Wednesday, July 10, 2019

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: Silence is Golden. And Healthy.


Silence is a source of great strength."  Lao Tzu   


In my previous article, I wrote about how purposeful silence is good for the spirit and the soul. Lately, I've learned that quiet is also good for the body and the brain. Doctors, nurses, and scientists are recognizing that many health benefits result from turning down the noise and immersing ourselves in silence.  

Back in the mid-1800s, Florence Nightingale attacked hospital noise as a "cruel absence of care." She insisted on the converse: Quiet is a part of care, she argued, as essential for patients as medication or sanitation. As most of us who have spent a few nights in a hospital can attest, unnecessary noise can cause distress, sleep loss, and alarm for patients.  

Modern studies bear her out. They have shown that noise pollution leads to high blood pressure and heart attacks, as well as impairing overall health. Loud noises raise stress levels by activating the brain's amygdala and causing the release of the stress hormone cortisol.    

Scientists conducting research on the health effects of noise actually stumbled on a surprise truth -- silence is more than just the lack of noise pollution. It's an active good that has profound positive effects on us physiologically and psychologically.

While too much noise can cause stress and tension, silence has the opposite effect, releasing tensions in the brain and body. A 2006 study published in the journal Heart found two minutes of silence to be more relaxing than listening to "relaxing" music, based on changes in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.

One of the most astounding recent discoveries about the health benefits of silence is that regular periods of quiet can quite literally grow new brain cells. A 2013 study on mice, published in the journal Brain, Structure, and Function, involved comparing the effects of ambient noise, white noise, pup calls, and silence on the rodents' brains.  

Although the researchers intended to use silence as a control in the study, they found that two hours of silence daily led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. Extended periods of silence allow the hippocampus the opportunity to process, consolidate and strengthen itself. The research author said, "We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system." Since the hippocampus is where our memories are stored and where we process our emotions, it is critical to learning.  

These findings suggested that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer's, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus. Wouldn't that be an exciting development for those of us getting older?

In summary, from a physiological standpoint, spending time each day in silence helps:
  • Lower blood pressure, which can help prevent heart attack.
  • Boost the body's immune system.
  • Benefit brain chemistry by growing new cells.
  • Decrease stress by lowering blood cortisol levels and adrenaline.
  • Promote good hormone regulation and the interaction of bodily hormone-related systems.
  • Prevent plaque formation in arteries.
Who knew that something as simple as sitting quietly could be so beneficial for our health? I suspect that future research will show additional benefits in finding a time and place for silence.  

So, when was the last time each of us experienced true silence? Shouldn't we try to get away from extraneous noise a little more regularly?   

NOTE: In my next Wednesday Wisdom, I'll offer several practical suggestions on how we can build more quiet time into our lives, even in today's loud and hectic world.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019



A wise man once said nothing. Proverb  

True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body: nourishment and refreshment. William Penn

About 30 years ago, I rode along with Blair, a close friend whose work and church service required him to take frequent trips of two or three hours. I was surprised to discover that he had no radio or cassette player in his small pickup truck. I asked him how that happened, since I thought radios were standard equipment in every vehicle.

"I custom-ordered the truck with no radio," he answered. "It actually cost me money to have the radio removed."  

"But why did you do that?" I asked.

"Because I didn't want to tempt myself to give up my quiet time," he explained. "I was afraid if I had a radio in my truck, I might turn it on during my long drives, which would ruin the best part of my day."

That led into an extended discussion on the mental and spiritual benefits of silence.  

Blair taught religion classes to high school and college students, and he was also a church leader in our area. Blair worried that his students and his parishioners were so addicted to constant chatter, music, and other forms of noise that they were unable to follow the counsel in Psalms 46: 10 to "Be still, and know that I am God."  

He shared what Mother Theresa said about coming to know God during periods of quiet.  

"We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls."

Blair wanted others to find peace in their hearts and lives. He understood what Khaled Hosseini meant when he wrote: "Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button. Shutting it down. All of it."

Blair was disappointed that so many he taught and led seemed unable to develop a pattern of daily meditation and quietude. I asked him why he thought so few people were able to do something as simple as sitting quietly for a few minutes.  

"It can be a bit scary." he said. "Although not true for all, I think many people are afraid of what they'll find in the silence." His answer was similar to the words of contemporary author Jefferson Bethke:  

"We refuse to turn off our computers, turn off our phones, log off Facebook, and just sit in silence, because in those moments we might actually have to face up to who we really are."  

