Practicing silence

Practicing silence

At The Hermitage Community, the contemplative prayer center where I serve, we often remark to new guests that we give the gift or “permission” of silence to one another. For some this is difficult; like the man who began to whisper everything, every thought he had about anything, but sotto voce because he thought that would count as silence. For some it is blessing. I remember the chaplain from a large maximum-security prison weeping through the silent meals because everything needed was simply present in the stillness. But why do we keep silence? Why is it part of our practice when “library quiet” might achieve the same result?

In his masterful meditation on silence, Max Picard writes,

There is more help and healing in silence than in all the “useful things.” Purposeless, unexploitable silence suddenly appears at the side of the all-too-purposeful, and…makes things whole again, by taking them back from the world of dissipation into the world of wholeness. It gives things something of its own holy uselessness, for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness.

Why is this kind of silence worth cultivating? We discover the answer to this question by understanding our own nature. We have long and complex stories that weave together in marvelous ways. We are not all good nor are we all bad. We are sensing, thinking creatures. We interact with our environment by means of our five senses and our reason. But there is more to us than our senses. Memories of our past experiences allow us to relive or remember what we are not actually experiencing in time. Coincidences cause us to wonder if someone else can “read our mind.” Psychologists and brain researchers tell us that our life experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. We have an inner life and a hidden landscape upon which our non-concrete lives play out without physical awareness or interaction. Philosophers, mystics, and religious teachers through the ages have also described the human person as highly complex and individuals as interrelated. Much of our psyche, or soul, lies outside the realm of consciousness. And if we are to be whole people, receiving the depths of our unconscious as fully part of ourselves even though we cannot communicate directly with it, then we need to allow for a way of communication between the conscious and the unconscious. Silence is one way to open the unconscious—the territory of the deep self and the place where God touches our lives.

In the Christian tradition, the practice of silence goes back to the life of Jesus who often went off by himself to pray—to connect with his divine nature (Mark 1: 29-39; Matthew 14:13, 23; Luke 4:42-42; and Luke 5:15). And the Desert Fathers and Mothers, men and women who left their homes and the comforts of their lives to seek God in the silence of the desert, practiced it as a lifestyle. They believed that they would find God’s will in the created world. If they could be silent, they could learn to read this world and know the will of God. They sought exterior silence in the desert and interior silence in a life of disciplined prayer.

Anyone who wishes to use silence as the way to open the unconscious must practice. Even a lifetime of practice will render anyone merely a novice at the practice of silence. But, regular, even daily, practice may result in the rare glimpse and the occasional experience of God. But even better than the experience of God, the practice bears fruit in the transforming and re-ordering of the inner self, changing our deeply rooted behaviors, freeing us from merely reacting to events and allowing a more measured response to circumstances. In short, practitioners of silence can be more balanced and peaceful in approaches to life and, eventually, death.

So, how do you begin a practice of silence? As with any practice, this is only possible if you desire it. Turning electronic connections off, refusing to answer the phone, preparing yourself to be uninterrupted for a time is the very first step. Set a time for quiet during which you will not be interrupted and do your part to eliminate noise.

Having a place for quiet is also important. Many practitioners have a certain chair, corner, closet, or room where they keep quiet. Some people insist on an uncluttered space; a space that is quiet in its visual appeal. If you try to be quiet in a space that seems to “talk” to you or distract you in any way, move or move what distracts you. A ritual, such as lighting a candle can also help. The ritual is a signal that it is time for
silence to begin.

Posture is a variable in the practice of quiet. Most westerners find it most comfortable to sit in a supportive chair. But some sit on the floor in the lotus-position (or not) or on a prayer stool or zafu (prayer cushion). Whatever posture supports your intention to be quiet is fine. However, you should not slouch or curl up. Attention is the word here. You are paying attention with your body in a quiet but alert position.

