Into The Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”, in Walden

I find it interesting that Thoreau saw it necessary to retreat from society to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I, like most of us, tend to run towards involvement and busyness when I am trying to increase “life.” However, there seems to be a counterintuitive part to living fully and living well. Rather than seeking more involvement we should be seeking more solitude.

Recent studies are showing that solitude and silence restore the nervous system, help sustain energy, and condition our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead. Imke Kirste (Duke Medical School) found that new cell development in the hippocampus, the key region in the brain associated with learning and memory, is associated with silence.

In a recent HBR article Hal Gregerson wrote, cultivating silence “increase[s] your chances of encountering novel ideas and information and discerning weak signals.” When we’re constantly fixated on the verbal agenda—what to say next, what to write next, what to tweet next—it’s tough to make room for truly different perspectives or radically new ideas. It’s hard to drop into deeper modes of listening and attention. And it’s in those deeper modes of attention that truly novel ideas are found.

There are several ways we can incorporate solitude and silence into our daily lives. No matter how busy you are, you can find time to be quiet if you believe it is important.

We don’t have to move to the woods for two years, like Thoreau did, to find solitude. Maybe just an afternoon in nature or walking around a local lake could be an opportunity to meditate and experience some personal quiet.

Think about going on a media fast. Take a break from social media, email, news and other forms of entertainment. Whether for part of a day, or much longer, “fasting” can provide a much-needed rest for your mind from the never-ending obligations of work, keeping up with social media or tracking current events.

Try meditation. Even a small amount of time spent alone and focused on a calming thought or image can slow your breathing, reduce your heart rate and blood pressure, and free your mind to settle down. Afterwards you may find yourself better able to stay focused on the work ahead.

The world is a noisy place and it is getting noisier by the moment. Silence and solitude can still be found if we look for it, it just takes a little commitment and creativity. Taking care of ourselves is important if we are going to make a difference in other’s lives. Taking time to refresh and recharge ultimately positions us to be more effective in our efforts and more present in lives of the people around us. Sometimes we have to start by making a difference in our own lives so we can be ready and able to make a difference in someone else’s.