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The Need for Silence
Q: How do you carve out space for quietness?
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Sometimes you forget how much you value something until you find it again after having gone without it for some time. In San Francisco, in my home I often think there's too much silence and find life a bit too isolating. Hardly anyone rings the bell, there are barely any phone calls during the day and we live on a quiet street so there is no sound of traffic. One reason I look forward to a trip back home to Mumbai is the buzzing energy and the hustle bustle the city offers.
This city of ~20 million inhabitants is intense, always chaotic, always noisy, always on. My parents household reflects some of this - the bell rings every hour or two, there are calls from relatives, the pressure cooker whistle goes off - the sound and smells of delicious food being cooked, my parents bicker, the house help squabbles with my mom or amongst themselves in another language and of course there is the ever present sound of honking from the traffic five floors below from 7 am until well past midnight.
As much as I miss it and love it, I find myself a bit on the edge as soon as I'm here. I'm a bit more impatient, a bit more irritable.. partly because I'm here for a few short weeks and am trying to fit it all in and partly because I make no time for the daily practices that bring me peace and stability. After spending two weeks here with both my husband and I working US hours, jet lagged, battling colds, tending to a 4 yr old I complained to my husband that he wasn't showing me any affection. To which he replied "Do you know how hard it is to get through to you these days?"
A week ago we left Mumbai for a short holiday. After landing in Bangalore at 8 am on a Sunday, we made our way to Kabini, a wildlife destination in Karnataka in the south of India. After Mumbai, it felt like we had arrived in paradise. The slow pace, the peaceful Kabini river, the lush forest full of coconut trees all contributed to getting back to that inner sense of peace. We spent two days in Kabini and three days in Coorg, a quaint hill station famous for coffee plantations, lush forests and breathtaking views. I spent a lot of time being quiet and being in awe of the beauty around us.
It's when I step away from the noise do I realize the importance of the lack of it. When there is noise in my environment I forget to quiet the noise in my head. Or maybe I don't even hear it. I hate to admit it but it's easier for me to be peaceful when I am in a peaceful environment. However, the silence I crave is the silence within me, not the one outside.
Over coffee with friends back in Mumbai, I asked how they were able to cultivate that silence within themselves with all the intensity around. While some acknowledged how tough it was, one said it doesn't matter where you are. Yes this place is noisy but that's our challenge. "I take it as my playground and learn from it."
“A media fast?!” I was intrigued when a friend recently told me about a practice that he was doing. He would not touch his phone or computer during the day and had reverted to old mediums of learning. Carrying a notebook around to capture his notes and thoughts, meeting people IRL, spending time in cafes and libraries reading physical books - all just to avoid getting distracted by the information overload from his devices.
"...and I've always said to my kids the hardest thing to listen to - your instincts, your human personal intuition - always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear. So you have to every day of your lives be ready to hear what whispers in your ear; very rarely shouts."
— Steven Spielberg, American film director and writer
I am impressed by his steadfastness because I am struggling with distraction. I want to pay more attention to my thoughts, ideas and intuition. But instead my attention is constantly pulled towards my phone. The countless articles, books, podcasts and newsletters in my inbox satisfy my curiosity and thirst for knowledge. But my epistemophilia (yes, learnt a new word which means excessive striving for or preoccupation with knowledge 😀) was crippling me. I was using this as an excuse to consume content instead of tuning into myself and trusting myself to express and create. I had read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport a few years ago and recognized the importance of dedicated time without distractions to focus on my best work. But I was failing miserably at putting it into practice.
“While there are times to speak up, there are also times to be still, to listen, to feel, and to connect to a deeper intelligence — an intelligence that can be expressed through words ... and also through no words. In the end, the quality of our presence may speak more than anything else. It is the silent communicator that is often felt more than heard. At the right time, silence has power.”
— Soren Gordhammer, author and founder of Wisdom 2.0
Last month I was on a walk listening to a podcast episode called “The Happiness of Silence” from The Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos. The episode was about the benefits of silence and how we can all try to seek out more moments of quiet and recognize the value of tuning out the distractions and noise in our lives. I immediately turned off the podcast and walked the rest of the way in silence, listening intently to the sounds of birds and observing the colors of the plants around me. I ended the walk in a much more calm and peaceful state than how I started it.
“The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. … What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing … the thing that might be worth saying.”
— Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher
So this week I am going to experiment with really turning off all the distractions. I am going on my first Vipassana retreat which is a six day meditation retreat in silence. The focus of the retreat will be on turning inwards and developing concentration and insight. This is happening at a much needed time for me and I am curious to see what this experience does to me and my way of being.