“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” ~Deepak Chopra
When I was younger, I was always referred to as “the quiet one.” I didn’t mind it; I knew I was much quieter than most people I met. Not speaking and spending time on my own was natural for me.
Friends and workmates recognized this but would still often ask me if I wanted to join them when they were going out, even though they knew I would usually say no. They understood me as quiet, but they didn’t really understand just how much I disliked the whole socializing thing and how much it would drain me.
I’d always loved time on my own. Even if I was somewhere amongst people, as long as I didn't have to speak or engage with others, I was fairly content. In both situations I could retreat to my own inner world.
My thoughts and imagination were never boring; there were always observations to make about myself, the world, and other people. There was a sense of coming home whenever I became quiet. There was a familiar comfort in my inner world.
For the first half of my life I was a very shy introvert. While I’m not so shy anymore, I’m still introverted.
From Quiet on the Outside to Quiet on the Inside
In 2001 I discovered meditation at the recommendation of my brother, and one of the first things that became extremely obvious for me was just how active my mind was.
There was a very clear realization—that just because I was “the quiet one” did not mean I had a quiet mind. This might sound obvious, but before I started meditating, I didn't realize how busy my mind was.
My inner world was full of noise. Thoughts triggering emotions and emotions amplifying thoughts in a vicious, neverending cycle . It was comfortable and familiar, but when I paid attention I realized it wasn’t peaceful.
Prior to this realization, I’d very much identified with the noise in my mind. The constant stream of thoughts, emotions, and stories created a certain sense of self. The flavor of how I knew myself.
How does a fish objectify water when it has lived in it for its entire life? Contrast. It needs to experience what it feels like outside of water.
For me there was a similar experience happening through meditation. I started having experiences of an inner quiet. In the beginning it was only moments, but it was like being taken outside of my usual sense of self, allowing me to objectify the inner environment I usually resided in.
It was uncomfortable because I was used to the comfort of my usual inner monologue, stories, and moods, but a part of me that realized I am not the thoughts, emotions, dramas that made up my usual sense of self.
Although there was a comfort that came with the familiar, it was far more peaceful outside of it, since my mental environment had become polluted. Still, my active mind did not want to let go easily. It took time. I could have given up when I felt discomfort and resistance to seeing the reality of my mind; however, there were two things that helped motivate me to keep going.
The first was the relief I was starting to feel. Just like the peace that would usually come when I had time on my own after being with people, or when I’d spend time in the quiet of nature after being in the noise of the city, this relief came from letting go of my thoughts. It was more than a craving for quiet. It was a longing for depth… inside myself.
The second motivator, which I believe should peak the interest of any introvert, was that I was starting to feel less drained in group situations or events. I was still an introvert—I still preferred time on my own—but the negative side effects of being around people were shifting.
Understanding the Main Difference Between Introverts and Extrovert
I always knew I was an introvert, but I never really understood what it meant in greater detail until last year when I heard Faris Khalifeh from Quiet Leadership in Vancouver speak.
I’d understood introversion very basically as someone who tends to be quiet and prefers time on their own. As I learned from Faris, a major distinguishing trait between introverts and extroverts is that introverts gain energy by being alone and tend to get drained in groups. Vice versa for extroverts.
I believe one of the reasons introverts get so drained among groups of people is because they are not quiet on the inside. Much like stress is an internal reaction to a stimulus (external or internal), for an introvert there is an internal reaction to our natural sensitivity when in groups of people, creating a certain stress that drains our energy. Quietening our mind changes our reactions.
For me, the combination of my naturally active mind and sensitivity created an internal environment that made group events draining. In group events there was so much stimulation happening around me that even if I was only connecting with one or two people I would eventually become drained.
For clarity, there’s no more stimulation happening around an introvert than an extrovert; it’s that the introvert is usually far more sensitive to it.
I remember a work dinner many years ago. There were about eight of us, but we’d gone to a pub, so there were a lot more people in the space. I was chatting with a work friend, but the ambient noise from all the conversations happening around me was pulling my awareness in all directions. Sensory overload. Too much information at the same time. It was very difficult to relax, and I was more distracted than present.
It was like being immersed in a soup of chaotic ambient noise. I wished I could just leave! This outer noise added to my own inner noise, amplifying my thoughts and inner monologue:
“That couple over there is having an argument. When will this evening be over? The man behind me is drunk; I hope they ask him to leave. There’s an awkward tension between those two workmates sitting together; they don’t like each other. I’m running out of things to talk about. Who actually enjoys this atmosphere? Maybe there’s something wrong with me?” And on and on.
All of this created a general sense of stress and agitation in both my body and mind. Over a couple of hours, I was gradually drained.
I often wondered if I was the only one who found social events unpleasant.
The problem was, I had nothing solid to rest on. The constant stream of thoughts and emotions that run through our mind give us a familiar sense of self, but for me, a familiar sense of self based on my active mind was not a very stable place when I was so sensitive.
Sensitivity was not the problem; a lack of stability was. Sensitivity is an amazing gift, but without some stability it feels like chaos.
The antidote that was emerging for me was stillness.
Stillness created a stability and grounding. It was extremely nurturing and recharging by itself, and the more I cultivated a relationship to it the more it was there where ever I went.
Even though I was still sensitive to the ambient noise at group events, I had a stable center, an inner quiet that created a separation between me and the noise. Without the separation, I was the noise, and it drained me. With stillness, I was stable and free, and my energy was preserved.
Introverts tend to accept that having their energy drained in groups is an inherent trait of their personality type. While this is true in the usual introvert categorization, I believe it doesn’t have to be like this. I was not looking for a solution to being drained at group events; I’d simply accepted this is how I was. But I was wrong. The solution presented itself as a side effect of my meditation.
I’m not suggesting you will transform into an extrovert and gain energy by being in groups. I’m still an introvert and I still love time by myself, but being at group events does not drain me like it used to.
As introverts, at some point we have to engage with people and attend extroverted events. I share my experience with you because these situations do not have to be a point of stress or anxiety. Stillness provides a stable resting place that can change our relationship to group situations.
Stillness is your superpower!
Though meditation is one of the best paths to stillness, it can also help to use the exercise below, which I call “Finding stillness amidst the chaos.” I would not call it a meditation in the truest sense, but I would call it a training for your mind.
Finding Stillness Amidst the Chaos
1. Go to a crowded place, preferably where there is a lot of noise. A busy food court at lunchtime is a good one. Perhaps before a conference or event when everyone around you is talking. The more people, the better.
2. Remain quiet and start listening peripherally to all the people talking. Don’t listen to individual conversations or voices. Listen to them all at once. The peripheral noise.
3. If thoughts come into your mind, just let them go and return to the peripheral noise. Don’t judge your thoughts.
4. As you listen peripherally to the noise for a couple of minutes, start to notice there is the chaos of the noise all around you, but you are not the noise. This is important! There is a separation between you and the noise. It’s like the noise is a tornado and you are in the eye. Notice the stillness in the center. It’s the place from where you perceive the noise.
5. The key here is that the noise and chaos are in the periphery and stillness is in the center. Thoughts will come and go, but keep your awareness with the peripheral noise and center of stillness.
6. Pay attention to how you feel more stable when you can do this. You can still be aware of the noise, but you are not affected by it, because you are not the noise.
It may take some time to get the hang of this, but like anything else, with practice you will see progress. You may even find this fun. Don’t worry, you’re not becoming an extrovert—you’re just cultivating your stillness superpower!