Ask the pros: Why silence might be the key to beating burnout

Burned matches in a row on a blue background.
Photo credit: Alexmia/Getty Images

Entrepreneur, speaker and philanthropist Vijay Eswaran has spent his career cultivating expertise in leadership and mindfulness. In addition to founding and serving as executive chairman of a Hong Kong-based multibusiness conglomerate called QI Group of Companies, Eswaran has penned three bestsellers and helped thousands of readers beat burnout and stress in the process. 

When it comes to fighting back against the skyrocketing rate of burnout among people from all walks of life, Eswaran believes silence is golden. In his book “In the Sphere of Silence,” he made the case for applying the ancient art of quiet to the hectic buzz of modern life. Eswaran delved even deeper into his philosophy of life management in his latest book, 2017’s “Two Minutes from the Abyss.”

Still, the Sphere of Silence method is at the core of Eswaran’s approach to combating stress and burnout. So what is the Sphere of Silence, exactly? Essentially, it’s a daily practice that involves retreating into silence — yes, as in absolute silence — for an hour a day, during which time you go through a three-step process designed to help you make the most of your day and eventually your life.

Eswaran stresses that the Sphere of Silence is not to be confused with meditation, however. Instead, he refers to it as purposeful and structured active silence. “Sixty minutes in the Sphere of Silence every day enables you to slow down and take stock of where you are now and where you are headed,” he says.

That 60-minute practice is made up of what Eswaran calls the three paths of reflection: duty, knowledge and devotion.

We spoke to Eswaran about the theory behind the power of the Sphere of Silence, the three paths of reflection and why shutting up might just be the cure for stressing out.

GRATEFUL: How would you describe the idea of the Sphere of Silence method to someone hearing about it for the first time? 

VE: I would call it yoga for the mind. We live in a world that puts so much credence into our appearance. People work on their bodies by going to the gym, working out, eating healthy, etc. But how many people work on their minds? Our mind is our most powerful weapon and the hardest to master. Regular practice of the Sphere of Silence allows us to control the mind, which can help you overcome and achieve things you never believed yourself capable of.

GRATEFUL: What are the biggest benefits — for mental, emotional and physical health and well-being — of the Sphere of Silence? 

VE: We are a culture surrounded by noise. Sounds blare at us from every corner, whether its traffic, mobile devices pinging every few seconds, shopping malls or even restaurants with their ubiquitous Muzak. Noise has become our constant companion. I find that practicing the Sphere of Silence is the ultimate weapon against the assault on our senses. With technology enabling rapid forms of communication, people are constantly distracted. This impacts everything from decision-making to cognitive ability. Speed and technology cannot replace the wisdom that comes from introspection.

Regular practice of the Sphere of Silence can help us learn how to be still and examine what is within ourselves. By the simple practice of getting into the Sphere of Silence, we acquire an intense insight into everything we do. It marks the beginning of a compelling journey towards our innermost selves.

MORE: I tried a de-stressing treatment & here’s what happened

GRATEFUL: Why does taking an hour a day to practice silence yield these benefits? Is there any science to help explain why this is so beneficial? 

VE: There is plenty of research to show the harmful impact of noise in our lives. The World Health Organization and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre published a report in 2011 that concluded that a steady exposure to noise pollution may lead to higher blood pressure and fatal heart attacks.

Physician Luciano Bernardi studied the physiological effects of noise and music in 2006 and discovered that the subjects of his study experienced a powerful effect when exposed to random stretches of silence in between the noise and music. The two-minute pauses were far more relaxing for the brain than the relaxing music or the longer silence that was in place before the experiment started.

Yale neuroscientist Judson Brewer studied the effects of meditation and mindfulness and discovered that parts of the brain deactivate during the quiet period — areas that have been implicated in disorders such as anxiety, attention-deficit, hyperactivity, and Alzheimer’s disease.

My personal experience, the collective wisdom of many great historical figures, and all this research can be summarized simply in one line. Your brain benefits from a timeout.

