We have to give silence and solitude a chance.
It’s amazing how tuned out we become to the motor of the air-conditioner and refrigerator — the sudden silence is a startling reprieve. Likewise, we become numb to the buzz of our technology saturated world.
Smartphone users check their device every six and a half minutes, which works out to around 150 times a day. Silence is replaced with a cacophony of communication, and solitude is replaced with social media.
Indeed they’re an endangered species: silence and solitude; yet great revelations and benefits are found in them. Here are ten:
1. Bypassing Burnout
Too often, our culture assigns self-worth with productivity. Whether it’s asking what your country can do for you, or what you can do for your country, the question remains — what can be done? It’s a one-way ticket to burnout.
Solitude allows for a break from the tyrant of productivity. And rather than being in opposition, doing nothing helps with doing much. Promega is a company with on-the-job “third spaces” where employees are able to take solitude breaks and meditate in natural light. The health benefits have resulted in improved productivity levels for the company. And will do the same for us.
2. Heightened Sensitivity
For many, attempting ten days of silence would be akin to walking on water. Vipassana silent retreats are exactly that; participants are instructed to refrain from reading, writing, or eye contact.
One hundred scientists went on a retreat for research and noted that shutting off the faculty of speech heightens awareness in other areas. Beginning with breathing, that focus and sensitivity is then transferred to sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions.
3. Dissolving Tomorrow’s Troubles
Alan Watts argues that our frustration and anxiety is rooted in being disconnected — living in the future, which is but an illusion.
Silence brings our awareness back to the present — where concrete happiness is experienced. Watts makes the distinction between our basic and ingenious consciousness; the latter makes predictions based on our memories, which seem so real to the mind that we’re caught in a hypothetical abstraction. It plans out our lives with an abstract happiness, but an abstract happiness is a very real disappointment.
The future falls short of what the present can deliver. Silence and solitude pulls us out and immerses us back in the present.
4. Improves Memory
Combining solitude with a walk in nature causes brain growth in the hippocampus region, resulting in better memory.
Evolutionists explain that being in nature sparks our spatial memory as it did when our ancestors went hunting—remembering where the food and predators were was essential for survival. Taking a walk alone gives the brain uninterrupted focus and helps with memory consolidation.
5. Strengthens Intention & Action
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says during silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.
Intentional silence puts us in a state of mental reflection and disengages our intellectual mind. At that point McGonigal says to ask yourself three questions:
- If anything were possible, what would I welcome or create in my life?
- When I’m feeling most courageous and inspired, what do I want to offer the world?
- When I’m honest about how I suffer, what do I want to make peace with?
Removing that critical mind allows the imagination and positive emotions to build a subconscious intention and add fuel to our goals. McGonigal explains, “When you approach the practice of figuring this stuff out in that way, you start to get images and memories and ideas that are different than if you tried to answer those questions intellectually.”
6. Increases Self-Awareness
The visceral reaction of cussing at a loved one or over-disciplining our children often comes with regret. It happens when we’re completely governed by actions, and absent of reasonable thought.
In silence, we make room for the self-awareness to be in control of our actions, rather than under their control. The break from external voices puts us in tune to our inner voices—and it’s those inner voices that drive our actions. Awareness leads to control.
Practice becoming an observer of your thoughts. The human will is strengthened whenever we choose not to respond to every actionable thought.
7. Grow Your Brain
The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. UCLA research showed that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence, and mentally rest, improves the the “folding” of the cortex and boosts our ability to process information.
Carving out as little as 10 minutes to sit in your car and visualize peaceful scenery (rainforest, snow-falling, beach) will thicken grey matter in your brain.
8. “A-Ha” Moments
The creative process includes a crucial stage called incubation, where all the ideas we’ve been exposed to get to meet, mingle, marinate—then produce a eureka or “A-ha” moment. The secret to incubation? Nothing. Literally; disengage from the work at hand, and take a rest. It’s also the elixir for mental blocks.
What’s typically seen as useless daydreaming is now being seen as an essential experience. Professor Jonathan Schooler from UC Santa Barbara says, “Daydreaming and boredom seem to be a source for incubation and creative discovery in the brain.”
9. Mastering Discomfort
Just when you’ve found a quiet place to sit alone and reflect, an itch will beckon to be scratched. But many meditation teachers will encourage you to refrain, and breath into the experience until it passes. Along with bringing your mind back from distracting thoughts and to your breathing, these practices during silence and solitude work to build greater self-discipline.
10. Emotional Cleansing
Our fight/flight mechanism causes us to flee not only from physical difficulties, but also emotional difficulties. Ignoring and burying negative emotions however, only causes them to manifest in stress, anxiety, anger, and insomnia.
Strategies to release emotional turbulence include sitting in silence and thinking in detail about what triggered the negative emotion. The key is to do so as an observer — stepping outside of yourself as if you’re reporting for a newspaper. It’s a visualization technique used by psychotherapists to detach a person from their emotions, which allows you to process an experience objectively and rationally.
Photo credit: Thanwan Singh/flickr