Embracing Silence Can Change Your Life

In the twenty-first century, time may be more important than money. A recent survey by the University of Maryland found that 48 percent of low-to-middle-income Americans questioned said they would give up a day's pay each week in return for an extra day of free time. Among those with incomes above $30,000, more than two-thirds — 70 percent — said they would make the same trade-off.

Time is the great equalizer. In literal terms, the wealthiest among us has no more time than the welfare recipient: 24 hours each day. And despite a plethora of labor-saving devices and a huge increase in life expectancy, polls suggest that at least half the U.S. population suffers from schedule overload.

The irony is that millions of us tend to add more activities and obligations to our already full calendars, not fewer. Like compulsive spenders intent on "maxing-out" our credit cards, we often fill every minute of our waking hours with activities we feel are absolutely essential and non-negotiable.

Rarely is there a sense that deliberately non-scheduled time is necessary for our fundamental well-being. Silence, stillness, and solitude are squeezed to the margins of our lives — or dropped entirely. Yet each of us, with the application of a little self-discipline, can reclaim at least some of the quiet, simple, alone time that has become so rare in our Information Age.

We can take charge of our precious discretionary time by embracing silence and stillness as intimate companions, using them as coping mechanisms for jam-packed lifestyles. Clinical studies and personal testimonies confirm that the benefits of daily solitude — as little as ten minutes a day — frequently include positive personal growth, mental clarity, stress reduction, and a greater sense of well-being. Throughout human history, "time-outs" for being quiet and alone have proven to be an effective technique for maintaining psychological equilibrium, finding inner peace, and acquiring self-knowledge.

By now you may be saying to yourself, "Get real! It's impossible for me to find time to be quiet and alone! My life is too full to add even one more activity, especially sitting around gazing at my navel!" If you're like almost everybody I know, your life is already overflowing. You feel there's no time to do even the things you have to do, let alone want to do. But I believe we already have opportunities to incorporate silence and solitude into our lives. It's simply a matter of changing our definitions of those words and using discretionary moments in new ways.

Creating Opportunities for Solitude

The first step is to disavow the notion that embracing silence and solitude means carving big blocks of time out of a busy day. Coaxed from the idle moments that already exist in our over-booked lives, interludes wait to reveal and align themselves. The second step is convincing yourself that making a place for silence, stillness, and solitude is not about escaping from reality or wasting precious time. In fact, the opposite is true. An embrace of quiet alone time on a regular basis has the power to heighten your awareness of what's really going, improve your sense of well-being, and pay for itself by making you more efficient in how you spend your day.

Experiencing silence, stillness, and solitude does not necessarily demand that you be physically alone, sit quietly, cease purposeful activity or meditate. There are an infinite number of ways to inhabit these states of being. You may be driving a car, waiting in line, taking a shower, lying in bed, walking in a park, listening to music, cooking food, puttering in a garden, swimming laps, walking a dog, or riding a stationary bicycle. Of course, you could also be doing absolutely nothing, and that remains the ideal.

A helpful preliminary step in this process is to make an honest and thorough inventory of the many opportunities for silence, stillness, and solitude that already exist in your daily life. Although we may feel like we have no real choice about how we spend our time, a closer look will confirm that we make decisions all day, every day that reflect our values and priorities.

Novelist Alice Walker, who lives in a secluded corner of northern California, told an interviewer that the resurrection of silence is to a large extent a matter of choice. "Turn off the noise," Walker exhorted her listeners, "because you can control what you hear."

Model-turned-actress Cheryl Tiegs says her favorite way to relax is by retreating to what she calls her "hour of power." Tiegs goes to a place where phones won't ring and faxes won't fax. "I turn everything off, go to my room and read or lie down," Tiegs told Modern Maturity magazine. "When I get up, everything is more manageable."

Implicit in the comments of both Walker and Tiegs is the notion that, if we're serious about reclaiming quiet and alone time, we can make better choices about how we prioritize. If we make it our intention to seek silence and solitude, we may soon discover that they can coexist with — and even enhance — impossible schedules and innumerable obligations. Three ingredients are prerequisites in order for the experience of quiet and solitude to be fully rewarding: desire, motivation and persistence. Each is essential if we are to make room for this way of being in the world. In essence, we must commit to running our own lives, rather than allowing our lives to run us. When we do this, profound change can occur.

