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Embracing Quiet for a Better Life

I’m sure you know her: The nervous woman who can’t sit still or tolerate silence.  She blasts music when she drives.  She turns on the television the moment she walks through the door of her home.  She listens to audiobooks and podcasts on her walks.  She makes calls whenever she has a break or a moment alone—to her best friend, her distant cousin, her neighbor—to talk about anything and everything.  Her knees bounce when she sits.  Her eyes sprint around.  She’s like a tse-tse fly, flitting from one thing to the next.

I used to be this woman.  Silence and isolation were terrifying—they had to be avoided at all costs.  In order to stave off the profound loneliness and fear they provoked, I kept myself occupied at all times.  I wasn’t busy; I was positively frantic.  I also paid for the laborious lifestyle I’d created for myself—I paid for it big time.  My thoughts ran on an infinite loop, but most of my ideas and musings were unproductive and inconclusive.  While my mind and body were perpetually in motion and I was around other people in one way or another at all times, I was depleted, adrift, and more alone than I’d ever felt.

Then a therapist recommended the unfathomable.  Embrace silence, she said.  My first reaction was to blow her off and get back in my car and turn on NPR—I had news to catch up on, thank you very much.  But the more she praised the benefits of silence, the more tantalizing the notion became, the more it all began to make sense.

In our hectic society, she explained, we are submerged in noise as soon as we open our eyes each morning, from the gardener mowing the lawn next door to the phone ringing.  Throughout the day, it accosts us, but we’ve grown accustomed it; without it, we feel disoriented.  We’re deluged with questions: Am I not keeping up?  Am I missing out on something?  Is the world actually ending?

The answer is no.  Pushing pause on our hectic lives and actively seeking out quiet has myriad benefits.  By embracing silence, we can refine our ability to hear—and truly listen to—our inner voices.  We can reconnect with our intuition and our values.  We can rediscover our inborn creativity.  We can become stronger parents, partners, friends, and workers.  We can start listening to the subtleties in the spaces in conversations.  And by doing all of this, we can make a greater impact on the world and lead a happier, more rewarding life.

And so I took my therapist’s advice.  I commuted to work without the radio on and noticed that daffodils were in bloom.  The sight of their jaunty yellow petals stayed with me for hours and somehow kept me grounded and cheerful throughout an otherwise chaotic day.  I refrained from turning on the television when I got home, and watched the last of the evening’s light fall across the hardwood floors.  It was oddly comforting; it was strangely beautiful.  The next morning I took my dog for a walk without my iPod and listened to the wind in the redwood trees, a sound that transported me out of myself and made me realize that there is a universe beyond us, a world that exists outside the realm of our daily worries and dramas.  This realization—as pedestrian as it might appear to be—lingered with me, and reminded me that we really shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.  Instead of watching TV or reading until the minute my head was ready to hit the pillow, I took several minutes to simply think in the darkness.  I slept the best I had in years.

Embracing silence the next day wasn’t as easy.  The benefits weren’t as straightforward, either.  Still, I kept at it.  Rather than calling friends and loved ones out of boredom and unease with my own company, I dedicated specific blocks of time to speak with them and got a surprising amount out of our conversations.  I began writing again.  The meals I made without the television blaring in the background reflected the time and attention I put into them.  I started meditating.  I was kinder to myself and to others.  My health improved.  My mind cleared, and my tension headaches arrived with less frequency.  My relationships were filled with more love and respect, and I was able to approach responsibilities and problems with less anxiety.

Every once in awhile, I think of that woman who couldn’t sit still or tolerate silence.  I want to take her hand and let her know that there’s nothing to dread in quiet.  I want to tell her she should go out of her way to find it.  She should set time aside every day to bask in it.  If she emerges again, I’ll be sure to say, Be still, and you’ll hear your heart again.  It has a lot to say.  Listen. 

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