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How to Make Your Mind Maybe One-Third Quieter

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Recently the New York Times published an article titled “The Beauty of the Silent Walk,” about an emerging wellness trend among TikTok influencers.

I was excited to read it, because I assumed this group of young people (and now the NYT readership) had just discovered a practice I thought I invented, called the “wordless walk.” I don’t think I’ve written about it here, but I have described it in some of my books and courses.

To take a wordless walk, you go for a walk with the intention of staying attentive to the environment around you, particularly how it sounds. Whenever you notice you’re talking in your head, about anything, you drop the talk and go back to listening and looking. You can talk in your head later; the walk is just for noticing.

This practice teaches you that you don’t need to address every instance of mental talk you have. In fact, your thoughts will never leave you alone if you try to resolve every train of thought that arises. Instead, you can just enjoy the world as it reveals itself before you.

The wordless walk is never really wordless in practice. Thoughts still get a hold of you, but simply practicing the intention to defer to noticing over thinking can make a huge difference to your mental state, and your relationship with thinking in general.

To my disappointment, this is not what the TikTokkers were doing. By “silent walk,” they just meant walking without listening to headphones. “No airpods, no podcasts, no music,” one influencer put it. “Just me, myself, and I” she said, tapping her forehead for emphasis. By the sounds of it, the “silent walk” movement is essentially Gen Z’s discovery of inner monologue as an alternative to constant electronic entertainment. That’s definitely an improvement, but there was no mention of possibly experiencing the kind of silence that lies outside of thought and words.

The NYT comment section, which seems to be mostly people over 50, was even less charitable. The top comment: “I take ‘silent walks’ every day. I call them ‘walks.’”

Old news

I became more sympathetic towards this movement when I reflected on how entertainment-addled my own life has become in recent years. I do use headphones more often, even at home — why not consume an audiobook while working out, or learn about history while folding bedsheets? I’m certainly more dependent on my devices than I was even in 2019. If “content creep” is this much of a problem for me, a late-Gen-X baby who graduated high school before the internet was much more than a novelty, then members of younger generations must be really entangled with device-based entertainment — so much so that walking down the street without absorbing content could seem like a new and radical idea.

In 2020, the satirical newspaper The Onion published an article titled, “Man Somehow Able to Muster Strength to Fold Laundry Without Listening to Podcast.” This made me laugh at the time, evidently because I had already succumbed to the habit of adding entertainment to menial household work. If I had read that headline even a few years earlier, I wouldn’t have understood the joke.

The point at which such a habit becomes a need isn’t immediately clear. For the silent walk people, however common they are among their generation, audio accompaniment on walks seems to have crossed into an assumed necessity. Mady Maio, one of the influencers mentioned in the article, said that the first two minutes of her silent walks were “mental mayhem” at first, with anxiety shooting up and the mind going into overdrive. After that, she says the mental activity calms a bit, brain fog dissipates and new ideas have space to enter the mind.

Modern feat of inner strength

It’s good that the mind can readjust like that. Perhaps our minds aren’t permanently warped by too much input and stimulation, just very used to it at the moment.

As silly as they seemed at first, these silent walk people are voluntarily challenging themselves to break from a long-accustomed comfort. It’s awkward at first, like any new absence, but then mind adapts, and by the sounds of it they’ve discovered something more rewarding than constant stimulation, which is great.

I wonder a lot about the minds of people who lived a hundred or a thousand years ago, and how different their inner experience was. They certainly weren’t listening to podcasts all the time, and I suspect they also weren’t nearly as lost in thought as we are. There were fewer inputs and fewer demands on their attention. They weren’t trying to process nearly as many ideas and events and opinions as we do in the internet age. They took in far less content, to use a 21st-century word, and I imagine that difference made the average mind much more spacious and available to its surroundings.

How to Take a Wordless Walk

You probably aren’t someone for whom walking without headphones is a radical act, so doing that wouldn’t change much about your state of mind. The wordless walk, however, for most people, will be a fairly radical exercise. You’re experimenting with tuning out the “inner headphones” of mental monologue, a more pervasive source of diversion and stimulation than any electronic headphones.

This is how you do it. Go for a short walk with the intention of noticing stuff rather than thinking about stuff. As you walk, let the sounds and sights of your surroundings fill your attention. This time is for looking and listening; you can think all you want later.

Inner headphones cranked

Thought will still happen. The mind will generate comments and associations, and you don’t need to stop it or try to get rid of it. Just don’t attend to it. Instead, leave the thought unanswered and listen for the next obvious sound to emerge. (The soundscape is a great place to return to, because there’s always another sound about to make itself known, as soon as you’re listening again.)

Be interested in how things look and sound. A good way to frame this practice is that you’re looking at and listening to the world as though it’s saying something to you. There’s no need to interpret or analyze what’s being said. Just let it express itself to you for once. When you notice you’re focusing again on mental talk, go back to listening and looking.

Waiting for a break in the conversation

The mind’s blather will keep trying to get your attention back, just as the headphone-addicted zoomer will habitually reach for her phone. That’s okay. Getting caught up in mental talk will happen, and shouldn’t be regarded as a mistake or problem. Just take it as a reminder to let the world talk again. You’ve spent your whole life talking. Dedicate this little bit of time to finding out what the world has to tell you and show you. Treat this as a matter of courtesy and deference, like the world is a wise, soft-spoken old man who is never going to talk over you.