Experts in simplifying busy lives — and in this day and age there really are professional "life-simplifiers" — have plenty of suggestions for the overloaded among us. Victoria Moran, author of Shelter for the Spirit, suggests "saying no to gadgets you won't use, clothes you don't wear, and activities that aren't genuinely meaningful to you." Instead of waxing the kitchen floor or washing the car as often as we were taught, Moran advises us to "put things with feelings [like people and pets] first…and prioritize things that must be done right away." Life's genuinely lowest priorities, she points out, tend to drift into insignificance — and are seldom missed. Simply turning off low-interest TV shows may free up hours of discretionary time each week. A careful review of your daily activities will almost certainly turn up at least a few things that are done more out of habit than desire, that are empty rituals rather than passionate yearnings.

Without the insights and understandings that quiet reflection facilitates, we are more apt to continue groping through a mental fog with a listless spirit, too distracted and overwhelmed to develop any meaningful perspective on where we are and, more importantly, where we are headed. This practice of "mindfulness," of becoming more sensitive and aware of each moment as it presents itself, can most easily be cultivated, nurtured, and maintained in an environment of stillness, even if that space is available for only a few minutes each day.

As we continue paving the world with human sounds and structures, we will inevitably crave the natural serenity that vanishes with their arrival. In silence, stillness and solitude we can recapture from within our sense of being fully alive — and fully ourselves.

Richard Mahler is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, NM. His book, Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude (Red Wheel, April 2003, $21.95) is about the steady loss of silence, solitude and simplicity in modern life and why overscheduled Americans need them back.

10 Simple Things You Can Do To Bring Silence, Stillness and Solitude into your Daily Life

1.Turn off the phone. A telephone can be a tyrant, demanding your undivided attention with its insistent ring and the implication that you must drop everything to engage in conversation. If you're not dealing with something urgent, a call can wait. Use an answering device to take messages and turn off the ringer. Screening techniques can be used to identify callers without answering. If you have a fax machine, ignore it for a while.

2. Walk in a park. Chances are there's a park within easy walking, bicycling, or driving distance from where you live. Take some time to experience the natural quiet of trees and grass. Even in urban areas, a park is more tranquil than the busy streets that surround it. If there's a fountain or stream, so much the better, since the "white noise" of flowing water screens human-made sounds and soothes the soul.

3. Ignore the computer. Like the phone, fax, and message machine, a humming computer begs for attention. Don't give in. Your e-mail, the Internet, and unfinished work will still be there when you're ready to return to them. If there's a computer in your bedroom, consider moving it so that it won't intrude on your sleep or relaxation. The same goes for the TV set, which too often takes the place of contemplation, intimate conversation, or lovemaking.

4. Go on a media fast. Many of us feel the day hasn't really started until we read the newspaper or check the headlines on TV or radio. Yet news by definition is seldom good. Do you really need to know about the murder, mayhem, or stock market dive? Give yourself a treat by going without news for a full day. The habit may be easier to break than you imagined.

5. Have a quiet car. Driving is stressful enough, especially in rush hour traffic. Lower the tension and reduce the distraction by turning off the radio, tape/CD player and telephone. Roll up the windows to shut out the road noise. Pay attention to your driving, but also to the scenery you're passing and what's going on inside your head and heart.

6. Eat a meal in silence. Most of us don't pay much attention to the food we eat. We're too busy talking, reading, watching TV, or working. Try cutting out the distractions and let yourself really see, taste, smell, and savor your food. Enjoying a delicious meal can instantly comfort and relax us, particularly in the company of loved ones.

7. Take a hot bath. Make an announcement: "I am disappearing into the bathroom for an hour. Please do not disturb me!" Light a candle; add oils, salts, or scents to the water; stretch out against a bathtub pillow; close your eyes and luxuriate in steamy sensuality. Alternatively, take a long, hot shower and let the water wash your cares and woes away. Let your mind drift and if you feel like singing, let loose!

8. Go to your room and close the door. As with your bath, let others in the household know that you will be a much happier and kinder person if you take some time to be alone. Do what's needed to let go of your stress and recover your psychological balance. This may mean stretching out on the bed, sitting on a meditation pillow, or doing some yoga exercises. Maybe you'd like to draw, play an instrument, or listen to some soothing music. Keep it simple and tranquil.

9. Find the quietest time and most splendid place you know. The world at dawn is special, often the most calm and beautiful hour of the day. A secluded corner of your garden or home may inspire serenity. Whatever the space and time, find that restful sanctuary and let it fill you with rapture.

10. Turn off the TV. We use it to relax, to inform, and to entertain. But it sometimes can drain our energy or add to our tension. Let the TV set know who’s boss. You may find that an hour without TV's stimulation (and constant homage to consumerism) leaves you much more refreshed and relaxed than if you'd let a program suck you in.

This companion article is reprinted with permission from Richard Mahler and Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC, publishers of Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude (Red Wheel/Weiser LLC, $21.95, ISBN 1-59003-042-7). To order, please contact Red Wheel/Weiser at: (800) 423-7087.

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