Sshhhh... this is important

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 23, 2013

WHEN the American essayist Pico Iyer wrote about the importance of silence in one's life for the New York Times on the cusp of 2012, it went viral. His piece, The Joy Of Quiet, resonated so strongly with his countrymen that he was invited to speak about it on a call-in programme on National Public Radio (NPR).

Recalling this at the Yale-NUS College off Dover Road in Singapore on Nov 14, where he coached its students for two days, Iyer, 56, says: "I was worried that I would very much sound like an old fogey, talking about the value of silence."

But he is, after all, the journalist notorious for not having a cellphone.

As it turned out, most of his callers on the NPR programme were aged between 17 and 22. "They were telling me, 'I've had enough of Facebook' or 'I've reached saturation point with social media'. They were speaking more passionately about the need to unplug than I had."

His big idea is simply that, more than ever, everyone must consciously retreat regularly from the hubbub of everyday life, to make sense of it and decide where one should go next.

He says: "You need that balance of stillness and movement, stimulation and quiet. You need to be in touch with the world, but not hostage to it."

By the same token, he "shakes up" his approach to words with every new book he writes. "Once I've done something, I know my tricks to some extent and it's like walking around the block, when I want to be driving out into the desert in the dark," says Iyer, who has just returned from a 16-day trip to Iran, his first, and will write about it shortly.

So, he adds, each of his books is meant to be "a repudiation" of the one that came before. For example, in his latest book, The Man Within My Head (2009), he has written very long sentences on purpose to tantalise readers to read on.

That might seem, as he says, "quixotic". But what he is really trying to do is "stake out the spaces that no new multimedia device can do better", spaces such as silence, memory, ambiguity and emotion.

He says: "If we really get into the habit of only being able to take in 500-word essays or images that last for a quarter of a second, when life confronts us suddenly with a challenge, we won't have the deep space to take a deep breath and see life in the larger frame. If that happens, we are going to be that much more at the mercy of life's torments."

Tellingly, he adds, shortly after he published his New York Times article, he noticed that many people in Silicon Valley, the pulsating heart of the global digital economy, observed an "Internet Sabbath" with their families, which meant not going online at all between Friday evening and Monday morning. Most of them also did not have TVs at home.

So, he notes wryly, the people at the forefront of the digital economy "were the most aware of its limits".

Iyer actually wrote his essay on quiet after an advertising agency, which he does not name, invited him and a few other trendspotters, including New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, to talk about the value of silence in 2011 here in Singapore. Were they trying to use the idea of silence to sell products and, if so, why did he encourage that?

He says: "I spend a lot of time in monasteries, and if I talk to monks about silence, they know all about it and much more already. But the advertising world is to some extent creating the trends and managing the mind of humanity, so it is exactly the place that needs to hear about silence."

Plus, he adds happily, the chief executive of that company later asked if he could correspond with him, via handwritten letters no less, every three months or so. They have been writing to each other ever since.

Iyer does not just champion the idea that one should be silent as often as possible amid the madding crowd; he has long embodied it.

He became every ambitious parent's poster boy at age 25 when, as an alumnus of Eton and the universities of Oxford and Harvard, he joined Time magazine and began working on the 25th floor of its Manhattan office building, four blocks from Times Square.

But even as he found himself in the thick of everything that was cool and fast-moving, he was "sufficiently restless" to know that he would likely not relish working there beyond four years.

So it was that, four years to the day he joined Time, he quit it for a monastery in Kyoto. There, he met Ms Hiroko Takeuchi, now 57, who was then married to a Japanese salaryman, with whom she had two children.

She later left her husband for Iyer, and they now live within a monastery in the ancient Japanese town of Nara, outside Kyoto. They have no children together; he is stepfather to the two from her earlier marriage.

Reinforcing his point about the need for stillness in life, he muses: "The Japanese are probably more wired and plugged in than anyone else, yet they have also created these sanctuaries of stillness to empty the mind."

That, he notes, is a discipline that is "even more potent" now that the world is awash in all sorts of "new toys" that open up "a whole new universe of possibilities" to all. He has no quarrel with technology per se, but rather how people use it, especially those of his generation who have more time and money to get well and truly hooked on the latest multimedia devices.

"The online world offers really exciting possibilities, but you have to be offline a lot to know how to make the best of them. Otherwise, you can't begin to ground yourself in the clarity, wisdom and perspective that will allow you to know how best to negotiate those possibilities."

That, he points out, is because the stimuli-shot world of today makes everyone feel as if he or she is "standing two inches away from the world".

