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The sounds of silence

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“When was the last time you turned your phone off for 24 hours?” asked Tiffany Teng during her LOWKeynotes Presentation at the Graduate School of Business. “We pick up our phones, on average, 52 times a day. That may not sound like much, but if you add up all the eating, sleeping, driving and sex, all the things we should be doing without holding our phones, it starts to become quite frequent.”

Tiffany told her personal story of how, before coming to the GSB, she had been running her company of 250 people when she worked herself to the point of literally collapsing one night in San Francisco. Showing the characteristic drive that brings most people to Stanford, Tiffany went right back to work the next day. “That should’ve been the point where I resolved to change myself,” she admitted, but she loved her work too much to stop. What she did find was the grounding experience of going on silent retreats, which she encouraged the audience to do through her presentation.

I’ve had a similar experience to Tiffany’s, minus the fainting part. At the end of last fall quarter, I told one of my professors that I wanted to go on a quest to “find myself.” “You’ve been struggling for one thing or another for years,” she suggested, “maybe it’s time to find some stillness and let everything you’ve learned teach you.” So I turned off my phone, tablet and laptop and locked myself in my room for three days. And since I’ve always believed that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I also locked away all my books, magazines and journals.

Having gotten accustomed to filling my emptiness with the chatter of podcasters, the strumming of electric guitars and the bumping of bass cannons, their absence left me with a deafening silence. Against the background of this void, the hissing of the radiator, old pipes clicking in the walls and the clack and scrawl of my pen as I etched my thoughts into my journal all came together to form a cacophonous and distracting orchestra. At first, I was afraid of what I might find by being alone for too long. How crazy is that? I was terrified by the thought of spending quality time with the one person I should learn to love the most — the only person who’s with me in the universe of my own head.

But the more time I spent in stillness, the more I felt I was walking out of a cloud of smoke and starting to remember what it was like to breathe crisp, clean air. If you’ve ever gone on a hike in the mountains after spending time in the city, you know the feeling. Imagine wandering through the woods and hearing, for what seems like the first time, the chirping of songbirds in branches, the pattering of water droplets on leaves and the crackle of twigs on the ground — that’s what it was like for me. I felt absolution, just for a short time, from desire and pain, love and fear, longing and regret. I had a chance, while free from any outside influences, to let the forest sounds that were my scattered thoughts coalesce into a melody that was the essence of me.

If locking yourself in your room for 72 hours sounds a bit extreme, don’t worry — that’s not the only way. Tiffany recommends 36 tech-free hours once every three months and, depending on whom you ask, you’re even allowed to talk to people. If you can’t possibly fathom being away for even a day and a half, try Tiffany’s coffee shop challenge:

  1. Turn everything off.
  2. Sit quietly for two hours and reflect on your last three months. Not your whole life — just three months. What worked? What didn’t? What sucked?
  3. Make a list of things you want to accomplish, then pick one thing you want to do within the next three months.

Of course, you can’t stay in the woods forever, but the idea that you can always go back to them is as comforting to me as hot chocolate on a rainy day. I don’t remember every revelation and insight that I had, especially the ones that seemed to have excited me the most, but I do remember the feelings they left me with. I felt like I’d heard a new song for the first time and knew I enjoyed it even if I was struggling to remember the words. I’ll be going back again after this quarter to listen to my sounds of silence and I encourage you to do the same.

When was the last time you turned your phone off for 24 hours?

 

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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