Whenever I have the joy of exploring a new city, I hold the intention to experience the layers of culture and sink to level four ‘emergent’ listening. In level three ‘empathic’ listening, we pay attention, but are often cautioned to leave ourselves out of it. With mantras like the user is not like me, we listen intently to ‘get’ their mental models. In emergent listening, you ask about certain things because they are interesting, you begin to care, and you start to see pieces fitting together. Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute describes this sort of listening as, “Connecting to the emerging future – to a future possibility that links to your emerging self, to who you really are.” In level four listening, we enter the realm of possibility. That’s when we begin to form insights, not just about the present, but pathways to the future.
I recently travelled to Istanbul for the first time. On arrival, I headed out to see the whirling dervishes at Hodjapasha. As the dervishes began to spin faster, I became mesmerised by the 700-year old ritual. By fully experiencing the moment, the dancers appeared to float between two worlds, falling into a deeply personal and intense form of meditation just by focusing on whirling.
The next day I got the ferry from Kabataş to the Princes’ Islands. After a week of public speaking, I had practically lost my voice and forgotten my headphones at the hotel. With no distractions available, it left me to connect with the ‘now’. And that was a challenge. The ferry was chaotic – it was as though the passengers wanted to play an hour-long game of musical chairs with some selfies thrown in. I felt unsettled and yet, amidst the din, sat a lady who appeared to be at complete peace. Impervious to the noise, she seemed to have reached a meditative state by knitting, occasionally looking up to notice the beautiful nature passing by. It got me thinking how rarely we connect to the silence within ourselves.
It has been suggested that humans have a lower concentration span than goldfish. The paradox is that in this hyper-connected world, we have never been less connected to ourselves or each other. In one study, it was found that humans lose their concentration after just eight seconds. In the year 2000, it was 12 seconds (goldfish average nine).
In a joint study from the universities of Virginia and Harvard, scientists left individuals alone in a room for six to 15 minutes without music, reading material, the chance to write, or their smart phones. They were left solely to their own thoughts. The participants ranged from 18 to 77 years old and were drawn from a variety of social backgrounds, yet the results were the same regardless. Most felt discomfort and reported that it was very difficult for them to concentrate during the minutes they spent alone. The scientist then took the study one step further in order to see whether the participants would rather do something unpleasant, such as receive an electrical shock, than continue the silence. Each participant had been subjected in advance to a similar electrical shock so they would know exactly how painful that option was. And it was painful. Nevertheless, nearly half of the subjects eventually pushed on the button to administer an electrical shock in order to reduce their silent time.
Relationships begin with being at peace with yourself – having a connection with yourself that nothing can break from the outside. Other people become a reflection of the loving, kind, peaceful relationship you have with yourself. The scenery out there reflects the situation in here. We can choose to connect with another person or not, but we cannot choose to disconnect with ourselves. Many people are uncomfortable with this truth, spending vast amounts of time trying to escape themselves, with all kinds of activities, work and distractions.
Over 20 years ago, a psychologist Arthur Aron, ran an experiment where he got participants sitting and looking into each other’s eyes without saying a word for up to four minutes. In one of the most widely read articles of The New York Times in 2015, the journalist Mandy Len Catron, who tried out Aron’s theory and practice, wrote:
I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.
I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realisation and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.
The performance artist Marina Abramović made silence an art form. In 2010, she sat for 736 hours and 30 minutes inside MoMA in New York, looking straight into 1545 visitors eyes without saying a word. The work was entitled The Artist is Present (video clip below).
At the end of the exhibition, Abramović was asked what she understands the opposite of silence to be. She responded that it is the brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking. Do nothing. Istanbul reminded me that it is good to be bored sometimes. The world disappears when you get into it.
Our threshold for finding silence and balance can be lowered, getting inside what we are doing, allowing each moment to be big enough. It is available, even when we are surrounded by constant noise. We don’t need a course in silence or relaxation to be able simply to pause. Silence can be anywhere, anytime. After all, it is always there inside ourselves.