The Art and Science of Silence

Achieving a state of silence isn’t a passive activity. I know that sounds weird, but it is true. Have you ever tried sitting still, being quiet, and then waiting for your brain to slow down? It isn’t easy. We are mammals wired for action like running down prey or avoiding the same. More apropos to life today, our fast-paced, multimedia, multitasking, full-sensory-explosion lifestyle makes it nearly impossible to tune out the world and turn down the volume in our heads.

Yet for years we’ve been advised to do just that in order to live a more satisfied and healthy life. Dr. Deepak Chopra, whose expertise in neuroscience and meditation is well known, says that in the beginning when we try to relax and breathe in slowly, deeply to a state of silent meditation, the brain runs around like a drunken monkey. It’s true, by golly. My wild brain is not only running like a drunken monkey, but like one that has taken seven hits of speed! It takes a great deal of practice to settle down and just be. We are either: talking, listening, or doing both at the same time (especially if you are a woman). And when alone, the endless dialog in your head has an elusive off button.

Ever notice how children are constantly being verbal? They are either talking to their playmates or singing to themselves. Babies will awaken and lie in their cribs cooing and softly verbalizing to themselves until they get bored, then the alarm cries begin and every parent knows the quiet has ended. We don’t teach our children the art of being silent. On the contrary, we encourage them to talk, socialize, sing, and even debate. These are all good things, but what about listening? Oh sure, we command them to be quiet when we are disciplining them: “I said be quiet and listen to me,” or, “Didn’t you hear me?” or, “Didn’t you hear what I just said?” No, they didn’t hear you, because you didn’t teach them how to listen.

Certainly, children should not be just seen and not heard, but perhaps we are doing them a disservice by not giving them another important skill: the art of silence. Being able to control oneself to the point where silence isn’t threatening, where silence is an opportunity to let something fill the space that has greater value.

People aren’t even quiet when they are asking the answer to a question. One of the things I find most disappointing and distracting is when an interviewer doesn’t allow the interviewee to respond. The interviewer asks a question of their guest, and before the guest can answer, the interviewer is talking again, barely stopping long enough to allow the guest to utter a word. Bill Moyers may be an exception, but even he can sometimes forget that silence is a tool.

When I began in the newspaper industry, I had the opportunity to attend a few seminars on the topic of reporting. Back at the office as I shared with my colleagues what I had learned from one seminar, a crusty old newspaper reporter said, “You didn’t learn the most important thing.” Surprised that he even deigned to speak – he was known for his taciturn disposition – I asked, “What do you mean?” He didn’t answer right away. The silent seconds seemed to allow my beating heart to thunder in my eardrums. I wondered had he even heard me … I realized I was hungry … I fretted that I might have left the car unlocked … I thought about what to get my friend for her birthday … I couldn’t take it any longer. I nearly screamed, “Well, what was the most important thing?!” He responded, “Silence.” He asked me how uncomfortable I felt when he hadn’t responded right away; he wanted to know if thoughts had crowded into my conscious thinking fighting for space. I acknowledged that I was very busy with thoughts during the silence. He said, “For reporters, when you are silent, you’ll hear the lead for your story.”

From that point forward, I began to use silence as a way to not only give myself more self-control, but also to ascertain what others were thinking. For a reporter, the art of silence is absolutely critical to gaining the trust of those you are interviewing, and also to give them ample time to share the information you need, sometimes adding surprising relevance you’d otherwise never have heard.

But the art of silence, of being present yet being quiet, can be useful in so many interactions. In the heat of a disagreement when emotions are running high, we tend to speak before we think … oftentimes with disastrous results. Being quiet even for a few seconds can cool the situation off. Being silent allows others the opportunity to share their innermost thoughts, which can be very helpful when raising children, especially teenagers. Perhaps more than getting the story lead, or cooling off quarrels, or getting someone to fill the silent spaces with disclosure, the art of silence allows us to absorb the world around us, process it, making it clearer and easier to see and experience joy.

When I joined the corporate rat race, I got swept up on a wave of expectations, deadlines, goals, quotas, and political intrigue. The working environment and a busy home life didn’t allow for silent contemplation. Yet I knew that I was slowly being eaten alive by the demands of the job and began to feel totally overwhelmed with even the simplest things at home.

While at work one day, my inbox contained a catalog of motivational materials. Everything from Earle Nightingale (known as the dean of personal development)to Dr. Wayne Dyer (now frequently appearing on PBS, especially during pledge drives) to Chopra and even Ram Dass, whose seminal book Be Here Now was one of the first to introduce the American public to meditation and the power of positive thinking. I was thunder struck by them all. With some limited purchasing power, I ordered several of the cassette tape series and began the process of training my brain to settle down. I’d pop the tapes into my car system and listen as I drove to and from the office. I’d arrive as if carried on a cloud of spiritual healing causing several co-workers to wonder if I was smoking pot on the way to work, “She looks like she’s on something.” On the way home I’d mellow out after a hectic day listening to Joseph Campbell. It helped to put my life into perspective. Perhaps the world didn’t revolve around me after all. What a relief!

One day, as I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the office, I began to practice the Silva Method of self-hypnosis. Counting backward slowly from 100, visualizing each number and concentrating on only seeing that number in my mind’s eye, I drifted into a comfortable, peaceful, warm, lunchtime snooze. My mind wasn’t tormented with a to-do list. My emotions were level and calm. Nothing troubled, bothered, or invaded my space. Hmmmmmm … bambambam! I was blasted out of my imaginary hammock by a very upset co-worker who said, and I quote, “By the look on your face, I thought you were dead!” (Thanks for your concern, bubby.) After that incident, I moved my afternoon meditations to another parking lot. But the point is, I found those recesses from the struggles of producing and providing very helpful. I recommend naps.

Another person whose ideas of how to live a life free from the pressures of the outside world was Tasha Tudor. Tudor (August 1915 – June 2008) was an artist and practitioner of old-fashioned culinary arts and crafts. Through her early childhood struggles and native intelligence, she learned that stillness allowed the creative process to flourish. It also gave her peace. As she pursued a lifetime filled with raising her children, painting, writing, gardening, and cooking, she found deep within those activities joy. She also practiced a nearly silent and very peaceful lifestyle. She believed that we have the choice each day to either take on the day as a chore, or to see and experience joy in the task at hand. Tudor proved that living a life where one finds and takes joy is better for the soul. Her children have continued her work building on her legacy of enjoying a quiet gentle lifestyle versus the frenetic marathon of the 21st century. I’ve decided that my tombstone will have etched for all eternity the simple phrase “Take Joy.”

Now that I’m out of the whitewater rapids of the corporate world and into the placidity of retirement, I don’t seem to require timeouts so often. Yet when I face the blank page, simply stepping away mentally often allows the creative process to flow. I’m going to try and educate my grandchildren on the power of silence. I just have to make sure that when I share this invaluable wisdom with them, the ear buds blasting One Direction’s latest hit are removed.

By Marilou Newell


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