The Power of Silence
What is the longest time that you have ever spent in silence?
By “silence” I don’t just mean being alone so there’s no one to talk to. In your quiet moments, how quiet do you let yourself be? Do you take time with the silence? Or is there music or TV playing in the background? Have you ever had an opportunity to do nothing in a quiet space, and that felt uncomfortable, so you found something to fill the silence? I certainly have!
I discovered silence a few years ago when I went on my first silent retreat. The ground rules: no talking, no reading, no journaling, no technology, no eye contact or communication with others. The retreat was under 48 hours long, but I found it very difficult. For example, I remember my busy mind, and judging myself for having a busy mind, and also judging myself for judging myself etc etc…. Sound familiar?
It was not easy, but I also saw that it was a profound practice, so I wanted to keep trying it. My longest quiet spell to date was a memorable and joyful nine-day silence in an ashram in India. So what? What does silence get us? Let me share a few slightly life-changing benefits that I have experienced first-hand.
First, in silence, we have the opportunity to be with what is really going on with us. I won’t claim that this means joy always, but it does allow us to acknowledge truthfully what is happening, while our normal busy lives and busy minds will often prevent us from doing that. So for example, in the middle of a recent difficult situation, I found myself struggling, because I wanted to keep pushing with my to-do list, my best-laid plans, to be productive and go go go. Underneath, I also felt unraveled, but I was not giving that feeling any breathing room. Finally I decided to stop the doing, and go for a long quiet walk, no headphones and no company. In the middle of this quiet, I allowed fear and sadness arise as they had been trying to do, without judging or covering over them. Then, I was able to tell myself that it was OK to feel that way, for as long as I needed to. In time, I saw that it was not the situation itself, but my resistance to it, my wanting it not to be so, that was causing me the most anguish. Once I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling, I came to a surprising place of deep peace.
This is only possible in silence, because we usually have so many options of how to cover up those true experiences, particularly the ones that bring out various shades of discomfort, and we do, because we are strong and we “have to go on and get things done”, right?
Second, as we become better listeners to ourselves, we also become better listeners for others. Have you ever noticed that when you are talking to someone, you might not be fully present to hear what they are saying, because you are formulating your own response while they are talking? Or have you been on the receiving end of this, where you say something important to you, and the response you get makes you wonder if the person even heard you, as they launch into their own story that might relate to what you just said? When we practice silence, we are able to catch these impulses and truly hear others.
Third, allowing silence into our lives allows our mind and being to rest from the constant overstimulation of our world. I believe that this rest is as vital as sleep for living life sustainably, for being well. We cannot truly be present for our lives if we never give the overstimulation a break. A friend of mine is quite happy right now because his cell phone broke, and he is free of it for a month, which is making him feel liberated. In a way, a bit of a silence practice has been forced on him, and he is liking it a lot.
Finally, experiencing silence on a regular basis will help us identify and reduce noise in our lives. My friend’s phone breaking allowed him to notice how much of a habit he has with his phone. With a regular silent practice, we start to notice our habitual unconscious impulses to fill any gap in activity. On a related note, cultivating silence can help us notice and then reduce unhelpful speech. Complaining or gossiping about others is commonplace, but with silence, we realize that those things really don't serve us, and that we can often stop the impulse to say something negative before it happens; that’s silence practice in action.
Have I convinced you yet? What can you do to cultivate silence in your life? Start simple. For example, you could turn off the radio and not call anyone while driving, focusing on your experience of the drive, or you could go for a walk and skip your headphones. When sitting down to your lunch break, see if you can pass on reading something on your phone; instead, simply experience your meal fully in silence, the tastes, textures, ambient sounds, and your thoughts and emotions. Finally, here’s one I love: once a day, or more than once, pause for two minutes, sit and close your eyes, and just follow your breath in and out through the nostrils. Any time your mind wanders, observe what comes up - this will be your clue to mind impulses - and then bring it back to the breath. It helps to pick a specific time of day and stick to it - maybe right as you get up, or after a meal, after you brush your teeth, or as you get into your car after work.
For a bit more inspiration, check out this TED talk by a man who took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years! His story and accomplishments are pretty mind-boggling.
Enjoy the joy of quiet. Then write and let me know how it feels to you.