Learning to Think In Silence

I listen to a lot of podcasts. When I am driving, cooking, cleaning, doing yard work, and any time I have a task to do around the house I like to have a podcast going. I love listening to interesting conversations, discussions about new scientific ideas, and stories about things I never thought of. Podcasts are great, but something I recognize is that I tend to fill all of my time with some sort of medium produced by another person.

 

My wife and I often watch movies at the end of the day, I put on a podcast when I do dishes so that I don’t have to stand at the sink in silence, I read when I eat or take a lunch break, when I am in line at the grocery store I instinctively pull out my phone to scroll through something. In all of these situations, I could engage with whats in front of me or let my mind wander, but instead, I normally choose to put something in my mind. Cal Newport calls this an inability to deal with isolation. Colin Wright calls it a compulsive reflex and in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be writes, “But saturating these channels [social media] just for the sake of not having to deal with silence, of having to think our own thoughts and listen to our own internal monologue for a while, is part of the problem.”

 

I’m not great at dealing with silence and I am in some ways afraid of it. I grew up with a Gameboy and never had to live a moment without some type of entertainment. Whether it was driving around, going to the bathroom, or hanging out with Grandma, I always had a Gameboy to keep me entertained. Today, I am working on concentrating at work and focusing at the boring non-stimulating office environment. I am working on thinking more deeply about specific subjects and building my awareness of the world and stories I tell myself about the world. These are skills I need to develop that are quite atrophied because I grew up distracted and still feel and urge to flood myself with information and distraction through my phone and through media created by other people at all times.

 

It is important that we learn to step back and put devices, podcasts, TV, music, and Facetime in a planned time and space. It is important that we be able to live with ourselves in isolation, so that we can understand and recognize the thoughts we think and how we interpret and understand the world. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build deep focus, we will have trouble truly connecting with others, and life will rush past us in autopilot.

Silence in a Relationship

I can remember when I first started dating in high school, and how challenging it was for me to go on drives with my girlfriend at the time, because I was afraid of silence while in the car with her. I never truly understood why I would become so anxious during those moments, everything was fine and we were driving some place interesting, but the fact that there was no communication was somehow a challenge for me. Author Colin Wright explains the apprehension I was feeling and the importance of silence within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright explains that silence when you are together with your significant other is not a bad thing, and he has a somewhat romantic vision of silence. He writes, “Many people find silence difficult because they assume that if they can’t keep their partner entertained or engaged at all times, something is wrong. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so long as both people understand that silence is a means of being alone together, not a communication break down.”

 

My high school self was a perfect example of Wright’s description of someone who found silence in a relationship difficult. I was not confident in myself, and I was afraid that I had to be constantly entertaining to impress and excite the girl I was with. Ultimately this probably led to me being more of a clown than necessary, where I could have been myself, could have been confident in the relationship, and could have been more relaxed and at ease. Reading Wright’s thoughts, and looking back at those relationships, I am able to take away lessons surrounding the importance of being able to be together and be silent, enjoying the company of the other.

 

Wright imagines an elderly couple, both silently engaged in their own activities, like a craft or reading. They can be happy and content together, even if they don’t expect  to be constantly entertaining each other. Being present with another means that we recognize when they are around us and what they are doing, even while we are engrossed in our own activities. You may not be sharing the same interest at the same time, but it is important to be able to share the same space and moment in time without always needing to be engaged in conversation or communication. Sometimes those moments communicate more than what we express with words.

Noise

In a letter of advice written to James Harmon for his book Take My Advice, Valerie Martin writes about the noise that we fill out days with and how we use that noise to fill our minds so that we do not have to think.  Through constant television and radio broadcasts everywhere we go, in the car, at home, waiting rooms, and even at the grocery store, we are fed small and often times unnoticeable advice on what our lives should be like, how we should live, and what happiness looks like. According to Martin, we need to turn off the noise and learn how to be happy when the atmosphere around us is empty, and our mind is overcome with only our thoughts.
To conclude her letter Martin writes, “My advice is simple. When possible, turn off the sound.  Don’t be overly concerned about being happy.  Try to need less, to find work that doesn’t demean you.  Read more, talk less. Try to raise your own children without television.  When despair sets in, as it will, sit quietly and wait it out in silence.”
I think that what Martin is saying is that there are plenty of opportunities for us to reflect on our lives and to really consider what it is that we desire or expect. Instead of using those moments to dive deeper into ourselves, we float along the surface of who we are while we let television or radio distract us.  She is critical of the message presented in those broadcasts because they give us a false sense of reality and show us someone else’s expectations and desires for life.
Learning to be comfortable without noise and with only my thoughts has been a difficult challenge for me.  However, thanks to my running I understand what Martin is trying to explain. Having a time where you are unplugged and left with only your thoughts can be a meditative moment. I do a lot of long distance running, and I have never enjoyed running with music. I love to be unplugged because it allows my mind to churn through the thoughts that build up in a day, and it gives me time to reflect on what I think, what I say, and how my actions align with who I want to be.