Located at 2709 East 25th Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a grey, one-story building. Nested among trees, with concrete walls covered in poison ivy, it’s so inconspicuous it almost seems to merge with its surroundings.
Inside, however, lies the most terrifying room in the world. It looks like this:
In a room so quiet you can hear your own breath, heartbeat, blood flow, even your bones’ grinding noise, things get uncomfortable real 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.
The Story That Never Stops
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, like 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.
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 dozen 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?
Seeking Answers in an Answerless World
When asked what makes America the greatest country in the world in the opening scene of The Newsroom, one panelist answers with “freedom and freedom.” It’s true. No other country has placed this good higher in its value chain. And while most countries have been following in America’s footsteps, the weight of that freedom in the 21st century is now crushing us.
Not quite coincidentally, right after the atrocities of World War II, when the importance of freedom was clearer than ever, a philosophy trying to describe this burden arose. The core idea of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence.” That means you simply are — and it’s your job to give life meaning.
As seekers of answers in an answerless world, our main frustration therefore lies with choice. That’s why, when you dig into the ideas of Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and others, you’ll find they all have their own terms for the oppression inherent in freedom. Some call it ‘anxiety,’ others ‘angst’. Sartre refers to it as ‘anguish’ — the painful awareness of free will and choice.
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:
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.
The Inevitable Truth
Imagine a single person, representing all of humanity, being locked inside the anechoic chamber. What would she do? I think she would scream, yell, and shout. As loud as she can. Until she is exhausted, ultimately arriving in the same silence where she began.
I think this image delivers an apt description of the world’s character as a whole: restlessness. But a body, an animal, any moving object, really, no matter how fast it goes, must eventually come to rest. It’s a law of physics.
The analogy here is that when we choose overstimulation, a burnout becomes inevitable. We all land in the occasional, long stretch of inner silence sooner or later. We can find it at the end of a burned down candle or face it in the comfort of our own choice. But we must all deal with it in time. Because for all the decision power we have, it does not grant us freedom from truth.
The truth I see here, at the bottom of all this, is sobering: I think we are alone.
As Twitter-philosopher Naval puts it, “life is a single-player game.” We’re born alone and we die alone. In between, we must learn to know ourselves, love ourselves, lose ourselves, find ourselves and do all of it over again. All of your life’s most important moments, you experience alone. You suffer pain alone. You enjoy the dopamine high of victory alone. Even things you experience in the presence of another person — your first love, first kiss, first time — you ultimately live through inside your own head and, thus, alone.
At first, that makes everything sound even scarier. But it’s actually beautiful.
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.
Lastly, and this is where the true beauty of facing your own desolation lies, we have solid evidence to believe it improves us as individuals. For over 3,000 years now, we’ve had a name for practicing the discomfort of nothingness.
It’s called meditation.
Engaging With Emptiness
Steve Orfield, the founder of the silent lab, has noticed something in his visitors throughout the years. Those suffering from autism, ADHD, or other conditions of anxiety and hyper-sensitivity enjoy the anechoic chamber. They say it’s calm. Peaceful.
There’s something to be said for quietness if the people who run from it end in overstimulation and burnout, while those with ailments around those things prefer it. Maybe it’s because the silence of reality is the best reassurance. It’s relieving to disengage, almost remove yourself from the world, and observe that it keeps turning for a while.
But doing that requires focus. When you pause your inner monologue, you need somewhere to pull your attention. Maybe it’s the image of your own, empty head. Or a tiny, visual or haptic sensation. The most common place people choose, however, is the one we all share: our breath.
In. And out. In. And out. Reducing your own expenditure of energy to a minimum is a deliberate decision to rest. It’s like taking a stand at the shore of the ocean and then letting the waves wash over you. The silence. The questions. The loneliness. Everything.
When you open your eyes, you’ll realize you’re still here. A survivor. And while everything’s the same, something’s always changed. I’m not a strict meditator and I don’t think it only works as a rigid practice. To me, the point of it is to engage with emptiness. To carve out a small space in your mind, sit there all by yourself and draw strength from that. You can do that anywhere, anytime.
Even the idea of a one-minute meditation on the subway reminds me of Will Smith’s observation about skydiving: “The point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear.” It doesn’t make it less dangerous to venture into the depths of your own mind. Just less scary.
But that alone makes it an experience worth having.
The Outside World and Us
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.