What’s so wrong with being quiet? Susan Cain’s TED Talk The Power of Introverts sparked this question last week in the Loop Writing Center. In America, we agreed, we encourage extroverts – those who gain personal energy from interacting with others – and stigmatize introverts who find focus and fulfillment in solitude. This seems to be because we associate quietness with isolation or discomfort and outgoingness with success and intelligence. But let’s be real, we know plenty of charismatic, social leaders that should not be behind the wheel.
Introversion seems to be a characteristic that privately, many of us relate to, but, in America at least, we have yet to incorporate it as a socially respectable trait. More often than not it’s interpreted as a form of weakness: “that person is shy, anti-social, thinks too much…” The reality is though, that some people just don’t want to talk all of the time. In fact, many of us don’t.
So instead of focusing on the downsides, which usually are implicitly present in discussions of introversion, let’s do the opposite. What is awesome about being alone? Well, you can sing in the kitchen, make elaborate meals without worrying about how they taste, dance in your underwear. But this is all obvious. Let’s try something less American. Susan Cain briefly brought up meditation in her speech. This is perhaps the most introverted thing you can do: sit down, relax, turn your focus inward, and let the world outside dissolve.
Meditation is an Eastern concept; many Americans were introduced to it through Buddhism, Zen, or even through less serious sources. As an American who meditates, I find that, despite its becoming more commonplace, there is a lingering hesitation.
That’s for Buddhists, or people in the martial arts, is a typical reservation. I call this the self-constructed alienation rationalization (SCAR). When people define an action as specific to a separate community of others, open reflection can come to an unnecessary halt. This kind of process prevents all of the poor, unfortunate people in my hometown from ever eating Thai food.
That’s just some New Age nonsense. This is related to the previous thought, but comes after a smaller group of people have adopted behavior from outside cultures. In America there are groups all across California and the rest of America practicing meditation, yoga, and a spirituality that integrates Western and Eastern philosophy. In part the skepticism is justifiable: New Age practices can come across as comically progressive, upholding a dogma that sounds like magic and sells itself like a Ponzi scheme. However, meditation does not need New Age fakers or legitimate New Age practitioners to exist or be helpful. So strike two.
That’s just glorified day dreaming. This is perhaps the most reasonable argument of the three. It’s easy to sit down and just get lost in your thoughts, at which point you’re not really meditating, you’re just thinking about why your sister is annoying. But this isn’t an inevitability nor is it impossible to move beyond this stage. Listening to the opinions of experienced meditators and even the advice of spiritual people like the Dalai Lama can guide us to a more focused and beneficial meditative practice.
If we divorce meditation from organized religion – which I imagine makes many Americans more comfortable – meditation can simply be about getting comfortable with ourselves. Deep relaxation and self-awareness allow us to consciously accept and release the tension in our lives as well as cultivate our sense of empathy. What’s more awesome than that? Becoming not just comfortable but rejuvenated in solitude is a healthy and achievable goal for introverts and extroverts alike. So try it out; pretend you’re 16 and your parents think meditation is for punks and hippies. Then maybe all of our country’s introverts can get a little more respect.