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How Silence Can Help Us Unplug

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When I did a CD kit called Unplug, a few of my friends chuckled. "You have to plug it in to get directions on how to unplug," one witty pal pointed out. True enough, and perhaps somewhat ironic, but also not a problem.

Sometimes our issue seems to be an excess of technology, but actually it is an excess of distractedness, an inability to settle and simply be. One colleague was once leading stress reduction sessions for someone who complained that he didn't have enough time in the day, that he felt disconnected from his family, and that he was plain stressed out. When asked to describe how he typically spent his time, he described reading an average of four newspapers and watching an average of three television news shows each and every day. My colleague simply suggested a reduction to two newspapers and one television news show, which changed the man's life. He reconnected to his family and became a lot happier. Are we reluctant to step away from what we are used to just because we get used to it, even though it is bringing us more discontent and dissatisfaction than actual joy?

Often when people come on retreat, like the ones we lead at the Insight Meditation Society, it's not grappling with meditation methods or a group of strangers that concerns them most -- it is undertaking silence apart from communicating with a teacher, unplugging from the normal ways we use speech to find distraction from what we are feeling and sensing. People come and express their apprehension about being silent. At times they say something like "My partner thinks I just cannot remain silent for three days or seven days." Once someone came and said, " They are taking a betting pool at my office about how long before I break the silence."

But almost always, at the end of the retreat, silence is one of the components of the experience that people point to as having been the most beautiful. It's as though, for once in our lives, we don't feel compelled to fill the space, but can simply be. We don't need to present ourselves to others as interesting, or funny, or cynical or hopeless -- we can unplug from all of that and connect much more fully with our genuine experience as it actually is.

And that in essence is what unplugging is about -- not shunning our stuff or hating our habits of news consumption or social discourse -- but being willing to experiment with our time and attention, which are the core treasures of our lives. Can we step out of some ruts, and consider times of just being with what is, rather than numbing out or spinning away through needing excess external stimulation?

At times when I am myself sitting at a retreat, and at the end I get into my car to drive away, I watch my hand move forward to turn on the radio. When I can be mindful, I notice the fact that I actually don't want in that moment to listen to the news or hear some music. But because I am no longer on a silent retreat, I suddenly feel like I cannot just quietly drive -- I must completely fill the empty space with some kind of sound. When I see that, I can then bring my hand back to the steering wheel, feel my breath, feel my body, notice where I am. And feel the delight of having stepped away from what I actually didn't want to begin with. That's the great relief of learning how to unplug.

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