Do you ever have that restless, idle feeling when you are standing in line somewhere or even brushing your teeth like you should be doing something else? Do you feel like you’re constantly moving during the day or have a hard time winding down at night to go to sleep? If you’re faced with a beautiful scene, whether physically, naturally, or contextually beautiful, how much time goes by before you feel like you ought to check your phone or go do something else?
Most people these days, regardless of age, have the same responses to these questions. We are becoming more and more consumed with activity, productivity, multitasking, and busyness with each passing year. This condition of being obsessed with stimulation affects our relationship with time, other people, and reality itself.
But is this frustratingly superficial modus operandi a symptom of something deeper?
It seems like humanity, at least in most technologically advanced countries, has become irritated with stillness and tends to avoid it at all costs. Just the idea of a pause in conversation or a moment of silence makes most people uncomfortable. This avoidance of stillness causes us to tend toward constant chatter, filling our time with others’ updates on social media, and occupying our mind with the 24-hour news cycle instead of our own thoughts.
It is my belief that this inner fear of stillness, quiet, and empty time stems from our lack of experience with it and language for it. We don’t have a cultural vocabulary, outside of religious discussions about contemplation, to describe this time that seems to have no commercial or economic value. This lack of familiarity makes us suspicious of time that feels idle. What we don’t realize is that silence has a different and deeper value.
When we power down (not just silence) our phones and close our laptops, turn off the TV, and even leave that book on the bedside table, what are we left with? Ourselves.
Does this notion terrify you? Do you already feel anxious just knowing that you have no distraction from the silence? That means you need to do this. Desperately. We all need time alone with ourselves, to access an inner stillness and nurture it with intention. But why?
Silence, it turns out, is not something to avoid, but the real anchor that grounds us so we don’t spin out of control. Stillness is at the center of everything. Silence allows us to mold our identities and consider our next moves or impending decisions carefully. Without taking time for reflection on our own opinions and beliefs, how can we truly justify them to others? Even a hurricane relies on the stillness at the center for its power.
It took the silence of living in a foreign country without a smart phone for me to ask myself some hard questions. I found that many of my tastes and values had been dictated to me and had very unstable foundations within myself. When I realized that I didn’t know the answer for them, I bought a journal and spent what I now consider to be true quality time alone. In those lonesome hours, I found a haven in stillness and “unproductivity” and a salve for the urge to fill space and time with action or conversation. I also found that by not filling quiet dips in discussion, I allowed the other person to continue their thoughts or elaborate on something that would have otherwise been lost.
Distraction numbs us to the passage of time and weakens our ties to one another by training our brains to expect new stimuli every few minutes or even seconds. By detracting from our ability to focus on conversation and message, we slowly poison our relationships in making others feel they are not worthy of our attention.
It takes practice, but it is possible for anyone to become comfortable with silence. By retraining our brains to focus on single tasks at a time and by re-designating our schedules, even extroverts like me can learn to find solace in stillness.
Start by deciding to be off your phone other than setting an alarm between certain hours. Maybe you’d like to reclaim your evenings or mornings. Stick to it. If you break it or have an emergency, forgive yourself and get back on the wagon. You may find that your coffee ritual takes on new meaning in the morning, that you start to cherish the morning light, or you decide to focus on breath or yoga before starting your work day.
Then, build on this new habit by retraining your mind to focus for longer periods of time. At work, stick to a single task until its completion. At home, turn your phone upside down while you cook dinner to avoid being distracted by notifications. Decide to either watch TV or be on your phone, not both at the same time. Unsubscribe to news alerts from all but one source, or to all. Because you’re not really multi-tasking – you’re actually hurting your mind.
Slowly hack away at the infiltration of technology and distraction into non-necessary, private circles and you will start to feel a sense of relief, a connection to your time, and an ownership of your day.
This is the essential and primary empowerment. If we don’t have control over our own time and lives, how can we possible begin to affect our associates, environments, politics, and more!?
Reclaim your time — learn to focus and the newfound confidence in self that will arise will seep into your work life, relationships, and more, helping you achieve your goals and may even reset your course in life.