Rule 1: Cultivate Silence

This is Rule 1 in the 5 Practices for Simple Living.

Americans aren’t comfortable with silence. For most of my life I woke up to a clock radio tuned to a favorite station. I listened to while I got ready in the morning. As I ate breakfast I would watch the news on television. On the drive to work, I’d be back to the radio again. If the job allowed it, I’d have the radio or some sort of music playing in my office. The drive home was the radio again, and then the television went on until it was time for bed, unless I fell asleep with it on.

Now we have phones and social media accounts that we check compulsively. We allow them to distract us from deep work, and interrupt our conversations with people directly in front of is. Those conversations are often filled with superficial chatter, because we’re uncomfortable just abiding with another person in silence.

Increasingly we see reports on how this lack of silence is not only dangerous but unhealthy in the long term. We see the devastating effects of consumerism, the things we buy to fill the voids. There’s a lack of compassion, because we can’t make genuine connections with others. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are on the rise. Cultivating silence comes down to making decisions about how we spend our time. It’s about embracing better choices that eliminate the unnecessary to make room for what we actually need.

Media-Free Time

All things in moderation. I say that because some people think that I’m entirely anti-social media and anti-television. Those same people call me a hypocrite when I make a Twitter post about a show I’m enjoying, completely missing the point. We all need downtime, and there’s a place in our lives for passive entertainment. Consumer culture, though, has taught us the false belief that the purpose of life is to be passively entertained every waking moment of every day.

A constant barrage of media allows us no time to contemplate or appreciate what we’ve seen and heard. It shortens our attention span, and has a negative impact on our critical thinking. This sort of over-stimulation creates a false sense of urgency and immediacy. When people have knee-jerk, emotional reactions to things, it’s because they haven’t had time to process the information, their thoughts about it, or the wisdom of their response.

Wisdom is developed in silence. There’s a reason we think of the ancient masters, pouring through old books or meditating on a mountaintop, as wise. They take the time to mull things over. Silence is a gift to them, not a gaping void that needs to be filled. The world needs more wisdom. To get there, we need to consume media in a more thoughtful manner, focusing on the meaningful rather than whatever is the least boring way to kill time.

Technology-Free Time

While this overlaps with media-free time, not all of the time we spend with electronic is entertainment-based. I’m writing this on my laptop, no music or video streaming, in relative silence. But I’m still in front of a screen. I could easily spend my entire day, from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, in front of one screen or another.

Because our phones, our computers, and even our televisions are now multi-purpose devices, the potential for distraction is built right in. I’ve set up separate Chrome profiles so that my work profile only has useful business and writing-related bookmarks, and no entertainment services. My personal profile has Netflix and such, but no work-related shortcuts. I’m still in front of a screen, though.

We need to step away for the sake of our physical and mental health. Get up and walk around. Talk to real, live people. Read a physical, paper-based book. Cook. Clean. Make something. See what’s happening in your immediate environment, rather than the thing happening thousands of miles away that people online are all talking about. I need screen to earn a living, but I need technology-free time to be a person.

Time in Nature

This one, admittedly, was the hardest for me to embrace. I spent 25 years in the desert Southwest, and I am simply not built for heat. It was dangerous to be outside in the sunshine for too long. Even in Albuquerque, though, I had an annual pass to the BioParks. On membership got me unlimited trips to the botanical garden, the zoo, and the aquarium. I sometimes felt that I lived in those places, I visited so often. They were often the only places where I felt safe, and those trips could be the only times that I felt relaxed and renewed.

Since moving to Finland, I feel I am in my environment. Dressed appropriately, I’m even comfortable in the extreme cold. I love walking through the woods, breathing fresh air, enjoying the birdsong. In the spring I love the green, the flowers, and the butterflies. Everything here is forests and lakes, with civilization carefully woven into avoid too much disruption of nature.

Being in nature is innately quiet. Katie and I will sometimes have a conversation, or have a picnic, but most of the time we’re listening and contemplating. We’re not interrupting. No electronics, no passing cars, and the people are also embracing the silence. It would feel blasphemous to introduce music and the noise of civilization into these spaces. Spending time in nature forces a degree of silence upon you.

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  1. I love this article and hope it is widely shared and available because it is so important. I am so happy for you and Katie and the life you now enjoy.

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