Monday Mornings with Madison

Finding Success in Stillness, Part 1

Word Count: 1,326
Estimated Read Time: 5 ½ min.

The world is in a perpetual tizzy of activity.  There is always so much to do.  Do this.  Do that.  Go… go… go.  We buzz around with never-ending to-do lists and ever-increasing workloads.  Managers are constantly looking at how to increase workplace productivity.  We praise workaholics and celebrate when worker bees are so busy that they don’t have a moment’s rest.

The expression ‘burning the midnight oil’ is a compliment paid to workers who put in long hours.  And, this is nothing new.  That idiom, which means to work on a project or endeavor through the overnight hours, can be traced back at least to 17th century England when oil lamps were used for light.  In fact, there are a number of sayings that communicate the same point.  Burning the candle at both ends.  Putting one’s nose to the grindstone.  Working day and night.  Pulling an all-nighter.

We have so many expressions for working long hours because that kind of industriousness is considered one of the most fundamental qualities of American culture.  A strong work ethic is part of what has made the U.S. the most robust economy in the world.  However, it turns out that this idea of always being busy from the start of the day until the head hits the pillow may actually be counterproductive.  Spending some time doing nothing may actually be more beneficial.

In Stillness, the Mind is Most Active

Thanks to advancements in medical technology, we are now better able to “see” inside the brain to witness what happens when a person is totally still and is told to “quiet the mind”.  It turns out that when the mind seems quiet is when it actually kicks into high gear.  More about that in a minute.  But, if quieting the mind as a way to be “still” does not result in a quiet mind, then perhaps it helps to start by defining stillness.  What is stillness anyway?  Is it just ‘not moving’?  Does it mean ‘not talking or moving’?  Is it resting?  Is it “not thinking”?

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, stillness is “incapacity or restraint from speaking.”  Certainly, there is a lot of support in religion for the benefit of silence.  As it says in the Talmud (Megillah 18A) “Rav Dimi said: A word for a sela (coin)—silence for two”. And in the Ethics of our Fathers (1:17) it says “Shimon his son said: All my days I have grown up among the Sages and I have not found anything as good for the body as silence”

But, in a broader sense, stillness is generally thought to be more than just “not talking or moving.”  It is about quieting the mind too.

Embracing Stillness

That may explain why many religions not only embrace silence, but also stillness.  Most religions have a Sabbath or day of rest where there should be no work at all.  The idea is to spend a day resting and, to some extent, being still.  Stillness helps with introspection.  It helps achieve a greater sense of peace.

Beyond religion, there are also cultures that embrace the idea of being still and doing nothing.  In particular, Italians have taken the idea and turned it into a philosophy for life.  They call it “dolce far niente” or “pleasant idleness.”  More aptly translated, it means the sweetness of doing nothing.  In Italy, it is a way of thinking that permeates everything. During that period of “doing nothing,” all that matters is living in the moment. No stress.  No pressure.  Nothing matters.  It is a ‘do nothing’ moment that is also absent of boredom.  Italians explain it as a particular kind of ‘me time’ when a person does nothing in particular; no personal pampering; no reading; no sleeping.  A person just observes the buzz of life around and recharges his/her batteries.  While American culture might view this as wasteful idleness, for Italians it is more like a break from the ‘rat race’ in which a person can reorganize, unwind and put some distance between himself and life.  It provides a different perspective, allowing for mental clarity and ‘aha’ moments.  That could explain, in part, why the Renaissance started in Italy.

By contrast, American society has conditioned people to live and find comfort in “busy-ness.”  That could also explain why the word “busi-ness” has become a substitute for commerce.  If a person is not busy, then he is not being productive.  He is not making progress.  It has been said that in the rest of the world, people work to live, but Americans live to work.  However, science and technology are revealing that constant busy-ness may not be as beneficial as spending some time doing nothing. Taking time out of a “busy” day to be still can prove to be far more beneficial and lead to more productivity than a totally full schedule.

That may be because being still does not actually equate to ‘not thinking’?  Brain scans show that the brain is most active when a person is asked to be still and do nothing…and it is activity that is highly beneficial for success.

On an MRI, doctors can see that when people perform mental tasks – calculations, comparisons, identifications, differentiations — specific areas of the brain become active.  These active areas appear as brightly colored swaths surrounded by an otherwise dull gray area.  Those dull gray areas are dark… or sleeping.  Then, about a decade ago, researchers discovered that those dark areas of the brain — which includes the frontal, parietal and medial temporal lobes — light up when we are completely still.   Indeed, experiments done trying to see what parts of the brain light up during certain activities have shown that, when a person is laying quietly in an MRI machine waiting for instructions from a technician, those dark areas of the brain become highly active.  The dark areas light up!  However, the moment a person is given instructions to perform a task and the task begins, those other areas of the brain go dark again.  They only light up in stillness.  So, when it seems like we’re doing nothing, we are definitely doing something.  But, what exactly?

In Stillness is Risk-Free Learning

During these periods when, on the surface, we seem inactive, the brain is really active doing all kinds of things.  One of those things is learning by doing a sort of mental time travel.  While the body moves forward in time, one second at a time, the human mind can move through time in any direction and at any speed it chooses.  The ability to instantly imagine the pleasure of going on a cruise next Summer or remembering the fun had at a wedding celebration five years ago is an ability that is unique to humans.  People can travel into the future or past with their thoughts.  Only if the brain is damaged — by illness like Alzheimer’s, age or accident — do some people become trapped in the present.

By traveling in time in their mind, a person can have an experience once and then benefit from it again, and again, learning new lessons with each repetition.[1] It is a tool that helps humans learn.  When people are not busy doing things, the dark areas of the brain wake up so that they can move across the landscape of their past to see what they can learn.  Unlike animals, people do not just learn through trial and error.  Traveling backward allows many trials for the price of one, and traveling forward dispenses with trials entirely. Just as pilots practice flying in flight simulators, people practice living life using the built-in “brain simulator”, trying future courses of action and previewing consequences without making mistakes. That only happens in times of stillness.

However, being able to mentally play out situations based on past experiences is not the only benefit to being still.  In stillness, the mind is also able to tap into a wellspring of creativity (whether you believe creativity comes from within or it comes from outside the individual), motivation, inspiration and peace.  The most dynamic thinking happens in stillness.  More about that next week.  Stay tuned!


Quote of the Week

“When everything is moving and shifting, the only way to counteract chaos is stillness.” Kristin Armstrong

[1] January 29, 2007, Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner, The Brain: Time Travel in the Brain.  What are you doing when you aren’t doing anything at all?, Time Magazine Online,,9171,1580364-1,00.html




© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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