,” told Business Insider. “It’s very hard to stop your mind from wandering … there are a lot of reasons why it’s so hard for us. You can always tell when someone’s not giving you their complete attention.” Practicing quiet, whether through retreat, meditation or just a few minutes unplugged, can prepare you as a professional and a friend to really hear.