Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Wednesday Wisdom: Finding Time for Quiet Time


"The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace."  Arabian Proverb    

In my last two Wednesday Wisdom articles, I've described how turning down the noise and immersing ourselves in silence is wonderfully beneficial for the spirit, the soul, the body, and the brain. The question remains: How can we successfully develop a practice of purposeful quiet in today's loud and hectic world?

For many, this requires overcoming a fear of silence. Unfortunately, lots of folks find quiet time to be rather unsettling. A study of 580 undergraduate students undertaken over six years, reported by Bruce Fell on The Conversation, shows that the constant accessibility and exposure to background media has created a mass of people who fear silence.

This study, along with research by Drs. Michael Bittman of the University of New England and Mark Sipthorp of the Australian Institute of Family Studies argues that  

"their need for noise and their struggle with silence is a learnt behavior. This cannot be blamed on the relatively recent rise of social media and 24-hour availability. For many of these students' lives, the TV was always on, even when no one was watching. That often was the case throughout their parents' childhoods as well. If background noise has always been with us, it's no wonder we can become so uncomfortable when it's taken away."

For those who are unsettled by solitude, let me suggest two first steps to help get past that mental roadblock. First, find your own personal reasons to seek solitude. Identify improving your health, increasing your feelings of gratitude, enhancing your sense of connection with the divine, having a deeper sense of tranquility, or any other positive outcome to experience from regular personal quiet time. Picture the benefits of having more of that in your life.

Second, try quiet in tiny doses. Change your patterns in small and simple ways. Start with very short periods of quiet. For example, turn off the TV when washing the dishes. Drive without the radio on for a few minutes. Walk the dog without the iPod or phone. Bit by bit, as you begin to embrace silence, it will feel more comfortable.

Keeping silence each day may come easier to some than others, and our situations certainly have an effect on this. A single person who lives alone may have more silence than they want. It is up to each one to embrace periods of that silence instead of filling every moment with music and shows. A mother of several young children, on the other hand, may feel that aside from the precious few hours when she sleeps, silence could only ever be realized in a pleasant dream.

We can find silence when we hit 'pause' in our daily busy-ness, and let go of the need to be productive or entertained every single minute. This silence gives us peace that stays with us when we go back to work. While external noise is the more obvious culprit, if you've ever had an annoying pop song stuck in your head, or replayed an argument over and over in your mind, then you know all about internal noise as well. We need a break from both.

No matter our situations, each of us can find some small period of time each day to be intentionally silent. It could be for 5 minutes or an hour, whatever we are able to keep. We can schedule it, or just grab it when it comes our way. Finding time to escape alone and experience solitude and silence might feel impossible in this busy world, but it can be done if we're intentional.  

Here are some ideas to consider:

Go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride. If possible, travel through the woods or the desert, or near a river or the ocean. There is nothing like the silence of nature to still your soul. Look for a quiet place away from others to sit alone for a while and ponder.

Don't always look for entertainment. When you find those "in between" moments, don't immediately reach for your phone. Take advantage of the time waiting in line or at the bus stop, and be silent. Resist the urge to fill each moment. Sometimes our guardian angel sends us moments of silence, and we just need to notice and accept them.

Drive in silence. Unlike my friend Blair who bought a truck without a radio, mine comes equipped with music. But I can choose intentionally if I want silence or music. My morning commute is one of my favorite quiet times. That's when I prepare mentally and spiritually for the day. In the afternoons, when I often listen to music, I try to let it improve the quality of my drive time instead of just acting as background noise. And instead of endlessly switching stations when I can't find anything good, I just turn it off and enjoy the silence.  

Wake up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later than the other members of your house. If you live in a full house or have kids who depend on you each day it's hard to get away. Look for times when others are sleeping that you can be awake, alone, and sit in silence.  

Spend your lunch break alone. If you work in a crowded office space, it can be difficult to find a place to sit alone. Consider taking your lunch break in a park or out in your car on nice days. You can sit silently and escape the hustle and bustle of the office and regain inner peace before heading back in to finish the day.  

Go on a retreat. If your schedule and budget allow, you could go away for a weekend alone or as a couple to a quiet destination. This isn't something you would do on a daily basis, but consider going on an annual solitude and silent retreat. There are many that you can choose from around the country.   


Work in silence. Do you really need music or a podcast playing just because you want something to entertain yourself? I've found that work can be a wonderful time for silence.

Pray. One author suggested that we begin by thanking God for His multitude of blessings to us, and then that we learn to "pray slowly." The key word here, she says, is "slowly," because we're not trying to just get it done, but to use our words to bring our mind back to where God is. Then after we've finished speaking, we spend several minutes on our knees in silence, listening for directions for our lives and answers to our questions.

Meditate. Meditation comes in all shapes and sizes, from nearly every faith tradition in the world, and we can each find an approach that works for best us. It can be combined with scripture reading or studying a daily devotional. It can be practiced individually or with a small, committed group. It only requires a desire and a commitment.

Go to a chapel or temple. Going to a church, synagogue, or temple during non-meeting times can be a wonderful way to find peace and quiet. It's a great place to pray or meditate without interruption, and think about deeper questions and concerns.

The point is, there are lots of ways, places, and times to create our own quiet time, if we intentionally set out to do so. Then, once we find one (or two or three) that work for us, we need to keep it up until it becomes a habit.

Studies have found that those who are comfortable being alone with themselves in silence are happier overall and have better mental health. Finding silence throughout our day can help us to really appreciate the beauty and blessings around us. Both external silence (turning off the radio or the podcast) and internal silence (turning off our mental checklists) can help us to live with greater peace and purpose. I highly recommend it.

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.