In a room so quiet, you can hear your own breath, heartbeat, blood flow, even your bones’ grinding noise, things get uncomfortable really quick.
First, people lose their balance. Hearing helps us move, so in a space without sound, we must sit down. Soon, the ear begins to exaggerate, even fabricate its own noises, like a heavy hum or ringing sound. Some start to hallucinate.
While most people give up after minutes, once an hour passes even the toughest have had enough. That’s because — and this relates to actual torture — the pain we suffer in complete quiet is not physical. It’s mental.
Our biological aversion to silence is only a symptom of a much deeper, more elemental problem: we’re fundamentally afraid of being alone.
Locking yourself in a room that resembles the infinite, noiseless vacuum of space might be an extreme example, but there are other signs of our discomfort with nothingness.
Some are rather obvious, such as the constant engagement with our many technological devices or the frequent desire to escape our state of consciousness using music, drugs, sex, or alcohol.
Others hide on a less visible level, like what happens when we wake up alone in the middle of the night: We immediately start telling ourselves a story engaging our minds in calm soliloquies.
Maybe it’s a scary story about a stranger in your house or a story about the coming day that excites you. It might even be a mundane story that makes perfect sense.
But it is always a story your mind has conjured for the sole purpose of distracting you from the fact that, right now, there is only you, wrapped in darkness and silence.
If you pay attention to it, then pause, you’ll notice it’s only when there’s no story that the real suffering begins. Maybe that’s why the story never stops.
We rise from our beds in the morning and the voice in our head starts talking. We tell ourselves a story while we get ready for work, another one on the way, several dozens while we’re there, more at home, and the last one right until we fall asleep. Fascinating, right?
It’s almost as if consciousness itself is an endless fight against inner silence. That’s the most elaborate, universal scheme of escapism I’ve ever seen.
But what is it that makes solitude so terrifying?
Today, we live in a world where individual freedom is more accessible than ever. It’s not universal yet but reaching more people by the day.
As a result, existential crises are at an all-time high. Young people get them earlier, older ones more often, no one seems to be spared. Sadly, our philosophers leave us only with questions.
Questions, such as: Who am I? Where am I going? What’s the meaning of life? Of my life? Who do I want to be? And why am I not that person?
That’s why, when we’re alone, there’s always a hint of anxiety in the air. All you’re left with when you take out your earbuds and turn off your phone are these daunting, existential questions posed by the freedom we value so much.
Naturally, rather than face them, we prefer to plug the music back in and run away from them full-time. We all go overboard with sensory pleasures one way or another. Some of us chase the thrill of orgasm all their lives, others drown their inner turmoil in whiskey, some forever dull their senses with TV.
We seek reassurance in stimulation. That’s what the story in our head, the constant engagement, the flow state experiences are really for. Because whenever the stream of “everything’s-fine-at-least-for-now” stops, it’s like someone pushes us into that room and shuts the door behind us. Silence.
Suddenly, the questions become really loud. There’s nowhere to escape. But since we’re so busy engaging with the world in ways we hope will comfort us, we miss the reassurance from realizing we don’t need to. In hopes of not going insane, we drive ourselves insane.
And yet, the music stops for all of us anyway.
First, loneliness is an absolute necessity to deal with life’s important questions. All of the noise and distractions don’t help. They make things worse. Because while sitting in discomfort won’t always guarantee the best outcome, running away will always lead to regret.
Second, our singular, unchangeable perspective on the human experience is what makes us unique. If our point of view wasn’t locked at the individual level, our species en masse would never have ventured this far. What each of us brings back from their own depths of quiet makes us stronger as a whole.
As the world provides us with more and more freedom to self-actualize, the mental weight of that freedom gets bigger and bigger. Instead of facing what may be too much to lift, we’ve become masters of avoidance to the point of feeling physical discomfort with silence.
We flush our senses with emotions, running from the quiet in which difficult questions arise. In doing so, we miss the hard but comforting truth that life is ours to live and ours alone.
Like the ancient tradition of meditation shows us, solitude is not a state to be feared, but one to enter prepared and practice. Engaging with discomfort allows us to focus our attention, accept what we can’t change, and address what’s important. And there’s more than one way to do it.
It takes lots of effort but learning to enjoy solitude will make us more comfortable with our limitations, imperfections, and, ultimately, ourselves.
The outside world is louder than ever. Let’s meet it by being quiet inside.