If you had been walking around Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and had stumbled upon Independence Hall, you would have encountered something strange. The street in front of the meeting hall—where many of the nation’s founders were assembled to draft the U.S. Constitution—was filled with a gigantic mound of dirt. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had ordered the construction of this earthen noise barrier. They believed the sounds of carriages, street vendors, and conversations outside would disturb their intense deliberation and writing. They weren’t going for a monastic silence. As the historical records show, there were plenty of bitter vocal disagreements. Given the social mores of the day, there might have been occasional moments of emotional release through yelling or throwing things—perhaps crumpled paper or pieces of fruit—at one another. Still, there was an underlying recognition of the need for a quiet container in which to do difficult thinking as a group. The big dirt mound was an effort to make this possible.
Fast-forward 235 years, and you’ll find a radically different reality for U.S. lawmakers. Throughout his tenure as legislative director for three members of Congress, Justin consistently found that it was too noisy to think on Capitol Hill. With TVs blasting Fox News or MSNBC (depending on the partisan affiliation of the office), ringing alarm bells signaling f loor votes, and industry lobbyists schmoozing and backslapping at open-bar receptions, the acoustic environment of today’s Congress is wildly different from the one in which the framers of the Constitution functioned. And that’s to say nothing of the informational noise modern lawmakers endure: endless time-sensitive emails from advocates, constituent meetings, election strategy discussions, fundraising call sessions, press events, and the pervasive pressures for networking, politicking, and media management. The distraction level in today’s Congress is orders of magnitude greater than anything a few eighteenth-century Philly street vendors could have possibly presented. In contrast to the Constitutional Convention, today’s Congress does not recognize the necessity of quiet for clear thinking. Making noise is a badge of honor.
Several years ago, Justin took part in a small experiment to help change the culture of Capitol Hill. Through a new mindfulness program that Representative Tim Ryan and a handful of partners had launched, Justin started teaching meditation to policy makers on Capitol Hill. He remembers leading a session for the first time on one particularly tense Monday afternoon in the Rayburn House Office Building, amidst budget battles and a fierce debate over the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. There were about forty policy and communications staffers present. Some were progressive West Coast Democrats with respectable yoga practices, and some were southern and midwestern Republicans who had worked in finance or law and already come to appreciate the practical necessity of meditation for dealing with workplace stress. In a building that was usually self-segregated by ideological proclivities and social cliques, the space was surprisingly commingled.
As people settled in, Justin could sense the typical Capitol Hill energy in the air—people on edge, heads racing with thoughts about office politics, career jockeying, and the contentious votes to come later in the day. More than a few of them must have been wondering, “What am I doing here?”
Meanwhile, Justin welcomed everyone and provided a few minutes of orientation to the practice of meditation. He looked out on a striking scene: in a small meeting room with official-looking blue carpet and dark wood furniture under neon lights and an American flag, an assortment of high-strung government functionaries in formal attire sat cramped together—mostly in chairs, a few with legs crossed on the floor.
As he got them going with a twenty-minute seated meditation, silence enveloped the room, and something shifted. Those turbocharged D.C. amygdalae began to decelerate. In Justin’s view, it wasn’t the result of any particular mindfulness technique; it was the result of the group just sitting together with nothing to say.
We are not under the impression that nudging one tiny corner of the federal government into twenty fleeting minutes of silence facilitated the kind of clarity necessary to transform “the System.” But, for us, the value of this little experiment was that it demonstrated what is possible in the unlikeliest of settings.
We can be quiet together.
It’s understandable to sometimes conflate the words “silence” and “solitude.” Sound and stimulus are the ordinary stuff of human relationship. In the presence of other people, we do what we do: banter, chuckle, bicker, commiserate.
That said, some of the most poignant moments of silence that we’ve ever experienced have been in the presence of other people: moments of shared grief or breathtaking beauty, moments of shock or wonder. In these moments, we usually drop our social obligations to verbalize, rationalize, entertain, and analyze.
But the value of shared silence isn’t just these rare moments that leave us speechless.
There’s a reason why people regularly gather together to meditate in silence, even though it’s so much more convenient to just sit by yourself in your own home. Simply put, there’s an alchemy to experiencing silence with others. Out of the gray of the mundane, something golden can emerge. When two or more people drop the “conceptual overlay” and enter together into deeper and finer modes of perception, there’s a unique feeling of expansion that happens.
The power of silence is magnified when it’s shared.
In the previous chapters, we explored strategies that were focused on finding and creating silence as a solitary practice. Here, we’ll look at how to navigate noise in groups and how to find shared silence.
As we’ll see in the strategies to come, the essential work of finding “quiet together” is about understanding and refining our norms and cultures. When we use the word “culture,” we tend to think of how societies create distinctive art or cuisine or literature. But culture can also refer to our shared, ordinary, day-to-day norms: the spoken and unspoken rules, customs, styles, rituals, rhythms, standards, preferences, and expectations that arise wherever we regularly interact with other people. In the field of organizational development, it’s often said that a company’s culture is always present and expressing itself, whether its members are intentional about it or oblivious to it. The same can be said of the culture of a friend group, a family, or a couple. Because norms generally emerge and evolve organically and unconsciously, it’s valuable to periodically shine light on them and bring more consciousness to their creation and manifestations. It’s good to question the default.
Today’s U.S. Congress, as a workplace, is clearly governed by norms of noisiness. It’s socially acceptable to have the TV on all the time. It’s acceptable to talk loudly while someone is writing or to look at a text while someone is telling you something. It’s standard operating procedure to send messages after hours with an expectation of an immediate response. People are generally too busy thinking about the moment-to-moment requirements of their causes or careers to step back and consider the distortions and distractions wrought by the sonic and information soundscapes. Justin’s experimental session felt so unusual because shared quiet is so far outside the Hill’s dominant culture.
The participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, in contrast, had norms around quiet deliberation. Facilitating pristine attention was a shared objective. That big mound of dirt reminded them—and the public—that the purpose of the gathering was getting beyond distraction in order to do important work.
Noisy norms like the ones that exists on Capitol Hill are a society-wide default today. Yet cultures of quiet still do exist. Think of a monastery, a library, or a little off-the-grid farm. In these contexts, people adopt clear rules and expectations around noise that reflect the purposes and the values of the specific place. Those norms don’t condone blasting cable news commentary or compulsively checking TikTok. To find shared quiet, you don’t have to join an austere religious order, hang out among the stacks of books, or move to an isolated rural setting. You can help shape rules and expectations that create elements of quiet in your current life situation—at work, at home, among friends. Doing so takes some creativity, though. Perhaps most important, however, it takes the courage to point out what’s not working and to facilitate a constructive conversation about how best to move forward.