"How can we understand life when we are in the thick of it?" he asks.

He began to answer that question in 1991, after he had accumulated more than a million frequent-flier miles jetting to and from such countries as Cuba, Ethiopia and Haiti for work.

He recalls: "My life was accelerating so fast that I had to make a conscious effort to have slowness to balance that."

So first, he went to stay at a Benedictine monastery in California, whose setting was "more monastic than the monastery which I've lived with my wife in the last 21 years".

That stay led to his returning to Japan, where he now spends half the year much in solitude, and half the year out in the world, "to know what's going on and what people are thinking. Otherwise I am no use even to myself".

He would not recommend such an austere life to anyone else, though.

With his kindly eyes and his every utterance leavened with grace, he seems anything but a rebel. But he says: "My aim since I began writing is, in a tiny way, to transform the system from within... to sneak things into major institutions that might not be there otherwise."

So, at Time, he would always write about topics it would not otherwise cover, like silence, the seasons, death - and Doraemon, the 23rd-century cartoon cat which Iyer considered an Asian hero - for Time's first special issue on iconic Asians who included Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatma Gandhi. His editors did not ask him to contribute again.

"But I'm glad I had my chance," he says.

He adds: "People sometimes ask me, as I ask myself, 'How can you practise journalism in an unwired little apartment in rural Japan?'

"But writing at my desk there gives me a chance to retreat far enough from myself and the world into my life, to see the larger shape of it."


GAUTAMA Buddha is said to have observed a "noble silence" whenever his followers asked him some of the biggest questions of humanity, such as whether or not the universe would last forever and where one's soul would go after one's death.

Such a silence, as his followers later came to understand and practise, is an effective way to train one in speaking mindfully and decently, as opposed to blurting out thoughts that might hurt or offend others.

About a century after the Buddha's birth, the Greek philosophical movement known as Stoicism took root and, like noble silence, prized good deeds over loose tongues. Its followers became known for their "stoic calm", or keeping their emotions and tongues in check.

The West soon came to value silence as "golden", and many in the Christian faith, notably Quakers, worship in silence to be, broadly speaking, closer to God.

The golden thread in all this is that silence calms the mind and makes it more aware of everyone and everything.

But until recently, scientists were none too keen on researching why this was so. That was, in part, because they did not have the tools to look into the brain's workings and responses to stimuli.

But in the past 15 years, scientists have developed a reliable tool to do so, that is, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which registers which areas in the brain light up when someone is shown certain words or pictures. Many neuroscientists now believe silence calms the mind such that its subconscious taps all sorts of areas in the brain to yield fresh ideas.

THE BIG IDEA IN ACTION: How quiet time boosts creativity

THOSE who say one should sleep on a problem to solve it are right, says British psychologist Gemma Calvert, a global pioneer in observing the human brain's responses to stimuli by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (better known as fMRI) machine.

That is because up to 90 per cent of a person's decisions are made by his or her subconscious, not conscious, brain - and the subconscious brain does its best work when the mind is at rest.

"We actually have the brain imaging data now to show that it's in those silent or near-sleep conditions that the subconscious brain can maximally access multiple brain areas which, it appears, are involved in creative thinking."

Prof Calvert, 45, adds: "So, when you get stuck in a difficult puzzle and stop thinking about it, you will find yourself going 'Ta-da!' a few hours later. That's because your subconscious brain had been continuing to work out the answer while your conscious brain was busy getting on with everyday life."

When one's life comes under threat, however, she says the brain will devote all its resources to minimising that threat. But doing so also prevents the brain from tapping its creative areas. "So there is very real science behind doctors nagging all of us to watch our stress and take some time off," she says.

The Oxford University alumna is a visiting don at Nanyang Business School, where she teaches MBA courses and a new master's course in Asian consumer insights.

She is also founder of the 14-year-old research firm Neurosense, which uses brain imaging to give marketing insights to such companies as the BBC, Coca-Cola and mass media giant Viacom. Prof Calvert, who sits on the World Economic Forum's global agenda council on neuroscience and behaviour, explains the benefits of quiet time thus:

  • Stress and fear suppress creativity, so an hour of quiet reflection will make you more effective at work than three hours spent with your nose to the grindstone;
  • Your creative juices flow most freely when you are at rest, because that is when your subconscious brain thinks most creatively;
  • Brainstorming does not work. There are few environments more threatening than being expected to come up with amazing ideas on the fly in front of senior colleagues; and
  • Do only one thing at a time, because the brain is wired to focus, not flit from one topic to another all at once. So multi-tasking blunts the brain.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 23, 2013

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