The Importance of Silence in Life and Leadership
One of many themes explored in my book ‘The Buddhist CEO’ is silence. This is something that has interested me ever since I became a Buddhist back in 1999. Yes I am that old! Not only has it interested me from a Buddhist perspective but it has also interested me from a leadership and organisational point of view.
Why am I interested in silence? Silence seems to be a rare experience in the modern world. There are times when we go for a quiet walk, and we do experience it. Almost everyone I have ever met seems to enjoy these quiet moments, but they do not happen often for most of us. Workplaces are usually busy places. Meeting clients, speaking on the phone, answering emails, attending team meetings, giving presentations and networking events. After all this we get home, speak to our partners about our day and then turn on the TV for some more noise. Then it's time for bed and if we are honest how many of us then flick through our social media accounts before we turn the light out? By which time our heads are ready to explode.
I have only really experienced prolonged silence whilst on retreat at a Buddhist monastery and I found the affects of this to be profound and not what I expected. On a retreat there might be another 25 to 30 lay people also attending as well as about 30 resident monks. Usually, we are encouraged to remain silent for the retreat. Talking is not forbidden altogether and you can ask for help to clarify something but generally most of the retreat is silent.
There are periods of meditation, which are obviously silent but there are also periods of working meditation. During working meditation, you could be chopping vegetables in the kitchen, hoovering, cleaning toilets, planting trees, or even cutting grass. It is okay to ask for clarification of what you are being asked to do but then it is silent. There are a few periods of spare time, lasting about an hour. You can use these to go for a walk, sit in the common room or take a nap. All of it done in silence.
Before I went on my first retreat, I had mixed emotions about how I might feel about prolonged silence. I worried that it might feel cold and austere and leave me feeling unwelcome. At the same time, I looked forward to the silence as I knew how busy and cluttered my mind was, especially during my CEO days.
I need not have worried as I fell in love with silent retreats as soon as I experienced one. A lot of the pretense of worldly life dropped away. I did not have to explain who I was, what I did, what I stood for or what I believed in. I did not know if the people meditating next to me were joiners, pensioners, CEOs, lawyers or nurses. We were just all people and it felt great to be liberated from all these questions and expectations.
But what surprised me the most was how close I felt to my fellow humans who had joined me on the retreat. We hardly spoke a word to one another. But there was an intense closeness and harmony that existed between us all. I try to attend at least two retreats a year and I have experienced this closeness to others on everyone I have attended.
There is something about working with others with no pretensions, working as a team with one aim, no personalities getting in the way, everyone pulling in the same direction. Buddhism has taught this for two and a half thousand years but in some ways is this not what every organisation strives for today? A single vision and goal, happy motivated staff giving their all for the same cause, no toxicity or dominant personalities polluting the workplace. How much time and money do organisations spend on leadership gurus to help us develop a high functioning workforce? I am supportive of working with external experts to help us achieve these organisational aims, but my experience of Buddhist retreats makes me wonder if these ancient traditions have many untapped resources that can help us function better as individuals but also perhaps as organisations and societies. And one of those teachings is to experience silence. Deep silence for a prolonged period of time. Give it a try!