What Works: Enjoy the Silence

Protect the silence in your day and consider a silent retreat this summer

“Words are very
— Depeche Mode

There is not enough silence in the world. More than ever before, daily life consists of a near-constant bombardment of noise and messaging.

When I am introducing people to Centering Prayer meditation, the first challenge for many is the simple weirdness for them of being silent and in silence, “alone” with their thoughts, for more than a few minutes. Between cell phones, iPods, the radio on at work or in the car, and the TV flipped on the moment they walk in their door, they manage to keep background noise going all day.

The paradox with meditation and other forms of silent prayer, and especially with silent retreats, is that even though they are formless and goalless, they achieve something wonderful — something potentially transformative: they create space, physical and mental space, to become more open.

That space, made most apparent by silence, can be an uncomfortable place to be. Why is this? Why is the weirdness threatening for some? One answer is that offered by Fr. Jim Martin in his latest book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Anything:

We may fear silence because we fear what we might hear from the deepest parts of ourselves. We may be afraid to hear that ‘still small’ voice. What might it say?

Might it ask us to change?

This is the great power and the great challenge of silence: it can reveal truth. Or more accurately, it takes away our ability to run from Truth.

Deep Silence

As I mentioned in my column last summer, How Sweet to Do Nothing, while silence at home is invaluable, it takes on another quality when experienced on retreat — both because of the length of the silence, and because the fact that you are there to do nothing else gives it more of a chance of deepening.

Consider fitting in a silent retreat this summer. Depending on your level of past experience with silence, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It should challenge you, but it shouldn’t be something you’re not ready for. Silent retreats come in many varieties. Some are totally silent; some are silent other than talks given by presenters or a daily conversation with a monk; some allow talking during meals. Some take the silence to another level, forbidding communicating with others even through making eye contact — called “custody of the eyes” in Catholic monastic circles. And silent retreats can range from a long weekend to several months. If you have no daily meditation practice, I’m not encouraging you to head off for a month in total silence. Use your judgment and talk to the retreat house or monastery.

But do push yourself. You might think that more than a day or two seems impossible, but just as the first 5 to 10 minutes of meditation seem to go slowly, then the rest can zip by, additional days of silence after the first few go much more easily.

Everyday silence

But whether you’re able to get away for a retreat or not, find more opportunities to bring silence into your routine. (Or should I say, to remove noise from your routine.) I have absolutely nothing against technology. I spent half my career writing about it or developing it. I myself have an iPod, iPhone, iPad, cable TV and high-speed internet. This is not about avoiding technology. It’s about choosing how you use it.

As Jon M. Sweeney says in his delightful book about monastic life and retreats, Cloister Talks:

It’s not that it’s wrong to live a busy, secular life (I certainly do), but you’re supposed to have more than that, and the more than that is supposed to eventually take prominence.

So I make sure there’s room for the “more than that” — which often involves silence in between things, not just for an appointed 20-minute slot here and there. As Sweeney admits, it’s all too easy to diminish it that way:

I don’t usually shut up and sit still long enough to allow Christ to speak into my life. In fact, I usually approach my lectio and centering prayer as just two more items on my to-do list for the day.

Some examples of in-between silence: I don’t mindlessly put on the headphones the moment I step out of my door. I bring them, but I only get them out when I think of wanting them. I don’t put on the TV or radio when I wake up, or when I walk in the door. In fact, as I’ve mentioned here before, on days when I work at home, it’s not at all unusual for me to spend the entire day in silence.

Silence isn’t wasted space

And I sometimes use music to cover up more annoying sound. For example, now I often do put on the headphones on the subway. Why?

Riding New York City subways used to be an opportunity to read or sit in silence. But the city started taking advantage of its captive audience, filling the trip with “messaging”: warnings about suspicious packages and sexual harassment, cautions not to ride between cars, and scoldings about not using “trash receptacles.” The barrage of suggestions from loudspeakers is all too reminiscent of a dystopian science fiction movie.

The point is not whether some of the messages are helpful, but that the silence was destroyed without a thought. It was seen merely as blank space that could be filled with something, much as many formerly blank surfaces in NY are now covered with advertising.

Protect and treasure silence in your daily life. And no matter how challenging it may seem, consider a silent retreat this summer. You may discover it’s something you’ll want to make a regular part of your life.

Share your experiences with silence. Leave a comment below or send me an email at phil (AT) bustedhalo (dot) com.

Home page image: Silence, by Odilon Redon, 1911