Doing this regularly makes the mind aware, even at other times, that it can shut up in the middle of one of its speeches and just start noticing again, and nothing of value is lost.

Aside from that I don’t want to tell you what’s going to happen, because you should go and find out. One thing you might notice, though, is that the world is a lot less repetitive than the mind. The mind goes on about the same stuff forever. The world always has something new to say. It just doesn’t use words.


Photos by Volkan Olmez, David Tenniers II, Sarah Brown, Muhmed Alaa El-Bank, and Sergei Dolcet Escrig

LanChi October 17, 2023 at 5:59 pm

Oh, I love this! I’ve read about the wordless walk in your meditation course, but this hit differently, especially the part about “You’ve spent your whole life talking. Dedicate this little bit of time to finding out what the world has to tell you…”

Every time I try a wordless walk, I notice something interesting: all of my impatience for the walk to end…disappears. I can finally be in the moment.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:35 am

There’s a lot to discover when you play around with moving your attention away from thought. One thing is that thought is what gives us this sense that we have to be somewhere else. When attention is being used to engage with the environment instead, the feelings thought causes (like impatience) start to fade.

Bryan Harrison October 17, 2023 at 6:14 pm

Always appreciate the insights. It did make me notice that I have indeed looked at long walks as an opportunity to listen to an interesting podcast rather than simply an opportunity to take a long walk and silence the chatter. Thank you for continuing to capture these observations.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:38 am

Technology does allow us to do productive things while we do other things, and there can be advantages to that. You could listen to a whole lecture series per month on your commute, which might be worthwhile. But there are tradeoffs happening that we don’t notice at first. Always consuming content definitely has downsides too, one of which is that we feel that we always need to be consuming content.

Sally October 17, 2023 at 6:43 pm

love it … don’t use headphones on my walks but have always used head words. looking forward to listening.

Louise October 17, 2023 at 6:47 pm

I enjoyed the NYT article as I have happily never listened to podcasts or music while walking and have had to fight off the cultural fear that I’m not “maximizing” my time or at least the experience. Wordless walks are an interesting take and one I think I’ll enjoy. I’ve been sliding into a habit of looking at my surroundings with an eye to how I might paint or draw what I see. On the one hand, this helps focus my eye and creates mental images and memories, a good thing, but on the other, it does mean that my mind is busy trying to “do” something, rather than just be.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:41 am

Doing is a very strong impulse, and obviously we can accomplish a lot with it, but I think the only time we’re truly at rest is when we’re observing. Thinking tends to revolve around doing of some sort. We’re analyzing, intending, projecting something into the future. Both doing and observing are powerful abilities but I think we’ve become too weighted towards the doing end.

Anthony October 17, 2023 at 7:38 pm

This is beautifully put. Thank you for sharing. It reminds me of the practice of kinhin from the Zen tradition. The difference is that you make it so much more accessible and approachable. I’ve been trying to let myself believe I don’t need to attend to every thought. You make it seem so some to let them go.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:43 am

> I’ve been trying to let myself believe I don’t need to attend to every thought.

Ok so this is interesting: you don’t have to convince yourself that you don’t need to attend to every thought, because that is just another thought asking to be resolved. Just direct your attention to something physical.

Ecoteri October 17, 2023 at 7:44 pm

I walk the dog without headphones (I actually don’t have headphones) although I haven’t consciously noticed the world, I do enjoy it.
I did, however, have a marvellous wordless stand-and-watch, while walking up to the house from the sheep field. the Canada Geese are gathering and practicing for their migration – and my neighbour’s small pond and field are a magnet for them. We have a flock of resident geese (maybe 50?) but right now there are (and I was guesstimating today) at least 1500 just in this small area. When I was walking up, they were coming in to land – and were too high up to just come in, so there was a lot of circling and honking. I put my wheelbarrow down and simply stood in wonder, listening and watching and marvelling.
Your post has given me an idea that I can find this wonder in a more conscious way, when I am walking. I am looking forward to it!

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:46 am

Taking deliberate wordless walking sessions will make this kind of wonder come to you more spontaneously, by loosening the compulsion to stay with thinking.

A stand-and-watch is ultimately the same, just without the walking. You can do this any time, it’s just a matter of putting your attention on the physical and immediate.

Karen October 17, 2023 at 8:42 pm

“Maximizing my time.” Ugh, I shudder to think the number of times I tried to maximize my time during walks with the latest podcast, online interview or program. Invariably I know that each time I am missing out on what beauty nature has for me. The pull to remain caught up on programming is indeed the sign of a sick society. It’s high time to put on the brakes. Thank you for this needed reminder David.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:50 am

I guess when we maximize one thing we are probably minimizing something else. The TikTok people, by maximizing content consumption, are clearly suffering from a deficit in idle thinking and noticing.

One other thing I should say: this is not only about noticing nature’s beauty. Notice buildings, voices, urban fixtures, machines, light and shadow… even the densest, messiest city has aesthetic qualities worth noticing.

