Imagine not being able to speak, read, write, or make eye contact with anyone for 10 days. How long do you think you could last?
For some, more than a week of total silence isn’t a harsh self-punishment — it’s a path toward enlightenment.
Buddhist contemplatives call the practice “vipassana,” which translates to “seeing clearly.” The goal is to grow in self-awareness and self-control, simply by noticing physical sensations and emotions without attempting to escape or change them.
The practice is painstaking, of course, but many vipassana attendees remark that, without the distracting buzz of the outside world, their other senses intensify. One attendee describes how her vision sharpened during an early morning walk in the woods:
“Everything I saw was clear, vibrant and magnified like never before. I noticed so much, without any effort at all. The raindrops on the blades of grass. Their size, positioning, the depth of each drop and its colors. I noticed the shape, color, texture, and size of the petals, of a variety of flowers at a single glance.”
The premise is backed by science. Studies show that blind people experience something called compensatory plasticity, which means the brain strengthens other senses when one is compromised. The same thing happens with the deaf — the brain uses the space devoted to hearing to amplify other senses.
But what about less permanent restrictions, like a silent retreat? Recent research shows the same principle holds true. One study found that temporarily restricting sight has the same effect on the brain as total blindness; when blindfolded, participants could hear more complex, harmonic tones in music.
Whether or not you plan to pack your bags and head to a vipassana retreat, the science is in your favor. When you opt to cut some noise out of your life, you’ll begin to see things differently.
The problem with noise
One reason silent retreats feel so jarring? Because we’re used to constant noise. But it’s not doing us any good.
By definition, noise is harmful. The word comes from a Latin root that means either “queasiness” or “pain.” We may not always realize how noise harms us, but beneath the surface, it’s taking a toll. In addition to physical effects like hearing loss and insomnia, noise can be mentally damaging.
Research on noise pollution shows that living among noise activates the fight-or-flight center of the brain and releases stress hormones like cortisol. People who live among constant city sounds are more likely to experience chronic stress, which can lead to anxiety and depression.
Noise is also distracting. You know all those optimistic claims about the endless benefits of open office plans? There may actually be more disadvantages to the constant influx of distraction in an open plan. The relentless “noisiness” of our lives (or workplaces) can hamper our creativity, holding us back from our next great idea.
To be creative, scientists say, we need space to daydream, which simply isn’t possible when our minds and lives are filled with noise.
“Engaging creatively requires hitting the reset button,” writes Derek Beres in Big Think, “which means carving space in your day for lying around, meditating, or staring off into nothing.”
If all the chaos and clamor around us are damaging our health — and draining our creativity — then there’s only one solution: silence.
The science of silence
“Getting away from the noise” isn’t just a fad. Like noise, quiet actually does something to our biology — and can profoundly improve our lives. (So much so that the country of Finland markets silence as a natural resource.)
Essentially, the effects of silence on our bodies reverse the effects of noise pollution: Studies show habitual silent meditation may safeguard us from the effects of aging on the brain by slowing the decline of gray matter. And even just two minutes of total silence can have relaxing effects on the body, protecting us from the impact of chronic stress.
Silence also helps the brain generate new cells in the region that deals with learning and memory, which means being quiet can, quite literally, make us smarter.
As vipassana retreat participants often experience, being quiet is like hitting the “reset” button on our minds and bodies; silence can not only help us feel more energetic and adaptable, it also helps us to become more attuned to our thoughts, and, as a result, more creative. As Hal Hergeson, director of the MIT Leadership Center, writes:
Silence “increase[s] your chances of encountering novel ideas and information.”
On top of strengthening our thinking and creativity abilities, a little peace and quiet can simply make us better humans, boosting self-awareness and self-acceptance, improving decision-making skills, preventing compulsive actions, and even increasing our compassion toward others. Reaping these benefits might take discipline, but it doesn’t have to take much time. Sitting in silence for just 20 minutes daily can yield remarkable fruit in our lives.
Making a habit of silence
The benefits of silence are countless.
So why is it so hard to come by?
Part of the challenge lies in how our lives are built. Life is loud — and it’s not always realistic to jet off to a silent retreat or even to wake up at 5 am for a daily yoga and meditation session.
Fear is another element. Let’s be clear: silence is uncomfortable. For some, it’s so unbearable that physical pain is more appealing. Silence forces us to confront thoughts we might not like to think and to feel emotions we might not like to feel. But, since it also connects us more deeply with ourselves, I’ve found the benefits of silence almost always outweigh the momentary discomfort.
In my experience, re-framing silence as designated time to daydream can make it less intimidating. Often, when I notice myself begin to feel tense or uninspired, I’ll escape to a conference room or the library with a pen and paper and simply follow my thoughts where they want to go. Away from the distractions and interruptions of the office, I’ve come up with some of my best ideas for JotForm. It’s almost like my brain was waiting for an opportunity to chime in.
Chances are, your mind has something important to say, too — maybe it’s your next creative breakthrough. All you have to do is take the time to listen.