Returning from my three-week, silent retreat, I’m reminded why I value silence and am learning to lean into a quieter life.
Detached from the busyness of everyday life, at the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA, I was able to re-center myself on what’s most important—what actually makes life rich and fulfilling. This happened effortlessly, just by creating space and stillness.
Our culture does not value silence. We prioritize busyness. We fill our lives with endless tasks. We get caught up in an endless cycle of doing. With each new email and text, we turn away from the richness that’s right in front of us. There’s power in allowing ourselves time to be instead of do.
Here are just a few ways that making time and space for quiet can help us live life more fully.
1) Quiet helps clarify what’s most important—now and tomorrow.
When we lead busy, frantic lives, we find that the foundational aspects of life (like our relationships and our health) give way to concern about what’s not important—things like success and wealth.
Sitting still helps us get re-acquainted with our priorities. Our deepest values come center stage when we make room for them. Naturally, this involves putting down our digital companions, silencing dings and vibes. Going screen free—for longer than may be comfortable. The Pew Research Center tells us that 84% of cell phone users claim they could not go a single day without their device.
Go longer. Consider trying that for the weekend. And if not, try an afternoon.
Spending hour after hour in silence over a 3-week period, my attention drifted over and over again to what I care about most. At the same time, many of the worries that seemed so important out there in the work-a-day world began to look trivial.
Sitting still, doing nothing, allows the space to focus again on what matters.
2) Quiet allows space for contentment and joy.
People who struggle to find The Good Life are often weighed down by worry, fear, and anxiety. An endless to-do list can leave us feeling inadequate, never able to live up to our own expectations. Sitting still opens the way to appreciating what we already have, right here and now.
Silence and stillness gives us time to appreciate the taste of an apple; the play of sunlight on a carpet; the sound of a bird or an oboe. Suddenly the miraculousness of just being alive wells up effortlessly. Pico Iyer is an eloquent spokesman for the joy of stillness in his 2012 opinion piece in the New York Times. He also thoughtfully accents those thoughts in a 2014 TED talk and a book, published the same year.
In letting us feel the pure pleasure of being alive, quiet becomes its own reward.
3) Quiet reveals the emptiness of chasing after the next big thing.
When my TEDxBeaconStreet Talk went viral around the world, I could have loaded my schedule with many amazing opportunities to talk about the research. But accepting every opportunity would have worn me out. Unexpected fame and media attention brings with it wonderful possibilities, but also the burden of responding to demands that can pull us away from what we truly care about.
Stepping away from this was a gift that I gave to myself. And I could not have taken this break without the support of my loved ones and work colleagues. A three-week silent retreat was the best way to let my awareness of what’s most important in my life come back to center stage.
For me, and for many of the people who have participated in our research, The Good Life isn’t about chasing after every opportunity. Rather, it’s about filtering out distractions and coming back over and over again to what’s essential.
Sitting still shows us moments where there’s nothing missing, nothing to search for.
4) Quiet reminds us that we can be happy with less.
In our study of adult development, many people started out believing that money and fame were the key indicators of a meaningful life. But the people who focused on these ephemeral things struggled with a scarcity mindset, feeling as though they never had enough.
Contentment is the natural result of viewing life through the lens of gratefulness rather than lack. A quiet life, where we’re not reaching for the next best thing, makes us satisfied with less. When we are content with what we have, we can lead lives where there’s nothing we need to get in order to be happy.
Graham Hill gets at this in his fascinating TED talk, Less Stuff, More Happiness.
Matsuo Bashō, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, once said, “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.”
If you are feeling trapped in a busy, rushed, and noisy life, you too can step away and find beauty in silence and stillness. You can build quiet into a day, or even a moment, and find The Good Life. You just have to be brave enough to embrace the stillness.
Simple first-steps toward The Good Life include the following:
(1) Unplug from the world—from all electronic media—whether it’s for an hour, an afternoon, or a multi-day retreat. (If you need some encouragement along these lines, watch this short video; it may help strengthen your resolve.) Let the cyber world go on without you for a little while. Find a comfortable place to sit peacefully and do absolutely nothing.
(2) Listen to a guided meditation. Some great online resources include these offered by the Chopra Center.
(3) Sit outside (or at a window), be absolutely still, and really look at the world. Take time to notice the things that your eye usually passes over—trees and clouds and the texture of brick walls.
This weekend… Experiment with any of the above suggestions—or all three!
Give it a heartfelt attempt. Then pull out a journal and reflect.
I will do the same.