The Right to Remain Silent: Mindfulness in the Modern Age

SunsetSwimming through the frenetic current of life (i.e., work, children, death, and pain) can be exhausting, and the idea of having a moment to come up for air, let alone silence, may seem outlandish. And maybe it is. Part of Pablo Neruda’s poem, Keeping Quiet, introduces this radical notion of silence:

For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms so much. It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness

What, exactly, is “silence,” anyway? The definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is the absence of sound or noise. It can be a metaphor for inner peace and stillness. If the mind is deep in silence and empty or void of thoughts, then the individual is often recognized to be developing a spiritual process. This projects the idea of channeling with a deity or connecting with one’s true nature or “self.” Silence can act as a conduit for personal communication with a higher power, or—in some Buddhist practices —a transformation toward enlightenment. Conscious or not, we are constantly interrupting the peace.

In Western culture, there is a dualistic component to silence. In one sense, silence is a home to take solace and relax from the demands of our environments. For others, within seconds the experience elicits terrible anxiety and causes mental restlessness. The mind leaps from past to future like a ping-pong ball across a table. People tend to love silence or hate it.

A quiet surrounding is a channel for returning attention to your breathing in a mindful, present-moment focus. A mindfulness practice can take shape during long periods of silence. This is an active process of paying attention to what arises—in the body, mind, and environment—on a momentary basis and then offering an appropriate response to this activity.

Maintaining any degree of true silence requires engagement with the innate, core capabilities we all have. Building a capacity—to first withstand and then grow—within silence requires awareness, curiosity, constancy, engagement, patience, and tolerance (ACCEPT). Are we culturally moving toward noise and entropy? Is silence becoming extinct or has it merely been a concept we either hang on to or is negatively categorized? I witnessed a technological singularity within the microcosm of a small, rural community as it exploded with bandwidth a few years ago. For me, living in this rural area and observing a cultural change in communication habits acted as impetus for me to truly accept this fleeting, self-composed reality.

I resided in northern New Hampshire after finishing graduate school (between 2009 and 2012). I was living in a tiny community of approximately 1,500 people in the town of Colebrook. This beautiful yet isolated apex was closely surrounded by Vermont, Canada, and Maine (all of which were seconds to minutes away from my log cabin apartment). It was to be the start of my social work career practicing psychotherapy.

As a psychotherapist, over the years since that time period, it has become routine for me to hear the chirp, vibrate, song burst, or the more familiar old-fashioned ringtone from a phone during a therapy session. On a good day, the person does not answer the phone during the appointment and considers silencing the device. I remember the first time it happened while I was in New Hampshire, and I’ll tell you why it was so memorable.

Maintaining any degree of true silence requires engagement with the innate, core capabilities we all have. Building a capacity—to first withstand and then grow—within silence requires awareness, curiosity, constancy, engagement, patience, and tolerance (ACCEPT).

At the time (2011), one could not get a cell phone signal while inside the building where I worked. I would wave my BlackBerry out the window like a SOS flare—to an unknown, digital rescuer—in the hope of a bar or two of service. In order to get decent phone service, one had to hike up a nearby mountain. One was significantly more likely to spot a moose than an Android phone. The more affluent residents in this area merely had “track phones.” Essentially, these were “flip phones” with prepaid minutes on them and were mostly used in emergencies. Due to the lack of service coverage, the smartphone had not yet disseminated through northern New Hampshire. One night, that changed.

Residents of my town leapt from dial-up Internet connections to data communication resources comparable to most metropolitan areas. It was a digital upgrade analogous to trading in a bicycle for a Harley-Davidson. This happened literally overnight with the advent of a prominent, new Verizon cell phone tower that looked down upon the town. A new market was born. People went from no phones to iPhones, exploring the lush forests, incredible wildlife, and majestic landscapes to Angry Birds and Facebook. The younger people I worked with in therapy would say, “Andrew, have you heard of Facebook?” My cynical thought internally fired back, “Yeah, like six years ago!” but I would usually nod in confirmation.

The technological paradigm shift granted palm-sized super-computers to individuals without a context for how this might shape the culture’s relationship with stillness. I recalled previously being the only person holding a smartphone—or a cell phone, for that matter—at social gatherings and was embarrassed to have the oddity. It was not just that the culture didn’t appear ready for the new technology, but the environment, too. The majestic landscape was suddenly disrupted by the tower. Seen from a distance, the blinking light or signal was a small, redundant form of noise that could be habituated but not completely ignored. In a way, the tower’s mere presence was a subtle impediment on the peaceful area’s silence.