GRATEFUL: To a lot of people, the Sphere of Silence might sound a lot like a meditation practice, but it really isn’t. Can you explain how the SoS differs from meditation? If someone already has a meditation practice, can/should SoS replace that, or is it best as a supplement to traditional meditation?

VE: The Sphere of Silence teaches you mindfulness. It helps you become aware of and pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and behavior. Your thoughts become words; from words they progress to deed, then deed to habit, habit to character, and character to destiny. Being mindful is the first step towards being able to meditate. In fact, the practice of SoS can support and enrich your meditation.

I do want to say that meditation is often misunderstood. It is not about sitting down and emptying your mind. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It is about embracing everything. Meditation is not about isolation. It is a state of consciousness. When you can enter into a meditative state of consciousness organically and effortlessly, you have mastered the true art of meditation.

 GRATEFUL: You break the 60-minute SoS practice down into three sections, the Path of Duty, the Path of Knowledge and the Path of Devotion. Can you explain why each of these three aspects of the process is so important and what led to you break the SoS down this way? 

VE: We live in a world where people get so busy with being busy they forget the importance of balance. As an entrepreneur, I know I have been guilty of it. I would get so engrossed in work that it was easy to lose sight of everything beyond it. Having balance in life is a key ingredient to achieving success. When you take a moment to step back from the din and chaos and retreat into silence, something magical happens. You gain a perspective that helps you see the big picture. It allows you to appreciate how far you have come and assess where you are going.

We all want rich and meaningful lives, and for most people, this means finding a balance between their work and their family and relationships. With this as the premise, I divided the hour into specific aspects that can help you with goal setting, self-reflection and analysis, enriching your mind, and reflecting on your faith.

Path of Duty (30 Minutes) — Use the first 10 minutes to set goals for the day, the next 10 minutes to assess progress made on the goals set the day before and the final 10 minutes to chalk out new goals for the future. It is important to acknowledge and note down why certain goals were not met during the assessment. The events of tomorrow develop from what you intend today. One cannot structure today without knowing why or how yesterday happened. Hence, understanding yesterday is the key to tomorrow.

Path of Knowledge (20 Minutes) — Use the first 10 minutes to read a book of your choice. This cannot be a book of fiction. Pick a book that can help you enrich your knowledge. Use the second segment of 10 minutes to write a summary of what you just read. This not only helps you absorb and understand the text, this process helps build short-term memory, which makes you sharper and more focussed.

Path of Devotion (10 Minutes) — The final 10 minutes are key to the grounding process. Use this time to commune with a higher power if you believe in God or the universe — whichever one [you prefer] philosophically. This is purely personal, and the practice does not try to define or dictate how the process works.

GRATEFUL: What was your process like in developing the SoS? Have the three paths always been a part of the practice for you since you started your own silence practice? If not, how did your practice evolve to the version you share with others today? 

VE: Let me begin by saying that I claim no originality to this practice. When I was a child, my grandfather lived with us. Every morning, he would wake up at dawn and sit in complete silence for an hour. Even as the rest of the household stirred awake and the various morning rituals unfolded around him, he stayed completely still and quiet. Nothing could distract him during that hour. We all knew better than to bother him during that time. He referred to it as the “mouna vratham,” a ritual of meditative silence long practiced in Indian Hindu tradition. He believed that abstaining from speaking for a set period of time each day brought him inner peace and made him a better listener.

Over the years, I discovered that a ritual practice of silence is not unique to any particular religion or culture. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all advocated the practice of silence in one form or another. Gandhi is supposed to have practiced a day of silence each week. Even Nelson Mandela is believed to have observed an hour of quiet each day.

The three paths of this practice are a result of my experiences at three distinct times in my life. My grandfather inspired the Path of Devotion, the third path of SoS. For him, that hour of silence each morning held a spiritual dimension that led up to his daily morning prayers. He would say it prepared him to face the lord each day.

