If you want to learn something about stillness, visit a kindergarten class. I spent about 45 minutes with Little Peanut and his classmates today, and it gave me a whole new perspective on quiet — or the lack thereof.
In the half-hour in which these 19 kids were in their “quiet” circle, there wasn’t a single moment in which more than 2 of them were actually sitting still. As a group, they formed one massive, twitching, kinetic sculpture: a wriggling arm here, an elbow there, bouncing knees, curling toes, bobbing heads. It looked something like a crowd doing the wave at a baseball stadium, if the entire crowd were completely uncoordinated and paying no attention to whether it was their turn to hop up.
And it was completely natural. After all, this is what kids are supposed to be like when they get to kindergarten: energetic, spontaneous, irrepressible. The point of kindergarten, and what comes after, is to learn how to repress it. To learn how to be quiet. To learn how to be still.
These are important skills. When faced with a wriggling mass of 5-year-olds, however, it’s hard not to recognize that these skills are the socially sanctioned antidote to our natural state. Our natural state — the state of an unschooled 5-year-old — is a state of restless energy, endless movement, spontaneous (and often inappropriate) expression.
School helps us learn to transcend that state, and to become capable of the kind of sustained stillness that allows focused thought, meaningful conversation and intimate collaboration. One of the qualities I most value in a colleague is the ability to not only display that kind of stillness, but to evoke it. To be with someone who has cultivated a capacity for stillness is to find a new anchor for your own kineticism, and in it, a pathway to constructive conversation.
And yet inside every good worker bee, every diligent professional, there lurks a wriggly 5-year-old. A boardroom table is just circle time with chairs: we may be more practiced at sitting still and listening to teacher, but who wouldn’t prefer to hop up, take a bathroom break, or play with the blocks?
No wonder that so many of us have learned to rely on our smartphones, tablets and computers as props for suppressing that urge. A device is a tunnel to the outside world, a way of virtually hopping up and running down the hall even when the teacher says you have to sit still. It’s a way to talk without raising your hand, to play with the (Tetris) blocks, to channel the twitchy energy. A way to meet the average meeting’s minimum accepted level of stillness without actually having to become still.
Because as any 5-year-old could tell you, stillness is uncomfortable. I don’t doubt for a moment that the kindergarten class I saw today could be quieted in a moment, and all that twitching resolved, by simply handing around a box of smartphones. But in the few moments of stillness I found in that wild, twitchy room, I was awfully glad that isn’t yet our preferred solution.