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Happiness Tip: Lose Your Words

While I’ve long known about the neurological benefits of meditation, it wasn’t until I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk that I started thinking about how many of the benefits of meditation come from quieting the verbal part of our brains.

To be honest, silence is not a state I naturally seek. I’m extroverted. I’m loud. I love parties and big families and people. And as an avid reader and professional writer, I tend to fear — not cultivate — a loss of words.

But reading nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow got me (you guessed it) thinking a little more about this. That noisy verbal part of our brains is slow, processing only about 40 bits of information per second. The creative, intuitive, non-verbal brain processes about 11 million bits per second. Knowing this, I’ve been motivated to try and better harness the power of my non-verbal brain.

According to Martha Beck — Harvard sociologist turned life coach, and one of my personal heros — practicing what she calls “deep wordlessness” is just the ticket. Here’s what she writes about wordlessness in her most recent book Finding Your Way in a Wild New World:

To master Wordlessness…you must unlearn almost everything you were taught in school about what it means to be intelligent. The sharp focus you were told to sustain is actually a limiting, stressful, narrow attention field — something animals only using the the moment of ‘fight or flight.’ Dropping into Wordlessness moves the brain into its ‘rest and relax’ state.”

I’ve been practicing Beck’s techniques for cultivating worldlessness, and though it doesn’t come easily to me, I’m finding it well worth the effort.

Take Action: Beck’s book is loaded with literally dozens of techniques for activating our non-verbal brains. Even though the book is probably a little too woo-woo for most of my readers — it really challenges most of our Western assumptions about intelligence — it is also one of the most practical guides to happiness I’ve found.

The easiest of Beck’s practices for dropping into wordlessness (for me) is simply to follow your own bloodstream. You can try it by focusing your attention on your heart in the space between breaths: after you exhale deeply, pause your breathing and find the feeling of your heart beating. Take another breath while following the sensation of your heart beat. Once you’re following your heart beat, see if you can feel your circulatory system elsewhere, in your ears or toes or hands, your head and organs, or your entire body. Hang out for a while in this meditative state.

Join the discussion: What do you think?!

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  • Jeff Wheeler

    Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding. (Proverbs 17:28)

  • Paul Sasso

    My experience is the wordless state is a much more present and feeling state. Instead of translating everything into words you are feeling it, and then you can show it in facial expression, movement/dance which are much more immediate forms of communication.

  • Thanks for this insightful post! It has really got me thinking about this in relation to parenting.

    All the parenting information we’re bombarded with always tells us to be super talkative with our kids. We’re told to read to them in the womb, talk to them when they’re infants and people are convinced that’s what makes highly verbal kids (I don’t think there’s any scientific link that proves that). Being highly verbal is regarded as a good thing with children. We’re told to ask them about their day from the moment we pick them up, talk through dinner, and talk all the time we spend together. As someone who loves to talk, this all comes naturally to me. Not the case at all for my six year old. When I pick her up from school and ask her how her day was, she almost immediately folds up into herself. She hates my asking her questions right away or for hours really. I try my best (consciously having to keep my mouth from running ahead to ask her questions about school) to not inquire about anything when I pick her up. By the time we have made it home and through snack (she always eats pretty silently unless she wants to show me something she did and tell me about it), I am having a really hard time not talking to her and asking questions about her day. She is content to eat snack and dive into making a craft from something that inspired her in her day, all pretty wordlessly. I’ve always felt like this is something that we can work on together, getting her to be a bit more talkative and share more about herself.

    After reading this post, I realize I probably have the wrong approach. There’s nothing wrong with her preferring silence and maybe there is something flawed in always thinking we have to talk all the time. Of course there is a balance too I know. If
    my daughter never liked to talk about anything and I didn’t know what was going
    on with her that would be a problem. But the time my daughter loves to talk and
    will answer any question I ask is at bedtime, once the lights are out and we
    are lying there together, quietly.

    I should probably respect her need for wordlessness more when she wants it, rather than thinking talking is always better. I can observe her non-verbal cues more. And I can also learn from her wordlessness too!

    • Yes, in lots of cultures, people spend more time doing things together without talking than we do. Your kiddo is onto something. 🙂