This is the 20th post in my 30 for 30/30 series where I am publishing a new post each day for the next 30 days within a 30-minute window without much of a plan. You can read about why I’m doing this by clicking this link.
For some, the thought of spending time in total silence might be threatening. It has the potential to conjure images of a rigid posture, stark environments, and sitting by themselves on a mountain top.
If this is true for you, this article is meant to show you that the value gained from the daily practice of spending time in silence doesn’t have to be any of these. In fact, it extends beyond the most formal model—sitting meditation—to incorporate applications don’t involve mountain tops at all.
Why we are afraid of silence
For some, there may be a fear associated with spending time in silence. Perhaps old memories of being punished in solitude, having to sit in the corner, or even solitary detention in school are aroused and bring with them their negative connotations.
For some, the continual stimulation of flipping through their social media and group text feeds prevents them from appreciating the silence that is always available to us.
I think the chief reason we are afraid of silence is that we are unpracticed at spending time with it.
Hum a few bars and I’ll fake it
If you were to ask me to play something on the piano or guitar, I’d most likely refuse to do so, because what would result from such an impromptu jam session would be a few bars of old familiar songs that I used to play, fragmented and interrupted with apologies.
Since I haven’t played either instrument in months (guitar) and even years (piano), it would be an embarrassing display of non-practiced, rudimentary musical noise.
This is how most of us respond to the suggestion that we spend time in silence. However, if we want to experience the benefits of spending time in silence, we can start small and move on there.
But first, let’s define what it is we are afraid of.
A working definition of silence
I like this definition from George Hofman at PsychCentral.com:
“Silence is the absence of intentional sound.”
I like this definition because the use of the word intentional acknowledges that we are never without some level of sound. Intentional sounds are the sounds that we have control over, such as TVs and radios; conversation; music such as humming or tapping; and the noise of tools, keyboards, social media feeds, etc.
By acknowledging this basic definition, we can perhaps become more comfortable with the idea of spending time in silence as spending time with the TV off or with our phone in silent mode.
Better? I think so.
Silence and perfection
It’s critical to get to this point. You need to give yourself permission for your time in silence to be imperfect. You see, we all come to this practice with an ideal situation in mind whereby we sit in the lotus position and enter samadhi, the state of intense concentration achieved through some forms of meditation.
But this is unrealistic.
The reality is that our time spent in silence will most likely be noisy and relatively unpeaceful, at least at first. That’s because any time we undertake a new practice that our mind isn’t used to, it objects and our thoughts become noisy and more frequent. The Buddhists call this monkey mind and it’s normal.
So, instead of throwing in the towel and labeling yourself as a failure at sitting in silence, you know this at the beginning and also know that as you do it more often, the resistance will decrease and you’ll get to the point where you appreciate and actually crave, the quiet time alone.
“[There is] a space inside you that is immune to fear, distraction, or self-pity. Where you can be yourself, and where you can make decisions without interference. A timeless place where you can finally listen to the silence.” -Piero Ferrucci, Psychology Today
As Ferrucci states above, there is a deeper place within us, a well of silence perhaps, that we can access as we become comfortable with doing so.
Alternatives for spending time in silence
If you’ve experienced some resistance to spending in silence in the past, here are some suggested alternatives to make it a more approachable and self-nourishing practice.
1- Vary your methods. For example, on one day, I might sit zazen, a more formal mindfulness form of Zen Buddhist meditation (like I did this morning), and on another day spend the time sitting up in bed, sipping some coffee but without any music, email, or news in the background while I observe my passing thoughts and just enjoy the moment. Still, on another day, I might spend the morning walking outside with my dog, but again without the aid of intentional sound.
2- Walk without any destination in mind. Take a bottle of water and simply walk until you feel like stopping. When you do stop, don’t check your phone or put in your earbuds. Simply note your surroundings, listen to the unintentional sounds; the traffic, the birds or other wildlife present, sirens. Then resume your walk again without intentional sound.
3- Hike a nearby trail. There’s an app for most digital devices called AllTrails. It will present you with maps, operating hours, and other information regarding trails in your area. There are a number of other apps that also do the same thing. Hiking by yourself is best for this method of spending time in silence.
4- Try “20 Minutes of Awesome.” Popularized by Colin Wright in this post, it’s an informal meditation technique that lets your mind go with the flow of its normal activity. Read Colin’s post and see what it does for him.
I hope you’ll begin to make space in your daily routine for spending time in silence. It’s a very rewarding experience that pays loads of healthy dividends.
(30-ish minutes) 🙄