I recently moved to Saigon; Vietnam’s most populated city with a bustling, buzzing energy that I immediately fell head-over-heels for. The city is a beating heart, endlessly circulating people around 24 diverse and dazzling districts, its arteries pulsating with traffic. Despite my affection for the swarms of motorbikes and street food stalls that give this city its character, they are also the source of a constant stream of noise. Silence is not a commodity here; in fact, it is in very short supply. Within a matter of weeks, the clattering, rattling, rumbling chorus of Saigon had seeped into my mind and I began to feel a little disconnected.
In today’s society of noise and distraction, it is all too easy to take silence for granted, to overlook its importance. We willfully lose ourselves in all kinds of noise and end up perceiving silence as lacking, cutting or empty. Yet, silence can be a powerful tool. Here I will re-frame silence as a practical means of improving well-being, finding clarity and re-engaging with the world around you.
The modern world is becoming increasingly fractured by distraction. Smartphones pinging, sirens blaring, traffic rumbling, TVs glaring. These days, it’s a remarkable feat to make it even five minutes without some kind of interruption or interference. What’s more, it’s easy to forget that noise isn’t just about volume; the noise coming from our Facebook feeds can roar in the mind as loud as any engine. Many of us are plugged in around the clock, expected to be available to meet the demands of our electronic devices at any time of day or night.
(Get started reaping the Joys of Unplugging.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such over-stimulation can affect both physical and mental health in the long-term. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that persistent sensory overload is a major contributing factor towards stress and anxiety. When our senses are continually assaulted by noise and distractions, our bodies may unnecessarily release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, whilst our minds make a bad habit of remaining hyper-alert. The World Health Organization cites noise in particular as an “underestimated threat,” with links to high blood pressure and even heart attacks.
Reconnection, Not Renunciation
Luckily, the antidote to this epidemic is readily available, free of charge and really rather simple: silence. Silence is too often misinterpreted as an act of renunciation or disconnection, when actually it can help us to engage with our surroundings on a deeper level. Norwegian author and explorer, Erling Kagge, succinctly captures this idea in his book, "Silence: In the age of Noise." Kagge argues that "abstracting ourselves from the world does not mean turning our backs on what is surrounding us: on the contrary, it’s all about watching the world with much more acuity, staying on course, enjoying life." In this sense, we can use silence as a practical tool to deconstruct life’s noise and sharpen the mind, enabling us to reconnect with more clarity.
Silence as a Practice
So, how can we practice silence? What do we do if we can’t escape environmental noise? These are particularly pertinent questions as I write this amidst the blaring horns of Saigon. The truth is, you needn’t wander the earth to discover silence; it is there, waiting for you interminably. Even if you are literally unable to turn down the volume, there are still a remarkable number of ways you can tap into the benefits of silence. For example, merely dedicating a small section of the day to not speaking can have a profound effect on creativity, allowing thoughts the space and momentum they need to blossom. You might find that spending the occasional afternoon or evening entirely disconnected from devices and social contact greatly improves your energy levels, enabling you to listen to others with greater intent upon your return.
(More on the practice of Taking Silence Breaks Throughout Your Day.)
Though more obvious silent practices such as mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises are now proven to be of great mental and physiological benefit, we can each find unique ways to create and cultivate a little more silence in our everyday lives. Perhaps you are able to take a silent walk in nature each week, or engage silently in an activity that takes your entire focus for a while: fishing, gardening, painting, cooking, surfing – the list is endless. Maybe you could choose to turn the radio off whilst driving, or take some extra time in bed to really wake up before reaching for your phone. By making the conscious decision to entertain silence, you will end up creating positive rituals that undoubtedly improve long-term well-being and foster a stronger connection to the world around you.
As Rich in Content as Words
Silence is far from lacking. According to Kagge, it can be “just as rich in content” as words if you watch closely enough. In silence, there is a nonverbal communication that transcends language, allowing us to glimpse a unique understanding of life that may otherwise be overlooked. Without tapping into this regularly, we lose access to an entire dimension of our being. Silence permits reflection and prompts self-awareness, undertakings we are rarely allowed time for in societies of distraction and haste. Next time you feel lost in noise, remember that silence is always with you, ever ready to be used as a practical tool for reconnecting with the world.
(Read on in Shhh: 5 Life Lessons You Learn By Staying Silent.)