How Silence Improves Sight

How mindfulness builds on reflective silence to build more resilience.

Posted Jan 20, 2017

Since the success of my 4 posts on the Phenomenal Four last summer (see links at end of article) where one reader told me, “Amazingly helpful to me and my work,” I have been working on a series to expand the options to accomplish each strategy. This is the first of a new series. It begins at the beginning of Cultivating Reflective Silence.

The story actually began about 10 years ago, when my research discovered patterns that give insight into how to unlock the door of resilience and then how to ensure that door remains wide open.

I conducted interviews to discover how adults bring fresh knowledge into their lives every day. My biggest ‘aha’ was that those who are avid about learning tend to be more resilient. And the most successful among them – those who were the most resilient – had three characteristics: they knew who they were, they had deep knowledge in a topic, and they were insatiably curious. It was exciting to discover these common characteristics. More exciting was knowing that each of these characteristics can be developed.

My clients are leaders who wish to be better – much better. The environment in which they work is in constant flux, disrupted at almost every turn. Helping them unlock their resilience is essential. My challenge was to develop simple strategies so anyone can learn how to unlock and enhance their resilience.

My first step was to define four strategies that, working together, help individuals deepen their self-knowledge, put focus on their on-going learning and depth of understanding, and turn up their curiosity. As a result, these strategies work to improve a person’s resilience and help a functioning manager move toward becoming a true leader. I call these strategies the Phenomenal Four.

The first, Reflective Silence, is all about taking time to sit quietly for five minutes. It’s so rare that we actually give ourselves five minutes of silence that it is hard to imagine how to use “that much” time. We are so obsessed about using our time in productive or meaningful ways, we ignore the amazing productivity that happens in our own minds when we let ourselves have some space.

My own practice is to set my timer for 5 minutes, sit quietly, try not to think about anything in particular, and wait for the timer to ring. (Some recommend concentrating on the breath to help quiet the mind. For me it’s more like not letting the same thought run in circles but rather flow in and out.) What I have discovered from practicing Reflective Silence is that many of my best ideas float up to consciousness during this brief time. I’m always surprised at what was bubbling in my head that my active mind hadn’t given my quiet mind time to ‘tell’ me.

There is a remarkable approach that seems to emerge from Reflective Silence. It’s called mindfulness – much in the news today. Ellen Langer of Harvard University has written the book on the topic that is called simply, Mindfulness. Her definition is so practical. To her, mindfulness is being aware – of the context in which you stand, of the changes that are occurring, and of the variety of possibilities and perceptions that are present. Langer says, “If the punch line [of a joke] made you realize that the story could be understood in a way other than how you first heard it, you have experienced a moment of mindfulness.” Mindfulness is about keeping the mind open rather than constantly full of spinning thoughts.  

I actually find mindfulness easier to do than just taking five silent minutes. Having studied art, I learned how to “see” what I was painting. It meant that early in my education, I had to learn to be aware of my context and to see what was before me. This meant that I saw the bowl of fruit but also the way the shadow moved across the table or the slight variation of color in a fluffy, white cloud. I’m glad I had that training as it has given me a skill that I now know serves me every day. It’s not just about seeing objects around me. It’s also about seeing behaviors, including my own; seeing the reactions of others; seeing the unexpected lessons buried in a situation. It’s also about seeing new information that is presented to me from unexpected sources. For example, I love to listen to a young person’s questions as they read one of my pieces. They ask questions I would never consider and allow me to see something totally new.

While there are benefits to just sitting for five minutes with as quiet a mind as you can allow, mindfulness has its own very strong benefits. Mindfulness keeps your minds open to stimuli, interpretations, possibilities, and virtually anything to your senses. For example, I can be facilitating a team discussion of a complex issue that demands all of my attention. Yet in the midst of it, I’m aware that one member is silently and slowly sinking deeper into his chair – a signal that he has not said what he needs to say. In another example, mindfulness is being aware of the ebullience of a new team member knowing that it is not a silly trait but rather a key to bringing more energy to the other members of the team. Mindfulness is knowing why one product was chosen for development over another so that when the product fails in the market, the choice can be seen as a lesson instead of a failure. Just imagine what can be learned with that kind of mindset!

So, how does mindfulness benefit those who display the three characteristics of the strongly resilient?

With self-knowledge, mindfulness is a means of seeing better who we are.
With deep knowledge, mindfulness sees lessons where others would see failure and shut down further learning.
With insatiable curiosity, mindfulness opens perception to more and more possibilities that pique our need to understand more, thus, inspiring the next question.

In both silent reflection and mindfulness, the mind is set to receive new, unexpected information. Moreover, while five minutes of silence is not mindfulness, it leads us to mindfulness. It is a precursor to mindfulness. And mindfulness feeds resilience. There is nothing like trying to shut down the mind to stimulate engagement in the present. And when you are engaged, you are aware. One action sets us up for the other.

Putting it into Action

If you want to become more resilient, you can’t just hope for it when the proverbial hits the fan. You have to develop the skills that will naturally feed and build your resilience just as you eat a meal to sustain your energy. It’s about choosing the activities that best relate to the way in which you help yourself and build your habits that will assure your resilience muscle is ready when needed.

That means starting with setting a timer for 5 minutes and spending those 5 minutes in silence instead of saying I’ll do it tomorrow.

That means jotting down the ideas that bubble up so that you have a growing sense of the fun from those five minutes.

That means observing how you become more mindful and aware of the world when your mind is quieted regularly.

Reflective silence leads to greater awareness and your awareness feeds your resilience.

Make that meal, set that table, and eat!

Links: The four posts from last summer are: Cultivating Reflective Silence , Capturing Meaningful Stories  , Reinforcing What’s Important  , and Posing Curious Questions.


Ellen J. Langer, 2014. Mindfulness, Da Capo Press, Boston, MA.