Igor October 17, 2023 at 10:19 pm

Great post as usual from David. I normally do long 4-5 hour walks and have noticed that of them mind decides to rest after 2 hours walk or so. This is when it is naturally easier to walk in a silent mind. Depending on the walking area I do have to be silent in the other way, or make noise rather, especially in the northern areas of Japan frequented by bears. Extension of a wordless walk is wordless gaze. I’m now looking at the sea, and trying to observe and listen only. Great point is to catch what is the world is “trying to say to me”

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 9:57 am

The mind will tend settle like that over time. Don’t think you have to wait for it to settle before you attend to sight and sound, however. In fact, it will probably settle quicker if you attend to your physical surroundings right from the get-go, even while the mind is still agitated. In any case, definitely let the bears know you’re there :)

Alan October 17, 2023 at 11:43 pm

I often teach a “tantra sound meditation” in yoga and meditation classes which is a similar principle. You focus on distant sounds for a while, then close sounds, then sounds inside the body. Similarly the idea is not to analyse them but just to notice and let wash over you. Works both in a formal meditation setting and when you’re out doing a long walk. Personally is my favourite form of meditation.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 10:00 am

I have done similar “sound bath” meditations where the teacher would ring various singing bowls that have different pitches, and with your eyes closed, seem to be happening at different spatial locations. Listening to each “ding” decay after it is struck helps you to stay with the sound itself, because it is always changing a bit. Soon thought has really taken a backseat, because attention is needed to track the sound and can no longer fuel thought upon thought.

Tim October 18, 2023 at 9:26 am

I’m a high school teacher and the problem of constant digital entertainment is a real problem for critical thinking or even just thinking–this has accelerated significantly in the past few years.

I’m now having the experience of students being literally unable to form their own thoughts. I ask a question verbally, on a homework assignment, on an in-class assignment and essentially get nothing in response. Students will do the work if I do the work–i.e. for a note sheet on a reading they will copy down the notes that I take, but will not create their own answer. Even a few years ago sutdents would complete the work and be wrong–but at least they were attempting independent thought! A wrong answer gave me a foothold, a starting point as a teacher. No answer feels like attmepting to climb a vertical glass wall while wearing socks–no foothold and no leverage.

Students are capable of conversations, but even those often feel limited and devoid of nuance. I’ve had some conversations with other teachers–in my building and outside of the building. This issue is popping up in many places–students are essentially very passive thinkers.

I also want to emphasize that I’m not intending this as a “kids these days” whining from a middle aged dude. I am specifically worried about the form our technology is taking–addictive “social” media embedded with highly addictive content packaged in short tiny bites. I’ve been guilty of losing hours to these attention traps too. Sometimes it feels like if I was hungry for a real meal and instead sat down to eat a bucket of Skittles.

David Cain October 18, 2023 at 10:11 am

Wow, that sounds bad. Content culture really seems to be changing our minds on a very granular level. I hadn’t considered how it’s not just an attentional issue but that it’s affecting thinking skills.

Your comment reminds me of an experience I had a few years ago when I took an English course at my local university. I was 38 and most of the other students were 18. We were supposed to discuss Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll in groups, and list the images Carroll’s made-up words summoned in our minds (to compare them later to those of other groups). One kid in my group kept googling the words on his laptop to find out the “meaning” of them, and then tell the group what he was finding out. He didn’t seem to be trying to cheat or avoid the assignment, this was just how he approached the instruction from the teacher.

Amy October 18, 2023 at 1:09 pm

I’m one of the lucky souls who don’t have an internal monologue. So I do this often.

David Cain October 19, 2023 at 9:19 am

This is so interesting to me and I want to write about it. Most people seem to have internal monologues and some don’t. Others can see mental images and some can’t. I always wonder how much of this disparity is due to the difference in how people interpret and describe their mental activity. But also, mental monologue is probably a habit, or series of habits, and some simply might not develop it. Super interesting topic.

Jessica October 18, 2023 at 1:13 pm

I love this, and like many of your essays, it is the right thing I need to read at the right time. I love how you framed the walk as “you’re looking at and listening to the world as though it’s saying something to you. ” My dog is old and walks with her are so slow these days, and these are perfect times for the Wordless Walk. I don’t listen to audio during these walks but I definitely get lost in thought. Its so amazing how much the world offers when you just pay attention. Thank you for this!

David Cain October 19, 2023 at 9:20 am

Dogs are a great inspiration. They’re focused on the environment.

Tim October 18, 2023 at 3:14 pm

Ha! looking up the meaning of words in Jabberwocky is hilarious! the whole dang point is that it makes sense out of nonsense.

Jeanette October 19, 2023 at 9:25 pm

I love this. I love your blog. It always amazes me. Thank you.

Shivam October 25, 2023 at 2:31 am

Thanks for the lovely post David.

Melanie O'Brien October 27, 2023 at 5:28 pm

I’m going to try a wordless walk today. I think it’s a great idea to calm your mind and feel connected with nature. I could learn a lot from this experience. As you said we spend so much time talking – this is an ideal chance to just listen to the world around us.

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