The Virtue of Silence

“The Sound of Silence” was a hit song for Simon and Garfunkel decades ago. Recently, the rock band Disturbed had success with a cover of the song.

But what does silence sound like? It may sound like an oxymoron, but the truth is that it’s so hard to identify silence in today’s world.

Silence isn’t just the absence of audible noise; it’s the absence of all noise, including information bombarding our eyes.

There’s no better way to see this than social media. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are platforms for people to talk non-stop, always throwing noise around. It turns us all into town criers. Except most of the noise on these sites is nonessential.

Silence is so important in today’s world because it gives us a chance to turn away from all of this noise — the relentless town criers — and turn our attention inward.

This in and of itself is perhaps the reason why silence is so hard to achieve. We are forced to look at ourselves without any distractions.

Why Strive for Silence

Our minds are never at rest in today’s world. If we’re not actively doing something, we’re watching TV or on our phones. Although we may feel like this is a relaxing way to end the day, it doesn’t equal the effects of total silence.

It Allows the Mind to Rest

Working out is undeniably a healthy thing to do. If you spent all day in bed, your muscles would disappear and it would be that much harder to do work. Working out strengthens our muscles and keeps us energized for the remaining tasks of our day.

But, if all you ever did was work out, you would find it much harder to gain muscle. In fact, you would be in constant pain and fatigue. That’s because muscles don’t actually grow while we are working out; they grow when we rest from our workouts.

Silence to our daily routines is like rest to a workout. As important as our daily tasks are — working, seeing family and friends, giving time to our hobbies — silence allows are minds to rest, absorb all that has happened, and gain strength for the tasks ahead.

You’ve heard it said, “Everything in moderation.” Noise and mental stimulation is included. If, from the moment you wake up until the minute you go to bed, you are stimulating your mind, there is no moderation. Silence is key.

We Begin to Know Ourselves

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote a powerful statement on knowing the self:

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.

In silence, we have nothing to distract us from ourselves. Our thoughts shout at us and we have no distractions to hide behind.

I believe this is why silence is so rare today. It’s a scary thing to see ourselves in the naked light, without distractions.

The duo Twenty One Pilots had a hit with their song Car Radio. It’s about someone who had his car radio stolen, and now he just sits in silence as he drives. Without the radio to focus on, he has to confront himself:

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Lyrics by Tyler Joseph

If we want to grow, we have to confront who we are. We have to listen to that inner voice that can be so annoying.

It Improves Awareness

How do you know a decision is the right one? That you’re traveling down the right path? Having awareness of your surroundings and your thoughts will give you a better idea of these answers.

Similar to how silence can help us know ourselves, it can also allow us to see situations from a clearer perspective.

Situations are often not what they appear to be on the surface. There is an untold number of things going on that we have no idea about that contributes to any given situation. Reacting based on emotions and surface value can lead to bad decisions and regrets.

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the world at the time, used silence and awareness often to give himself a better look at any given situation at hand. As he said, referencing Plato:

How beautifully Plato put it. Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a birds-eye view and see everything all at once—of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets—all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48

Taking a step back into silence is an excellent habit to develop. It will shed new light on everything from personal interactions to business deals.

It Will Help You Deal with Stress

As we look back on life, we often remember only the good things. The bad — the situations that seemed like the end of the world at the time — get pushed to the back of our minds.

Remember college? What comes to my mind when I think of this time in my life are memories of competing in track and cross country events, playing chess and pool with my friends after class, and daily walks along the ocean that UMass Boston is built upon.

You know what doesn’t come to mind right away? The stress I had to deal with on a weekly basis; the calculus class I was failing one month before the end of the semester; the tests I could never seem to get higher than a 70% on.

All of these instances were reasons for me to freak out. But looking back, I wonder at how I let myself get so stressed out over these situations.

Time has given me a new perspective to such stress. Silence does the same thing much quicker.

Stress is a good thing. But like all good things, too much stress is bad and can leave lasting effects on our overall health. In silence, we can separate the good stress from the bad.

Imagine that you are tasked to give a presentation on Friday. Good stress would drive you to write down what you intend to say, go over it a few times in rehearsal, and get enough sleep the night before to be wide awake.

Conversely, bad stress would cause you to dwell on the presentation all week with feelings of dread.

