“If you give the mind space and time, it will do its own work on the problem and it usually comes up with interesting possibilities to work with.” — Van Phillips
There is no dearth of opportunity for creativity today. What was earlier the exclusive domain of artists, business leaders and maybe criminals, is now open to the world. This explosion of creativity has turned the mind into a powerful tool.
In the industrial age, one’s ability to crank out widgets was essential for them to keep their jobs. But in the knowledge age, intellectual abilities have taken precedence. Knowing has become obsolete, Sugata Mitra said in his remarkable TED Talk. Questioning and thinking have turned into meta-skills.
Another pattern to emerge in the knowledge era is our idea of spirituality. “Every era has to reinvent the idea of ‘spirituality’ for itself,” Susan Sontag wrote. In her times, people took to art to express their spirituality. In today’s times, we’ve adopted self-improvement.
Yet, despite a myriad of tools available to fuel our creativity and improvement, we’ve barely made any progress to write home about. More people embark on the manhunt for their passion today than ever, but few find something worthy of making them look forward to each day.
This paradox occurs because of element — silence.
We have grown quieter as a species. Face-to-face conversations have made way for texting. Solitary suppers have replaced family dinners. The increase in vehicular noise has been offset by the drop in industrial noise.
On the face of it, our planet is quieter than one would expect a habitation for almost eight billion people would be.
But being quiet and being silent are not the same thing. Keeping quiet means you refrain from externally responding to a stimulus. Silence is when your intrinsic response to the stimulus is quiet.
“Silence is not a function of what we think of as silence. It’s when my reaction is quiet. What’s silent is my protest against the way things are.”— Gene Lushtak
Noise — The Silent Enemy
Noise dominates every aspect of our being today. We correlate a person’s authority to the level of noise he creates. We don’t just create noise to assert our presence, we also consume it limitlessly.
This does us more harm than we know.
Noise restricts us from examining outdated beliefs which we use like medicine for an illness, when in fact, these beliefs are the reason for the illness.
Noise also is the non-stop voices in our head, something Thich Nhat Hanh calls Radio Station Non-Stop Thinking. In Silence, he mused,
Cows, goats, and buffalo chew their food, swallow it, then regurgitate and rechew it multiple times. We may not be cows of buffalo, but we ruminate just the same on our thoughts — unfortunately, primarily negative thoughts.
Noise restricts people from discovering what they truly love. The heart knows what we need and is trying to tell us. But our minds are too full of noise to hear it. In fact, we double up on the noise in our heads to avoid listening to our heart. Because while it tells us what we need to hear, that’s not often what we want to hear.
The result often is a life that drifts aimlessly. Nhat Hanh wrote,
We’re not aware of our intention. Sometimes it seems the only intention in us is to make it through the day… We’re so busy doing something that we rarely take a moment to look deeply and check in with our deepest desires.
Noise also imposes its own narrative on us, one that often belongs to someone else. When we succumb to that narrative, we pull ourselves away from the present moment.
Think about the last time you ate your favorite dish. How many senses did the dish stimulate? Did you savor the ingredients that made it sweet or spicy? Did you take a moment to absorb the experience? Or did your fingers rush to unlock your phone?
The Significance of Silence
The pursuit of noise has turned us into a culture that goes against nature. We function on noise. Nature, on the other hand, functions on silence. Every species other than Homo Sapiens knows the significance of silence in its survival.
Silence makes us listen deeper. For wildlife, this listening can mean the difference between detecting a danger before or after it’s too late. While Homo Sapiens no longer live in such a dangerous environment, we still need silence to listen. To ourselves.
Silence helps us do this. In his book In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik wrote, “Silence is for bumping into yourself.” When we listen to our inner voices, we raise the quality of our life, conversations, and relations.
Silence fuels creativity. Everything needs space to grow. Plants need light and food. Human beings need the right food (edible and psychological) and light — silence — to grow.
Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean. — Marina Abramović
This island is necessary. It lets us catch our breath, scan the seascape and adjust our direction.
How to Pursue Silence
The pursuit of silence, according to Prochnik, is unlike anything else in that while the pursuit for money, passion, and success begins with chasing them, the pursuit of silence begins with surrender.
Meditation is the most popular technique to pursue silence. But it’s not the only way. We can discover moments of silence at various times during the day. If we yank ourselves out of the picture, the world rushes in to fill the void.
One way to embrace silence, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is to “really live the moments given to us.” Talk and think as little as possible while walking, washing dishes, or doing any other activity. At the start of a meal, remind yourself to chew your food and not your thoughts.
When you experience the bliss of the present moment, you stop playing radio station Non-Stop Thinking. You feel like time has stood still, and your mind and body heal themselves.
Two, call on mindfulness to cultivate silence. Use this silence to observe and consciously label your thoughts, not ruminate on them). Recognize, embrace and calm negative thoughts. Replace them with positive, compassionate ones.
One must extend compassion to self before extending it to others. When you’re kinder towards yourself, you become kinder towards others.
Three, practice the art of nonaction. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote
Nonaction is not the same thing as passivity or inertia; it’s a dynamic and creative state of openness. We just need to sit there, very awake, very light; and when others come sit with us, they feel at ease right away. Even though we haven’t “done” anything to help, the other person receives a lot from us.
Last evening, I tried nonaction in a noisy place. I stood on a bridge, watching traffic.
I observed the traffic, trying to make sense of the chaos. Soon, I was just observing without orienting. I let the noise flow through me until what was left was a calm. I became aware of my breath, felt my heartbeat pulsate through my elbows. I was in a crowd, alone, yet not lonely.
Silence is not an action, it’s an experience. It emerges from the heart, not from external conditions.
Silence strengthens your mind, soul, and body to do what’s right. It stops the mind from agitating and habitual thinking. This quiet place makes your thinking more fluid, which, paradoxically, strengthens your resilience.
In the 1950s, Pablo Neruda penned a beautiful poem named “Keeping Quiet.” Do enjoy it in silence:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.