The next step is to quiet your mind—to release any and all thoughts that come to your awareness. Many practitioners of silence choose a word to use as a tool to return them to the awareness of God. Simply holding the word in the mind is a reminder of the intention to be present to God in silence and interrupts the diversion a thought has made. This practice of returning to a word helps you to release the thought (or other diversion), and gently return to your intention of keeping silence in the presence of God. Because we never get beyond beginning again each time we practice silence, this tool continues to be useful, no matter how seasoned the practitioner. If you practice silence, it works best if you make a commitment to consistent practice. Then, you actually get better at releasing thoughts and become much more aware of the inner place to which you attend. It is with consistent practice that you notice transformation.

Another thing to consider in a practice of silence is finding support for your practice. Joining a group that practices together regularly is just such a support. When everyone in a place is doing the same thing, there is tremendous synergy with your mutual intentions to be in silence. The support of like-intentioned people strengthens private practice.

Likewise, going on a silent retreat can help a practice of silence. It is also wise to seek personal spiritual direction if you begin to experience the depths of silence. A spiritual director or other teacher can help guide you to the goodness of God in the silence and help you avoid any possible pitfalls.

A practice of silence can help you to know yourself, others, and God better. How does that happen? One of the most common reasons for avoiding silence is that we run from our inner pain. There is a fundamental connection between awareness and heartbreak. When we are quiet we notice where our heartbreaks are. And sometimes, these are difficult to bear. So, in the quiet, our inner chatter begins. We flee into a “noisy” world we can control. A practice of silence brings us to confront our heartbreaks and our disappointments and offer them to God. Silence is revelatory. It shows us where our real needs and priorities are. In the same way, silence shows us where there is room to grow. Just as seeds form in silence, so seeds of what is possible in us form in silence. Stilling our outer and inner noise allows us to be aware of what may be emerging in us. The practice of silence is a form of waiting. Waiting purges what is merely insistent and leaves only the absolutely necessary crying for attention.

But silence is beneficial for others as well. Someone once profoundly observed that if no one is silent, no one is listening. One of the gifts of silence, then, is that it allows us to truly see and hear others. Even when our practice of silence is done alone, it creates in us a disposition to listen. We become accustomed to expectant waiting and we can more readily apply this skill when we are around others. Silent presence is sometimes all that is needed for us to show our true care and concern for others. By quiet listening, we demonstrate respect and a desire for honest exchange rather than control. Silence is the fertile soil of empathy. Our ability to share with and bear with others is increased if we can be silent. Likewise, silence ushers us to the place where God dwells. Every religious tradition has as its centerpiece the silence of God. Sixteenth century mystic, John of the Cross, insisted that silence is God’s first language. And Jewish and Christian
scriptures assert that before the universe and time were created there was the silent, formless void into which the first Word was spoken. Before speech was Silence.

Silence in the presence and pursuit of God is to be expected. It is where God dwells. As we meet God in God’s space, we converse in God’s language. This keeps us from playing God and allows God to remain mystery for us. If we “figure God out” or treat God like some greater Santa Claus who knows if we’ve been naughty or nice, but ultimately exists to provide for our every whim, then we are in charge of who God is and how God acts.
God is no longer God for us. In silence, we accept God’s pre-immanence over us. We let God be God and we accept that God may be speaking (which in fact is true). We show respect by listening. We allow for all the possibilities available in God rather than limiting our life to what we can imagine for ourselves. We check in with God to say “yes” rather than to demand our way.

Silence transforms us by the continual practice of releasing control of our thoughts and plans and submitting to God’s way. This is plowing the ground for exciting new growth, letting God plant the seeds and seeing what comes up. This transformation is neither initiated nor controlled by us but can only proceed with our consent. So, silence is practice in saying “yes,” in letting go, and in being changed.

Finally, the practice of silence may well be what can save our fragmented, polarized world. Releasing and offering our inner being to God or to a friend or foe, is the universal offering of peace. It says, “I’m listening to you.” Out of that listening, all things are possible.