The sound of silence

12:05 AM January 20, 2016

Over the New Year holidays, I went on a seven-day silent meditation retreat. I did something similar last year, but this was longer and more spartan. The rules: No talking, no loud noises, no iPhones or laptops, no books, no TV, and no writing. It is just you with your mind and nature, a slab of concrete for a bed and a wooden pillow to rest your head on, no meals after lunch, and no mirrors to see yourself. Those who learned what I went through said they could not survive it. I doubt if that is true. The food was amazing.

Most of us acknowledge the tyranny of constant stimulation in modern life, but the paradox is that we are so afraid of silence. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, in his book “The Conquest of Happiness” written in the 1930s, said we are so afraid of boredom that we see it as something to be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement. He warned: “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”


Why are we so afraid? One theory is that we do not want to be alone with our thoughts. As Anne Lamott, an American writer, wittingly said, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood, I try not to go there alone.”

Some say this tyranny of constant stimulation, the loss of the interior of our lives, is the crisis of our age. The nonstop iPhone checking, list making, goal setting, and ladder climbing, the perceived urgency of the next thing, have deprived us of the space, the freedom, to take that sacred pause, to take time to ask ourselves the most important questions, to just be.


We glorify multitasking, and feel inadequate when compared to seemingly successful multitaskers. But nothing can be farther from the truth. In a multitasking study published in 2009, Stanford University researchers showed that the most persistent multitaskers performed badly in a variety of tasks, even in the task of multitasking itself. This was a complete shock to the researchers as their original hypothesis was that these so-called successful multitaskers had some unusual cognitive gifts, and the aim of the study was precisely to identify what these gifts were. It turned out there was none to be found.

In the Ivy League, where the “brag” (the list of extracurriculars in an applicant’s resumé) is a big factor in admission (10-12 leadership positions, on top of perfect grades and excellent standardized exam scores, are not uncommon for a new admit), there is a growing recognition of the folly of more and more doing, rather than being. In a letter titled “Slow Down,” addressed to new admits a few years ago, the dean of Harvard College said: “Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled: it is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged, like the empty square in the 4×4 puzzle which makes it possible to move the other 15 pieces around.”

Exactly. Simplicity, solitude and silence—they seem to go hand-in-hand, so that human beings can step away from the routine of their lives and gain a deeper insight of themselves and of life. The only way we can live our fullest lives is to listen to ourselves, to that quiet voice inside that tells us what we really care about and what we really believe in.

Søren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher, writes: “The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.”

Some people go on retreats; others find silence in more mundane ways. Haruki Murakami, in his wonderful book, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” said: “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that.”

Pico Iyer, author of another wonderful book called “The Art of Stillness,” said: “And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating than taking a few minutes out of every day or a few days out of every season, or even, as some people do, a few years out of a life in order to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most, to recall where your truest happiness lies and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.”

What is the sound of silence? My answer: It is wisdom.


Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer living in New York City, and a Search Inside Yourself-certified teacher (siyli.org).

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TAGS: happiness, multitasking, silence, Wisdom
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