From the archive: Selected stories from the past 20 years. We learn best when we are not learning—when we make more room for silence.
Scientists know all too well that we don’t know much more than other people about pretty much everything.
There’s just too much to know, and no matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have, no one can possibly keep up. But one thing scientists know is that we tend to get sudden insights when our brain is not in a highly focused, intellectually driven mode. We are more likely to come up with solutions to problems when our mind is idle or at rest—in the shower, while driving, on a walk, daydreaming, or in meditation.
We also know something related and perhaps more important: Allowing times of silence is the best protection against what can best be called the 3 Paths of BS.
The first path is essentially to be conned: Instant access to too much information means that anyone can seem an expert. Whether it’s fitness, diet, or meditation, suddenly anyone can create a compelling video on YouTube. And smart promotion can get them on your Facebook feed.
How can you know whom to trust in an age of financially fueled and ego-driven nonsense? Who is the real deal? Who is worth listening to, learning from, and emulating? So much noise—yet often the answer to those questions is in silence. How do you feel around this person? How authentic do they seem to you? Do they look blissful and at peace and selfless? Is their wisdom actually profound? Research by James Gross at Stanford indicates that our heart rate goes up when we are around inauthenticity (for example, someone who is angry and pretending not to be). In the silence of your own being, you are more likely to recognize a true teacher.
The second path is “spiritual shopping”: Learn one technique at a mindfulness-based stress-reduction course, another technique at a Reiki training, and a third one at your favorite yoga studio. Maybe each one of these paths could take you somewhere in time, but you have acquired a confusing and often contradictory mishmash that leaves you less grounded.
There is truth to the saying “Dig one well deeply rather than many shallow holes” (attributed by some to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, by others to Gandhi or Buddha). The Dalai Lama is often quoted telling people not to convert to his faith: “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” We know from neuroscience that the mind always craves novelty: The grass is always greener on the other side. Periods of silence can help us remember that instead of spiritual shopping, we need to stick to one teacher or teaching—the one that touches us most profoundly—and remain loyal to it for a significant period of time, silencing the rest.
The third path is to get stuck in the intellect and ego. By overlearning and by intellectualizing our quest for wisdom and spiritual knowledge, we forget to make room for the unknown and the mysterious. In so doing, we lose our innocence and humility—and the ability to keep learning.
Contemplatives are often invited to an annual mindfulness research meeting that I attend, and one year, two Tibetan monks showed up. When asked to share their remarks at the very end of the week, one of them stepped on the stage, put his head in his hands, and said only one thing: “I don’t know what you all are up to.” The other said, “If you’re going to stay stuck in the mind, you’re going to be in the shower for a very long time.” Their remarks were poignant (and hilarious).
As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says: “The intellect will take you into the garage, but it won’t take you into the living room.” When you’re stuck in an intellectual know-it-all kind of place, you are no longer that proverbial empty vessel, the Buddhist “don’t-know mind,” the innocent heartfulness of the Christian saints. Or, like Saint Bernadette, children. When Christ said, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” he surely meant an open heart and an innocent mind, humble and untethered by an overabundance of intellectual knowledge and ego. The silence of devotion, without the BS.