It is really hard for most of us to sit in silence, even for a few moments. Especially the type of silence where there is no noise, not even music or the television playing in the background. And where there are zero distractions – no books, phones, computers, or to-do lists.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the last time that I ever sat in this type of silence.
For when I hear “quiet time”, I generally interpret it to mean time to engage in the quieter, solitary activities I love such as reading, writing, crafting, or being on the computer.
So I admit. I rarely sit in true silence, in complete stillness, with zero distractions.
I wonder if you ever sit in complete silence? And for how long you think that you could sit in stillness, and do nothing but think?
A recent research study, done by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, set out to explore this idea and discover the answers.
The study was actually quite simple. The researchers had people sit in a chair in a completely silent room, investigating how long they would be able to sit and do nothing but think. The only distraction that was offered as an alternative to sitting quietly, was pressing a button that would give them a significant shock.
The researchers were shocked by their findings.
The Guardian newspaper reported that,
“It was not so much how hard people found the challenge, but how far they would go to avoid it that left the researchers gobsmaked…So unbearable did some find it that they took up the safe but alarming opportunity to give them mild electric shocks in an attempt to break the tedium. Two-thirds of the men pressed a button to deliver a painful jolt during a 15-minute spell of solitude…Under the same conditions, a quarter of the women pressed the shock button….In more than 11 separate studies, the researchers showed that people hated being left to think, regardless of their age, education, income or the amount they used smartphones or social media. ”
What is striking about the study is the degree to which people disliked sitting in silence. So much so, they preferred giving themselves shocks.
It was also interesting that the researchers did not conclude that the difficulty people experienced with silence had anything to do with the people being more used to the typical busy, chaotic, multi-tasking lives. But rather, they suggested that the struggle with silence seems to stem from our natural preference or desire to be doing something and engaging with the world, rather than doing nothing.
But I have been wondering since I read this study, is sitting in silence, and being with our own thoughts, really doing nothing?
And what would it take for us to move us from experiencing such silence as being uncomfortable and disagreeable, to experiencing it as something that is healing, restful, rejuvenating?
How do we find our way to the place where we appreciate solitude and stillness? And find rest and comfort in being with our own thoughts? Engaging with our inner world, rather than being entirely preoccupied with the exterior world around us?
Where we choose opportunities to dive beneath the surface of our everyday thoughts. Thoughts have us focusing on practical, superficial things such as what to make for dinner or figuring out the drop off and pick up schedule for the kids?
Where we welcome opportunities to daydream, imagine, create, ponder life, and pray.
Thriving in time spent sitting in sacred stillness. Listening. Waiting. Alert and attentive. Being patient and open and receptive.
I think that like with any skill or behaviour we practice, we can grow confortable silence and sacred stillness. And learn to welcome time alone with our thoughts.
Trusting that in silence, we will be certain to find nuggets of wisdom and insights and wonder and rest.
For an index of all my posts in the series, please click here.
Photo Credits: Micael Nunes, Anthony Tori, Felix Russell, from Unsplash