Over the years, I've been very grateful for Blair's instruction on the benefits of silence. Quiet solitude has served me well, allowing me to come to terms with the spiritual meaning of life and to think through my day-to-day challenges, both personal and professional. I've found it to be uplifting and reassuring.  

I'm a big believer in the value of quiet time, of finding a time and place for silence. On this topic, I'm on the same page as Deepak Chopra, who wrote:  

"Silence is the great teacher. There is no substitute for the creative inspiration, knowledge, and stability that come from knowing how to contact your core of inner silence."

We need to not be afraid to turn off the world for a few minutes every day. Our minds and souls will thank us for it.

NOTE: In my next Wednesday Wisdom, I'll focus on some amazing health benefits that silence offers us.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Wednesday Wisdom: The Importance of Doing Nothing


Disconnecting from work lets our mind and body recharge.  It ensures that when we are working next, we're working at full capacity.  Jory MacKay   

I saw a Facebook meme recently that contained a nugget of homespun wisdom. It read:

If you don't schedule time to maintain your equipment, your equipment will schedule it for you.

This comment got me thinking. It's certainly possible to run our machines until we run them into the ground. Then what? And these days, what do we mean by "equipment?" I don't drive tractors any more, like I did as a young man on the farm. How does this "maintain your equipment" idea apply to me today?

In ancient agrarian societies, their most important piece of "equipment" was the land itself. Through Moses, the Israelites were instructed to let their fields lie fallow and rest every seven years (Exodus 23: 11). This allowed the soil to replenish itself, avoiding depletion of important nutrients. The result was greater harvests and longer-lasting farms. In Roman times, the author Ovid applied this principle of agrarian sabbaticals to human workers when he counseled: "Take rest; the field that has rested yields a bountiful crop."

In my business, computers are key to our productivity. I need to make sure our computers are in good shape, employing software that regularly reviews, updates, and maintains them. If that software is not installed correctly and is not run frequently, it's likely that we'll be dealing with computer issues at work.

(Interestingly, when my laptop or my wife's iPad is misbehaving and we call our son who works in IT for help, the first thing he usually says is, "Why don't you power off for a few minutes and then turn it back on and see if that helps."   In most cases, a little "down time" is all that is needed.)

But far more important than keeping our computers running smoothly, it's imperative that my team and I properly maintain our tools of greatest consequence, our brains. We are in the brain business. The essence of what we provide our clients is knowledge and wisdom. Those are the fruits of our brain power.   Unless we keep our brains in tip-top shape, we cannot expect to produce a bountiful crop.  

I love my job because I've been able to create a business around my own unique talents and aptitudes. (I've often said that if you want a perfect job, you need to build it for yourself.) But even in a perfect job - and perhaps especially if it's a not-quite-perfect job - it's vital to disconnect from it from time to time. Down time is essential to any successful enterprise, but especially if you're in the brain business.  

I love to work but I must maintain a balance between doing and not doing. "Strategic disengagement" is how I describe taking time away from work so the brain can rejuvenate. I appreciate Tony Schwartz' advice that in today's intense and fast-paced world, we need to create "white space" for ourselves.  

"It's not possible to move from one activity to the next at blinding speed and be reflective at the same time. The more complex and demanding the work we do, the wider, deeper, and longer the perspective we require to do it well. It's almost impossible to do that when we create no white space in our lives."

When we're not at work, doing something different is good, but sometimes DOING NOTHING is even better. If our "days off" are too tightly scheduled, we may arrive back at work in worse mental shape than when we left. We must learn - and then remember - to MAINTAIN THE BRAIN BY DOING NOTHING.

When I say "doing nothing" I mean:
  • Sitting and thinking.
  • Walking in the woods.
  • Listening to the birds or the crickets.
  • Taking a nap.
  • Sitting on the beach and watching the waves.
  • Lying in a hammock and pondering the clouds.
  • Hanging out on the porch and admiring the sunset.
  • Or doing whatever allows us to fully disengage.
Otherwise, when we are working next, we won't be working at full capacity. We cannot be tightly wound every single minute if we expect to deliver our best results.  

If we don't schedule time to maintain our equipment, our equipment will schedule it for us.