About to react, I stopped myself from saying anything. Instead I noted that maybe the street corner wasn’t the best place to experience a moment of silence. But then again, when is? In our overscheduled lives, how often do we get the time to not only be silent but also to experience it around us?
I used to be uncomfortable with silence. I was so terrified to be alone with my thoughts, or not have something to say in a conversation that I’d fill the empty space with chatter. But I began to wonder: What could my life become if I talked less and sat in silence more?
What started out as a weekend experiment has turned into a life practice. “When the mind quiets, the heart opens,” says New York City-based psychotherapist Susan Solomon. “Silence leads us to trust our own experience, to find a new way of seeing and to find a place of clarity where we aren’t controlled by distractions.”
Here’s an introduction to the benefits of silence, and the steps you can take to create more of it for yourself.
As mentioned before, I used to talk a lot. Much of the time I didn’t pay attention to what I was saying or why. Little did I know that what was coming out of my mouth was not only hurting my self-confidence but also reinforcing my lack of belief in myself. I would talk over people if I wanted to be heard, take most things personally, react quickly, make excuses for my actions, and talk about others in a judgmental and critical tone.
“The lower our self-esteem, the more muddy, evasive and inappropriate our communications are likely to be because of uncertainty about our own thoughts and feelings, as well as anxiety about the listener’s response, ”writes Nathaniel Branden in A Women’s Self-Esteem.
So how does silence help? Branden writes that after decades of study he found that healthy self-esteem depends on “living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purposeful living, and personal integrity.” Meditating, or sitting in silence for twenty minutes a day, has proven psychological effects of increased self-awareness and self-acceptance, improved decision-making skills, reduced compulsive behavior and increased compassion toward one’s self and others.
Incorporating silence gives us time for ourselves. “It sends the message internally that I’m worth taking time out for,” says Elisha Goldstein, author of Uncovering Happiness and Co-founder of The Center for Mindful Living in Los Angeles. “Taking time out is a form of self-control. Feeling in control is correlated with feeling confident.”
Taking the time to connect with ourselves in this way, gives us the opportunity to get to know who we are. We learn in the moments of silence to accept ourselves as we are – not as good or bad, but as human and worthy.
If my past conversations were a boxing match, they would look like one person jabbing, and jabbing, and jabbing, and then being blocked. Rarely was there a moment where someone put up their gloves and took a minute to breathe – to think, ask a question, or to give the other person an opportunity to step away. And with irritating situations, well, it was one punch after another.
Without adding quiet to our conversations we really aren’t having a dialogue at all, but more a match up for the best monologue.
“When the people around us bug us, many of us lash out,” says Christine Carter in her book The Sweet Spot. “…we often create distance between ourselves and our loved ones and co-workers…The key is to put the brakes on any fight-or-flight response that might be brewing due to the irritation.”
To stop a conversation from going where we don’t want it to go we need to calm the conversation and introduce some quiet. By doing so, “we are more likely to see the actual person in front of us instead of the object that they may have become,” says Goldstein. “We’d see that they are a person, just like me, a person who wants to feel cared about, listened to and understood. A person that wants to belong, just like me.”
Pausing or taking time to respond lets us see clearly what’s happening, it gives us the opportunity to view the situation differently – from the other’s perspective or to think of the good in the other person. It lets compassion seep in.
Intentionally pausing connects us back to the purpose of the conversation, reminding us it’s a shared experience. We slow down and focus more on the moment we’re in. In so doing, we give our full attention to the people we’re with, cultivating more satisfying relationships.
With all that we have going on day-to-day, we’re often the last concern on our own minds. “Taking time out each day to just settle down in silence,” says Goldstein, “maybe even just being aware of the body’s natural rhythm of breathing, cools down the emotional center of the brain and brings the ability to regulate our emotions and be more in control of our impulses.”
Adding silence to our lives lets us get in touch with how we’re feeling, giving us time to see what we need more of and what we need to let go of, creating a sense of balance. Use silence to check in with yourself before you make decisions to begin acting intentionally and from a place of empowerment, rather than allowing circumstances and what others desire push you from one thing to another.
How do you invite more silence into your life? Here are some tips:
Meditate: Start small with 5-10 minutes of sitting in silence. Turn off any distractions like your phone – tell your family you’re not to be disturbed. You can even do this on the metro, bus, airplane, when you’re waiting for someone, or before driving somewhere. For these minutes, focus on your inhale and exhale. Your mind will wander and that’s okay, but as soon as you notice come back to focusing on your inhale and exhale.
Pause during conversation: Go into your conversations with the intention of opening them up by pausing. Pause to think about what you want to say. Is it kind, honest, helpful or valuable? Pause to engage the other person in the conversation – to learn from them. Pause to see from the other person’s perspective.
Slow down your movements: When you notice yourself rushing, slow down. Pick something you do every day and do it slowly. Pay attention to your movements.
Close your eyes: If you’re feeling overwhelmed or need a moment of calm and quiet, simply close your eyes and take a moment for yourself.