It happened so subtly. I took a solo road trip with a wonderfully long audiobook (I’m talking the 27-hour type), and loved how the hours flew by.
Over the course of my trip, I began to notice that that the audiobook was beginning to fill up all the moments I wasn’t interacting with others—the handful of minutes in the car between visits with friends, the spare half hour when I was sitting quietly with a cup of tea, and even while I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love audiobooks. And the audiobook wasn’t the problem; it was my relationship with silence.
We’ve all probably had—and may live in dread of experiencing—“awkward” silence during casual conversation, while on a date, or in the context of our work communication. But what is it that makes the silence awkward? Even the phrase awkward silence seems to suggest a larger cultural discomfort with silence.
And perhaps that is warranted. As Simon and Garfunkel noted in “The Sounds of Silence,” there are times when “silence like a cancer grows”—for example, when we absent ourselves from conversations ranging from hot-button issues to family tensions. There are times when it is better to fill the silence—to continue a conversation, ask questions, and show empathy for the needs of others and our own.
And yet, when it comes to our personal lives, I would contend we need moments of silence. Silence offers time for recollection: to pause in the midst of everyday life and recognize our thoughts and feelings, to privilege being overdoing.
Meeting our need for silent moments
It seems that experts agree. According to a March 2021 article in the Wall Street Journal, silence is something we need for good health and well-being, especially amid the noise of our modern-day:
Urbanization and an ever encroaching digital life have spurred a need for sound-free respites, says Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit. . . . ‘People are desperate for silence,’ she says.” What was once a nightmarish fiction the likes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with its earbuds and wall length, surround-sound TVs, has basically become our reality. And, again, though the technology itself is not the problem, our relationship with the noise technology produces is worth considering.
So, how are we to cultivate silence in a world that is anything but quiet? Below are a few ways to consider.
Remember that you don’t need perfect outward silence to cultivate inner silence
Though this may sound like a contradiction, the reality of our modern life is that we won’t always have access to complete silence. And that’s okay.
I learned this most powerfully from Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who died at the hands of the Nazis. As the noise and terror increased around her, she discovered that “I carry this ‘quiet room’ inside me . . . and can escape into it at any moment—whether sitting in a crowded tram or out on the town.”
Like Etty, each of us can access silence within, even when the outer world is noisy. Though it may take practice, it’s a resource we all possess and can tap into.
Practice intermittent silence
The concept of intermittent silence has been developed by Dr. Krishna Bhatta, a urologist and founder of the Relaxx app. Similar to intermittent fasting, where a person creates “pauses” in their eating patterns throughout the day, intermittent silence is inserting 10-minute pauses into the day to give your mind and body permission to be silent.
Short breaks like this help prevent what Bhatta calls “over-minding,” which can result in depleted energy and burnout. Though Bhatta connects this practice to meditation, it is applicable to prayer practices as well. Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence speaks to a similar theme: It is in moments of silence that believers find God. Intermittent silence makes space for connection and restoration.
Turn off the noise at least once a day
A handful of years ago, I had a practice of traveling to work in silence—no news, music, or a silky-smooth audiobook voice to accompany my morning drives. On my return trip from work, I turned on the music.
For me, that act of having silence for one part of my day was restorative. It allowed me to think, wake up a bit more, and mentally prepare myself for the day ahead.
Consider if there’s a place in your day that is currently filled with noise, but doesn’t have to be. This could be a moment where you’re en route somewhere, or it could be time taken at the beginning, middle, or end of the day that you’ve set aside for quiet. Lean into the ritual of this quiet time. Brewing a cup of coffee or tea, or dedicating a particular space in your house (if applicable) for your quiet time are ways to prepare your body and mind for the movement into silence.
Engage in solitary activities
I’ve found that some of my activities lend themselves well to greater amounts of silence. When writing an article, for example, I tend not to have noise beyond the clatter of computer keys. I notice that during this activity, I often enter a different mode of thinking. For me, it feels like going underwater. I emerge again when the time comes to engage with people, but I value the flow that the relative silence allows me.
Other activities, like biking and taking a walk are also often solitary experiences. While certainly not noiseless, these activities lend themselves to an inner quietude, which allows for a more creative, less focused mode of thought. The result of engaging in these solitary activities is not only refreshment, but sometimes even inspiration and new ideas.
Consider what kinds of activities really refresh you. Chances are, they can offer great opportunities to make space for inner silence.
The beauty of making room for silent moments is not only the opportunity to take needed breaks from the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day, but to be more attentive, both to ourselves and the world around us.