The Path of Knowledge was inspired by my time at the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore, where I stayed after completing high school. The mission is a prominent global welfare and spiritual organization that is involved in charitable activities around the world. I was accepted at the mission as an apprentice while attending what we call pre-university in Asia. I was provided accommodation and board at the mission, which operates very similar[ly] to a monastery. The mission was a place of spiritual learning and scholarship and my first experience with institutionalized silence. As part of my duties as an apprentice, I had to read a set of books and summarize them for the library’s catalog. If I had questions, I had to note them down and bring it up for discussion during mealtimes with the elders. This is where I developed the habit of reading in complete silence and taking down notes as I read.

After completing my university education in London, I took a gap year to travel through Europe and spent some time in Italy, where I stayed at a Franciscan friary. During Lent, the brothers were observing 40 days of silence. I learned that silence is not just for prayer. Being silent allowed them to channel their energies into whatever tasks they were doing. I watched as they moved through the friary with a sense of joy and an unshakable stillness. When you are silent, you get a lot more done! Whatever task you are working on becomes much more refined. This inspired the process for the Path of Duty.

MORE: How to manage stress & make it work for you

GRATEFUL: How quickly did you notice changes in your own stress levels when you started practicing the SoS? 

VE: There is a popular belief based on Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s research that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. Some of the earliest changes I noticed within myself came around that 21-day mark. I realized that practicing silence was a powerful tool to deal with anger. It allows you to harness your calm in a heated moment and gives you the power to mindfully choose to stay out of negativity.

Over the years, hundreds of people have come up to me to share how the consistent practice of SoS has helped them transform mentally and even physically. When you learn to process and manage your stress and anger, it has a lasting impact on your physical well-being.

Silence works as a balm for your soul. It is important to note here that silence is not just the absence of sound; it is a state of being. You can be amidst cacophony and yet be in your own sphere of silence.

GRATEFUL: The Catch-22 of the SoS technique seems to be that some of the people who would benefit the most from it — busy, stressed-out young professionals — are also likely to be the most resistant to it, believing they’re too busy to carve out an hour a day for silence. What would you say to someone who feels burned out but doesn’t think they have the time to implement the SoS technique? Is it possible to start with a shorter period of silence and build up to an hour, or is it important to start with the full hour for the practice to be effective? 

VE: It’s alarming that “I’m so tired” has become the new status symbol — as if it somehow proves how busy and important a person is. Burnout is very real. It has a long-lasting impact on your physical and mental health. The FOMO culture has become so pervasive many people don’t know how to enjoy their own company and appreciate the stillness within.

What good are you to anyone else or even to yourself if you have a physical or mental breakdown? Practicing the SoS is an investment in yourself. It is human nature to look for shortcuts. If I gave you a 30-minute version of the SoS, I am sure there are people out there who will ask for a 15-minute version. I won’t lie. It is hard work and resistance is normal.

You can start with 15 or 20 minutes or whatever it is that works for you and slowly build up to the hour. Some SoS is better than no SoS. Think about it this way. Practice the SoS for one hour a day in order to take control of the remaining 23 hours. This is a shortcut to your long-term well-being and success.

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

GRATEFUL: Can you share your own path to developing a silence practice? 

VE: Even though my grandfather taught me the practice of silence at a young age, it was many years before I truly learned to appreciate it. When I was with the Franciscan brothers observing silence during Lent, it was one of the hardest things I have experienced. When you are forced to be silent, you have to find other ways to communicate, which means you have to keep your message very simple. This forces you to simplify. Even though I struggled with it, I soon came to love the tranquillity and peace.

Also, I realized the added benefit was that the silence acted as a natural filter for my thoughts. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to say and how. It was a life-altering experience, one that changed how I communicate since then.

Silence might be the key to managing burnout but chocolate can actually help reduce stress, too. Yup, it’s true. Learn how in our video below about raw, organic cacao.