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A Closed Mouth Gathers No Foot

A soft patter of rain outside my window this afternoon tip-taps the leaves of mitsumata trees my wife and I grow for our washi – traditional Japanese paper–making business. I simply sit, listening to the soothing serenade. All at once, nature’s meditative soundtrack ignites my awareness, yet quells my mind’s all too often rampant nature.

Why do some people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts?

There is value in slowing down and sitting in silence. Jeff Weiner, the Executive Chairman and former CEO of LinkedIn, penned an article once titled “The Importance of Scheduling Nothing.” In it, he describes periodically setting aside 30-90 minute time blocks on his calendar each day to just “think.”

Rather than indulgences, he views these buffer sessions as necessity.

Wow. That might seem unproductive, even terrifying, to some. Sitting alone with our thoughts and nothing more – no smartphone, laptop, music, or tv – just doesn’t seem normal to so many of us.

Even when we sit seemingly still, there is continuous movement. The heart beats, breath rises and falls, and our blood circulates. Sometimes we notice this stuff, sometimes we don’t. And, of course, even if we sit as resolutely as a mountain, the mind is likely to be jumping all over the place.

When we’re around others, silence becomes effectively unbearable. Absurd. Preposterous even! But why?

As an American who lives in (and continues to adapt daily to) Japan, I am more keenly aware of some subtle cultural differences that aren’t noted as often as the biggies, like cuisine or kimonos. One such variance is in the socially accepted tolerance (and the lack thereof in the case of my country of origin) of silence.

Sure, Japanese folks engage in small talk too at times, and the language itself has some built-in formalities that seem ridiculous to a native English speaker (e.g., listening to two Japanese people getting off the phone with each other politely can seem like a 3-act play). But, by and large, there seems to be an acceptance of no one saying anything in a group of people if there is truly nothing of merit to be said.

In the West, we often refer to this as an “uncomfortable silence,” even prompting some folks to utter nonsense or banal words to fill the void. Without careful thought behind our words, we are sometimes apt to offer offense or inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings.

You don’t have to take a vow of silence or live a life of solitude to get a little Zen-like quiet time in your life. Try taking five minutes here and there. I’m advocating listening more than speaking, or even, gasp, just dealing with the emptiness of no words spoken in the company of others.

Why this article and suggestion? Because silence can bring a sense of peace. A calm. A serenity. The world needs a bit more of that these days for so many obvious reasons. You might be surprised at what all you begin to notice. And you might even find that your days go better when you occasionally unplug or relinquish the need to fill silent space with trivial talk.

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Mark Reid
Mark Reidhttps://www.zensammich.com/
Mark Reid is the host of the Zen Sammich podcast. Previously, he was an English professor at Kanagawa University, Tokyo University of Science, and Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. He was also an attorney for 10 years, first as an Assistant District Attorney in New York state, and later worked in Securities Law for a large firm in Birmingham, Alabama. He now lives in the countryside of Japan and makes washi (traditional Japanese paper) for a living with his wife, Haruka. A graduate of the University of Alabama in political science and religion, with an MA from Florida State University in philosophy and ethics, and a JD from Syracuse University College of Law, he has a diversified background that through diligence and good fortune has taken him all over the world, including residential stints in Greece, England, and South Korea.

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7 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Thank you for sharing this Mark. I love having a few windows of silence in each day. It’s so nourishing for the soul.

    I’m also teaching my children the joyous art of meditation. A few times a week at bedtime or when we wake up, we listen to guided meditation together.

    I’m hoping as they get older, they’ll appreciate the silence and contemplation too.

    • Thanks, Joanna. Glad you enjoyed the article. Guided meditations are great. I think they are a useful stepping stone to silent meditation, as that can be daunting at first. I think that’s wonderful that you are passing the practice on to your children.

  2. I absolutely share everything you say.
    For many, being alone is difficult, causing anxiety or suffering. A little perhaps out of boredom, a little out of the sense of isolation and also because they are forced to confront their innermost thoughts, they experience that sense of isolation as loneliness and often do not know how to deal with these feelings.
    Most people prefer to do something, even harming themselves, rather than just sitting with their thoughts. It is really difficult to hear from a person that she likes to be alone in a room, even for a short time, without doing anything but thinking, reflecting or wandering with her mind. And I don’t think this should be attributed to the frenzy of modern society, nor to the omnipresence of electronic devices such as smartphones. On the contrary, these devices can be a response to people’s desires to always have something to do.
    Most people like to wander their minds or fantasize, but this type of thinking can be more enjoyable if it arises spontaneously rather than out of a purposeful decision or external compulsion. Just think of the desperate expressions of people in the period of coercion caused by Covid. Surely our mind was born to interact with the world. Even if we are alone, our focus is generally on the outside world, and if we are not used to meditation or thought control, most of us prefer to engage in external activities.
    In short, we do not recognize the pleasure of our company. We believe that someone else can entertain us better, raise the quality of our time spent doing anything.
    But by always spending our time with others, we forget how we love to entertain ourselves.
    Personally, I believe very much that there is a loneliness that is good for us. If taken in small doses, like a medicine, if sought and not imposed, it can be a useful and even pleasant condition, which favors concentration, attention, creativity and indicates the way to find oneself.

    • Absolutely, Aldo! And, yes, surely we are born to interact. Humans are obviously social animals by nature. But that small dose of alone-time “medication” is essential to maintain a healthy mind, to reflect and calm the wild explorations of our brains.

      I hope more people begin learning how to cultivate this habit – whether through guided or silent meditation – to take time to be reflective every now and then. It might be overly idealistic to think so, but I imagine we’d be better off as a collective, interactive society if we all got to know ourselves in peace and quiet sometimes.

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