Our minds are not well equipped for the constant stimulation, noise, and computation. With the construction of the cell phone tower, I obstinately disconnected. For the first time in my life, I decided I was not going to chase or even follow the technological curve. I traded my sentient BlackBerry for an antiquated “dumb phone.” It was a symbolic and indelible mark in time for me. Melodic walks through empty fields and unobtrusive hikes in the woods occupied my time between weekend retreats of contemplative practice.

The absence of instant gratification (notifications, emails, etc.)—that I am so tied to—was freeing. I was seemingly forced into silence, but liberated from Internet dependencies. Creativity, patience, and empathy started to grow out of the quietness. When the mind is left to its own devices, one begins to bear witness to his or her habitual processes. I began to write and truly observe my surroundings (internal, physical, and cultural). The unaccompanied silence would often evoke wildly future-oriented thoughts and plans. However, I developed an active practice of not attending to these thoughts in order to pay attention to the present. Once one accepts and commits to mindfulness practices—specifically meditation—he or she enhances his or her awareness, curiosity, constancy, engagement, patience, and tolerance (ACCEPT). Zoketsu Norman Fischer, American Soto Zen roshi, emphasizes how this retreating “teaches us to live simply, enjoy quiet, be perfectly happy with only a little, and live in supportive, harmonious community.”

Observing your thoughts without distraction can tell you a lot about how your mind operates. Where does the mind want to go? The past? What’s to come? Longing? It is challenging to discover these processes when we have unlimited access to distraction. Silence has to be invited. In the 21st century spirit of Neruda’s Keeping Quiet, for a moment, pause and don’t talk. This will be a radical, collective stillness—without our devices—in order to create an unexpected oddness.

Submit. Give yourself permission. You have the right to remain silent; take it and see what happens.

References:

  1. Neruda, P. (1974) Keeping Quiet. Extravagaria(translated by Alastair Reid). 27-29.
  2. Fischer, N. (September 10, 2012). Topsy-Turvy World. Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time. Retrieved from: http://www.lionsroar.com/topsy-turvy-world-november-2012/#

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrew Archer, LICSW, therapist in Mankato, Minnesota

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Allie

    Allie

    June 15th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    It is so important to find that time alone so that you can process all of the events of the day, even when it is the hardest to find that time to be alone.

  • Deeda

    Deeda

    June 15th, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    It’s hard to know at times when to remain silent and when to speak up. There are days when you just want to disconnect from the hub bub but then there is social media, 24 hour news, etc. all there to keep you engaged all the time. You don’t want to feel like you are out of the loop but at the same time it gets to be too much at times!

  • Silas

    Silas

    June 15th, 2015 at 5:06 PM

    THere are some people who have this incessant need to always be talking, as if they are afraid of confronting the silence.

  • Andrew Archer

    Andrew Archer

    June 16th, 2015 at 10:03 AM

    I agree Allie, and think it is very important to process–or more so–develop a stronger awareness for how it is you process your day’s events. Deeda, I think the culmination of opportunities to be filled with noise make this especially challenging (including the need of others to talk, Silas).

  • Anna

    Anna

    June 16th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    I feel at times that we are on a constant merry go round of information overload and if you are not up front and sharing every little detail of your life, then there will be those who unreasonably assume that there is something going on and that you are holding back.
    Truthfully I don’t feel the need to overshare or let everyone in on what I ate for breakfast that day or any of the other little mundane details that others are so intent on sharing.
    There is just no mystery left anymore when we all feel the need to tell about our day that we are having every single day.

  • Lindley

    Lindley

    June 17th, 2015 at 7:49 AM

    That excerpt from that poem?
    Magical

  • Andrew Archer

    Andrew Archer

    June 18th, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    Anna- Because we are inundated with information, the mere absence of information (i.e., status updates, Tweets, etc.) from someone can signal our alarm as to perhaps there is a problem for that person. I feel that periods of digital self-deprivation make me more aware of this phenomenon. It is almost like noticing what happens when you specifically don’t scratch an itch you have.

  • Wendy

    Wendy

    June 20th, 2015 at 2:03 PM

    silence is golden- that is one thing that will never change

  • Andrew Archer, LCSW

    Andrew Archer, LCSW

    June 24th, 2015 at 4:13 PM

    I agree.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

 

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

   
GoodTherapy.org is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on GoodTherapy.org.