The difference between the two is that good stress doesn’t take up too much of your thoughts and often drives you to improve; bad stress has little to no good outcomes.

How to Achieve Silence

God does not shout. He speaks quietly and softly, in a “still small voice.”

1 Kings 19:11-12

Back in 2011, the World Health Organization called noise pollution a “modern plague.” 9 years later, I don’t think we have improved. In fact, the world is noisier now than it has ever been before.

Are phones are constantly drawing our attention away from the world and into the blue light; emails and texts seem endless and each one needs our immediate attention, no matter the time of the day; our schedules somehow get jammed with dozens of things we never really intended to do.

And yet, there are still moments of silence that we can live. Maybe it’s during your lunch break; maybe it’s on the bus or train to work; it could even be a short walk during some part of your day.

Here are a few ways to achieve silence on a daily basis:

Silence Your Phone

This is the most obvious, and perhaps the hardest to do. Smartphone addiction is real, and it can be next to impossible to put down these little devices.

There’s little wonder about why smartphones are addictive. Phone manufacturers make money when we can’t put down our phones. As soon as they start to slow down, or a new phone comes out, we are programmed to buy the newest one.

The apps we use are too made for addiction. The more we are on Facebook, the more money Facebook makes. “Facebook” can be swapped with any other app on your phone. They make money because they have our attention, and attention has been the most important commodity for thousands of years.

But, if you were to only do one thing to achieve a higher degree of silence — and thus all of the benefits I mentioned above — silencing your phone is the one.

Here are some quick ways to silence your phone and detach from it:

  • Turn off notifications, such as email and social media; this will eliminate the constant pull you feel drawing you back into your phone.
  • Leave it alone for a certain period. This could be an hour before you go to bed, during breaks at work, or for the weekend. Social media giant GaryVee has said that he completely detaches from social media on weekends to spend time with his family.
  • Find activities to unwind with other than scrolling through Instagram. Reading books is a great one, and so is going for a walk. There are endless things to unwind with that don’t involve staring at a screen!

Set Aside Time for Meditation

“Meditation” is not sitting cross-legged trying to get in touch with the universe. It can be as simple as sitting down for 20 minutes, trying to clear your mind from all thoughts and distractions.

This is what I do every night right before I go to bed. I set at my desk in total darkness (this is around 10pm), close my eyes, and spend 20 minutes attempting to clear my mind.

Does it always work? Nope! In fact, for most of the time, my thoughts wander and I have to bring them back to a state of silence.

I’m not trying to connect to anything spiritual or achieve breakthroughs in thinking. Instead, I just enjoy a daily break from every kind of noise.

This type of silent meditation isn’t just good for achieving daily silence; it’s a great way to train your thoughts. By bringing wandering thoughts back to a silent mind — even if you’re not always successful — you will find that you have more control over your thoughts overall.

Refrain from Excess Talking

We all fall into the sin of speaking more than we should, and about topics we shouldn’t be talking about. Gossip has been the ruin of many.

An excellent way to practice silence is to literally be more quite. Refrain from frivolous speech that doesn’t have any real value.

We all know that person that doesn’t stop talking. Every second, he or she has to fill with words and words and words, talking constantly but not saying anything. And, when they do say things, they are often negative.

At one time in my life, I had a manger who fit this description exactly. I always dreaded working with her because I knew I would be spending 6 hours or so listening to her talk and complain about nothing of substance.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking.

Proverbs 10:19

This proverb says so much with only 8 words. Would it be any better of the King Solomon used a whole paragraph, or an entire article, to get his point across? I think he would be hard pressed.

Many since the time of Solomon have also found the benefits of speaking less. In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene lists this as law 4:

Always Say Less Than Necessary

When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.

Robert Greene

Conclusion

Like so many virtues in today’s world, silence is hard to achieve. Our attention is being pulled into so many different directions, that it’s no wonder silence is so elusive.

Although it can be hard to achieve, there are so many reasons why we should try:

  • It allows the mind to rest
  • We begin to know ourselves
  • It improves awareness
  • It well help you deal with stress

Philosophers have been contemplating silence for thousands of years. While there are hundreds of ways to achieve it, these three have worked best for me:

  • Silence you phone
  • Set aside time for meditation
  • Refrain from excess talking

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