When Silence Is Radical
“In a technological world that bombards us with sound designed to distract, compel, scare and intimidate us -- usually with the end goal of consumption -- 'unplugging' or choosing a form of profound silence can be a radical act.” – Frances Reed, founder and co-owner of Freed Bodyworks
We have a conflicted relationship with silence.
Forced silence – through violence, social pressure, or fear – is not welcome silence. Even elective silence can be met with unease. We want to be heard! We want to connect! We don’t want to be alone! And, according to Dan Pedersen, “Most of us don’t like silence, because it forces us to confront ourselves. And sometimes what we find staring back is emptiness.”
So, why would anyone choose silence?
Several members of the Freed Bodyworks team regularly participate in times of silence, anywhere from one day to one week. What do they get from this practice of silence? How could you benefit from a practice of going silent every now and then?
You can heal yourself. As Frances Reed (co-owner of Freed Bodyworks) explains, “Silence is often an act of intention to go inward for peace, creativity, insight, direction, or contact with a force greater than ourselves. Sometimes it is also an act of survival for our nervous systems.” Your nervous system is constantly processing the stimuli around you. When you choose silence you decrease the number of signals your brain is trying to interpret at any given time and give your nervous system a chance to recover and re-balance. Your entire body benefits.
A recent client of mine was in the midst of helping an elderly relative, providing end-of-life care. The client was worn out, as caretakers often are, and I suggested that, rather than playing music during their massage, we keep the room silent. The silence was part of the larger effort to give the client some desperately needed downtime for their heart and their nervous system, and they got up from the table rested and refreshed. I believe pretty music and friendly conversation wouldn’t have facilitated the same reaction, and in this case, silence and touch were the combination best suited to the client’s own healing needs.
You can get to know yourself. The noise around us and inside of us often serves to drown out the quieter sounds of our emotional and spiritual lives. When our lives are directed exclusively by the beehive hum of our mind, we have trouble integrating the truth of our emotional and spiritual lives into our days and our decisions. By remaining or seeking out silence, we can move beyond the distractions and learn what lies beneath them.
I’ve recently instituted quarterly days of silence to help me contemplate my professional life. The silence allows all the parts of me that influence how I run my practice – my mind, heart, spirit, and body – to come together in a way they struggle to on a day-to-day basis.
“It feels radical to me every time I choose silence because the world is just so noisy, all the time. I recently moved to my own apartment so I could achieve the level of silence that I need daily to continue the work I do. It was a radical move.” – Shervon Laurice, RYT-200
Your brain finally shuts up. Speaking of that beehive hum of the mind… When was the last time your brain was quiet (while you were awake)? Mine is rarely quiet. It takes at least 30 minutes of chosen silence – whether through meditation or part of larger time of silence – to get that busy bugger to quiet down. It’s always bouncing around from one thought to the next, and when I pay attention to it, I realize how exhausting that is!
You free yourself from social expectations. When you take part in a group silent event, you start to realize how often you feel compelled to interact with everyone around you. Smiling at a stranger. A quick “good morning”. Idle chatter, only there to avoid uncomfortable silence. Participating in a group silent event shifts your relationship to the people around you. According to Freed Bodyworks co-owner Jessica VonDyke, who recently attended a silent retreat, the experience completely erases expectations for social interaction, giving you a chance to realize all the little things you do to make people comfortable with your presence, and at what cost.
You notice the more subtle sounds around you. Jessica noticed something at a multi-day silent group retreat--“The forks in the dining hall are so loud!” When you quit talking, you notice the tapestry of casual sound that surrounds you. You can listen to the sound of water running in the sink, squirrels running over leaves, and wind rustling the curtains. You realize that absolute silence is virtually never possible but that there is a lot of sweet gentle sound all around you.
You can face the thing you’ve been avoiding. We’ve all got stuff we know we need to deal with, think about, or admit (at least to ourselves), things that we’re avoiding. Our minds are really brilliant at distracting us from uncomfortable things. Silence forces the mind to be quiet and can give you a gentle space in which to let your soul speak truth to you.
You reflect on the past and find a path forward. I take a 3-day business retreat every January. It’s not intentionally silent, but since I go by myself, it often is. That silence gives me a chance to reflect on how my practice did in the previous year and get creative about how I want to go forward in the year to come.
Silence doesn’t have to be all-consuming. It can be as simple as 10 minutes a day in your living room or as intense as a week-long retreat somewhere far from home. Start noticing how this hour, this day, or this week would be different if there were some spans of silence within it.
When you listen to yourself, heal yourself, and plan a future that is consistent with who you really are, you are, in fact, performing a radical act of self-love, an act that can lead to a more enlightened and more effective version of you existing in the world. Society has very strong opinions about who you should be, and they aren’t always right. Consider embracing some silence as your answer.