Value in Nothing; Making Time for Silence and Improving from it
I did something a few nights ago. More accurately, I did nothing at all. I sat in a room, quiet and dark. I wasn’t meditating, at least not in the way I’m used to. I moved everything away from me, especially electronics, and just sat. It was late enough that there was no activity outside. No children playing in the streets. No cars driving by. No doors opening and closing. There was still sound. Where I live right now, in a neighborhood surrounded by in Taiwan trees, the cicadas are always adding their buzzing to the background of life. The constant hum provides background music to my days. I remember they stopped once. That was nice.
There I was, in the silence -in what now defines silence for me- and I just sat. I didn’t ‘oohmmm’ or chant or take strong measured breathes in and out. When something came to mind, I thought about it. When I was done thinking about it, I stopped. What I didn’t do was respond to the urge to attend to anything.
I recalled a switch I’d forgotten to turn off downstairs. I ignored it. I wanted to fill my water bottle before going to sleep. It could wait. I didn’t do as much reading as I’d wanted to during the day. There was an e-mail I’d forgotten to send and an urge to go through the ritual routine of Internet checks: E-mail, Facebook, ESPN.com, in that order. Rarely do I feel better about myself after that process.
I responded to none of these urges. I sat and I looked around the room. Not the most exciting point of my day, but three days later those fifteen minutes have been the most memorable of the past week. Silence has long been something I’ve been fond of, sometimes even too much. I’m quick to anger when people raise their voice and grow frustrated when silence is disturbed by an outside source. But, at this time, it wasn’t the silence of the world I was concerned with. It was silence of my mind.
Everywhere, without fail, there are things exciting our brains, keeping our thoughts overactive. Even in a moment alone at home or somewhere relaxed, many of us won’t fail to have our personal excitement devices close at hand. Phones, computers, and thank goodness for tablets offering an upgraded screen size for more excitement than our phones while being more portable than computers.
This is not an attack on technology, but I think many will agree that these tools can be harnessed as a tool or an equally effective distraction. One way or the other, technology is not the problem. Many might think so, and I was certainly in that category when I left for the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan. I repeatedly cited my reason for going as a desire to leave technology behind and find silence in the world. I didn’t find much.
Without bringing any mobile devices I still came across plenty in the hands of other people and, through those people, I still utilized their convenience. Even without my own device, my mind was constantly occupied with thoughts; where am I going next? When should I look for food, how much longer should I walk today? Where am I sleeping tonight? What am I doing tomorrow? That doesn’t even include my attention toward personal interest; I haven’t had time to do any reading. Those people were nice, I should have spent more time with them, but I want to be alone. I should make more time for writing. How many more days can I do this? It does not matter where you are or what you have with you, there will always be enough to occupy your mind.
As we get older and become strapped with more responsibilities it becomes natural to run your life in a habit of, “alright, what’s next?” The worst thing is that it all feels vital. Maybe afterwards you won’t admit it, but when you’re checking the stat line of your favorite football team or reading celebrity gossip it really does feel like something you need to know.
This can partially be attributed to a cognitive bias called the consistency bias. You grow comfortable with the rituals and routines you go through regularly thus developing an imagined importance or a sort of loyalty. When I turn on my computer, it is essentially a reflex to go through the same routine: E-mail, Facebook, ESPN. There is no need for it, but I’ve developed a habit out of it that I’ve grown comfortable with, so it continues. But, this only delays accomplishing actually valuable task and gives you more to think about in the process.
When you slow yourself down and quiet your mind the advantages start immediately. You can gain a clear view of what actually needs to be done right now, you are able to evaluate what can wait, and you can assess the best way to move forward instead of operating in flurries of random activities. Whether you practice a tried form of meditation or just make an attempt to act in a mindful manner, the advantages are definite. In her book Train Your Mind Change Your Brain Sharon Begley writes, “through introspection and other techniques, the mind tries to free itself of afflictive tendencies such as hatred and jealousy and develop wholesome tendencies such as the power of attention and the capacity for compassion.”
Begley goes on to identify a specific Buddhist practice called shamatha of which the goals are to, “quiet the noise that bedevils the untrained mind, in which one’s focus darts from one sight or sound or thought to another like a hyperactive dragonfly, and replace it with attentional stability and clarity.” We don’t often think about how the things we do affect our brain, but we probably should. We can actually train our brain to operate more efficiently through mental exercise and consistently practicing productive habits.
This was not the first time I practiced some form of relaxation, meditation, or introspection, and it definitely won’t be the last. But, there was something that I did that will change the way I approach the practice in the future. In the past I would carry out these practices somewhat sporadically. If I found myself with some extra time and didn’t have to worry about where I was going, I would take time for meditation. By acting in this way the practice just became one more spurious activity I tried to fit into the day.
The small adjustment I’ve made as of late is to reserve blocks of time, even if they’re not so long, for silence and exercising my mind. I have found that less time on a regular schedule has been better than longer periods at random. By utilizing a schedule, I am making the practice more of a discipline and exercising my attention to detail in the same stroke.
Once I finished my stretch of silence I got up and took care of each of the things I’d thought of doing, with the exception of Facebook and ESPN.com. I laid down to sleep with my book light illuminating the pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country. The cicadas remained humming as loud as ever, but the sound was now more of a lullaby. I finished the last quarter of the book, thanked Mr. Vonnegut for his efforts, and went to sleep. Same time tonight.