Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Reasons to Resist Getting Quiet

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca
Any reader of this effort (or my various social media streams) knows I am a pretty big proponent of the benefits of the pause.  Or finding some space. Or just getting quiet from time to time.

And I am certainly not the first to undertake to try to describe the benefits of doing so (aware that writing about getting quiet is like dancing about architecture).

But the last thing I would want is for anyone to accept anything blindly (especially something I espouse). And to that end, this post discusses some of the objections a skeptical person might have to practicing mindfulness (noticing), meditation, getting quiet, or other actions that allow for rest and recovery between the ears.

I Don't Have Time

Ours is a profession where someone decided it was a badge of honor to respond to "How are you?" with "I am really busy."

And undoubtedly time is valuable. And being busy with important things to do is better than the alternative. Ralph Waldo Emerson was on to something when he remarked that

“To fill the hour - that is happiness, to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.”

However, consider what "fill the hour" means: 1) what you choose to do, and 2) your capability (energy) to do it.  Put another way, your time is only meaningful if you have sufficient energy. Moreover, your brain simply cannot run all the time and be effective, especially when occupied by so much noise.  And brain energy is replenished when things get quiet. As Alan Watts said, "Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone."

But the tools of our current age are delivering a double-whammy that keeps the gray matter consistently muddy: 1) tricking our minds into thinking that constant stimulation is the same thing as time well-spent, and 2) siphoning off attention that we sorely need to adapt to a changing world and solve difficult problems.

Our ubiquitous technology (as well as other distractions) contribute to the feeling of being busy, by occupying every "spare" second of attention. And we pay the "task-shifting penalty" each time we indulge distractions, draining energy from the brain.

So think about the importance of making better use of your time by guarding attention and doing things to increase energy. In other words, add Production Capability (a rested, recharged mind) to your toolkit in to supplement Production (the frequency with which you use your brain). 

To quote Emerson again, the key is not the number of hours, but the number of meaningful hours:

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

You may have your day so structured that you literally do not have 20 minutes (or 10 minutes, or even 1 minute) to sit (or run or walk) quietly without distractions or other outside stimulation.  But evaluate whether that is really the case.

And as described above, the feeling of being busy is comforting. Which means that the opposite-- the feeling of getting quiet (i.e. not busy)-- is most discomforting. This idea is buttressed by the study showing that people preferred electronic shock to sitting quietly in a room even for a few minutes. But chew on this observation from Brene Brown: The only way to ensure long-term comfort is to have continual short-term discomfort. (I will come back to this in another post).

Also, I know that at times I have claimed to have a manically busy life without pausing to examine that proposition. And when I scoffed at carving out time for silence (or exercise, or journaling, planning, or simply playing) I did so unaware that I spent 13 hours at Williams Brice the previous Saturday, or 6 hours the night before binge-ing on Peaky Blinders (worst name, best show).  

I am not knocking spectator sports or (good) TV as a use of time:  my point is that if you had a little perspective or insight into how you actually spent your hours (the perspective and insight that often results when you step back from the noise in your life), you might be able to discern that indeed you weren't quite so busy as you complained/boasted/lamented. Read this piece about someone who tracked her time and realized just that.

I Am Not Any Good At It 

Oddly enough, that's the point: to get a little glimpse of your distractions. As Kelly McGonigal wrote in The Willpower Instinct, meditation is more effective the "worse" you are at it, because you get a sense of what is playing on a constant loop in your head (the tough case, the relationship you can't get over, your fears of an uncertain future, what is going to happen in the 2nd season of "Stranger Things").

And if you do give it a try, don't set yourself up for failure (and the dreaded "What-the-Hell Effect") by biting off more than you can chew. As Tim Ferriss has suggested, try sitting still with your eyes closed just long enough to hear your favorite song. Or just pay attention to your breathing.

It Doesn't Work


Do you look at your body after one trip to the gym and decide to give up because you can't see results? Like exercise, or other habits, you don't get to a certain point and cross a finish line. While it is true that you won't be able to admire your brain or your patience or marginal improvements in insight the same way you might a flat stomach or a larger bicep, there are tangible benefits to noticing things. The science is proving that over and over again. But you won't see those benefits overnight.

And, (prepare for paradox that causes a Type One brain to blow a fuse) to the extent it "works" it does so only when you drop the expectations that it work. Ultimately getting quiet, like most good things, is its own reward.

It's Inconsistent With My Faith


Every religious faith has its contemplatives. Getting quiet is not the exclusive province of any religion or tradition, but a common thread through all of them. Nobody has ever tried to convert me, and I have been at this for more than 25 years. See the quotes below. 

It's a Fad

Like everything, ideas and practices become buzzwords and cliches as the culture gets a hold of them.  (You see that I am not real keen on even using the term "mindfulness" very often because it has gotten so tired). But the only thing new about these techniques and routines is the science showing their benefits.

"Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around."- Marcus Aurelius. 
"Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom." - Francis Bacon 
"Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed." - Saint Francis de Sales
"In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves." Rumi
“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.” - Thomas Merton

It Will Make Me Lose My Competitive Drive


Does meditating eliminate the discontent that fuels the drive to succeed?

This is a particular question asked by Tim Ferriss to both Brene Brown and Tara Brach. From my perspective, as referenced above, growth and getting better and lifelong learning require some degree of Getting Comfortable with Discomfort. And getting quiet is not going to eliminate discontent and discomfort. Just the opposite.

And if your "drive" is a future-focused perfectionism that springs from a hole you'll never fill and which craves only extrinsic validation (from partners, clients, judges, etc.), then you have larger concerns than the effect a little silence may have on you.

On the other hand, if you strive for excellence from a solid place ( i.e., based upon  intrinsic motivation) and want to get better (trying to foster a Growth Mindset), then a little awareness may provide a little space in your head for the regret of the past, the uncertainty of the future, the demands of the present, and how hard you are on yourself.

Put it this way: there is not a lot of room for courage and creativity and the ability to co-exist with uncertainty when blame and criticism and fear occupy your head.

It Causes Me to Avoid Critical Thinking

On a similar point, and as pointed out in this article, these techniques can be used to withdraw and to avoid critical thinking or tough decisions. And who doesn't feel like crawling into a cave every now and then? But the key is seeing the utility of becoming more effective at rational thinking (by learning more about how good judgment gets clouded), as opposed to foregoing critical thinking altogether.

It is Self-Indulgent


Well, it certainly can be. As Nicholas Taleb remarked in The Bed of Procrustes, "Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone." But I believe strongly that taking care of yourself is not self-indulgent at all. As Adam Grant has observed, people who are selfless to the point of self-sacrifice are at a much higher risk of burnout and of being exploited.  As the saying goes, it's ok to secure your own oxygen mask first, and taking care of yourself puts you in a much better position to help others.

Similarly, I don't think that learning a little more about the way your mind works, in service of increased awareness,  self-regulation and resilience, self-control, decision making, recognizing and minimizing bias (mostly in yourself), and listening, is self-indulgent.


It is said that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. And every lawyer can find a hundred reasons for not doing something. All I know is that I am better when I get outside, sit quietly every now and then, or do something that takes me out of the constant barrage of stimuli characterizing most of my days. I hope you can do the things that give you that space.