One of the things I’ve been enjoying about working with other artists and writers is the discussions that open up around the work that my coaching clients are engaged with. Ideas I am interested in find new resonance in conversation with others. Old ones bloom back into life as new connections are made.
In one recent exchange, a topic came up that’s close to my heart: Silence.
Thinking of books to recommend, I was reminded of a fortuitous meeting a few years ago. I had taken myself off on retreat to the centre on Holy Isle. I was there for three weeks, which was a long time for me, but the retreat was actually running for three months and many others were there for the long haul. One of these brave souls was a fascinating woman I had many quiet fireside conversations with at the end of a day otherwise passed in silence. She was, still is, an Anglican solitary nun who introduced herself as Martha. Quite elderly, but stocky and active, she was often to be found at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes or washing up after our meals. I was told by another retreatant that in her younger days Martha had spent many years in solitary retreat far out in the wilds of Alaska.
Acerbic, humble, and plain speaking, there was something about Martha that made me gravitate towards her. I felt the presence of real, hard-won wisdom and insight. As we spoke I discovered that here was someone with a deep, scholarly and practical understanding of solitude, silence and the contemplative life. Although I don’t share her faith, I was fascinated to learn from her more about the place of silence and contemplation in the Christian tradition, something she felt had been suppressed and was in danger of being lost.
Silence: A User’s Guide
When I got home I looked her up. It turned out that my new friend was in fact a scholar of some renown and had published a two-volume study under her secular name Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide. It’s not for the faint-hearted and there are more accessible books on silence available, but I thought I’d share some gleanings from her writing on silence, solitude and community as I’m finding new relevance in them this time round.
Because it’s clear that our culture is not conducive to silence. In fact it’s seen as suspect, a kind of death. Solitude is often cast as loneliness, although the two experiences are utterly different. And both silence and solitude are viewed as passive, anti-social, even a dereliction of duty.
But Martha/Maggie has no truck with this and nails her colours firmly to the mast:
Communities are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up, so that it is incumbent upon each of us to do the transfiguring work of silence.
This makes me sit up and take notice. Silence, then, is not a self-indulgence or a dereliction of our public and civic duties. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s our public duty. And an urgent one.
The human race is sleepwalking into extinction. If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and our selves with it then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.
Silence is a necessary rebalancing…noise obliterates silence and these days we are pressured on all sides by the noise of twisted minds spinning in closed loops. The babble used to sell their crazy agendas is persuasive because most listeners have no experience of silence, and therefore have no intellectual or emotional autonomy through which to critique the insanities and inanities on offer. But this is exactly what politicians and corporations want, because if we stopped to balance our lives with a little transfigurative silence…we might become aware that we are rapidly becoming their slaves.
A practice of silence
Thankfully, it isn’t necessary to take such drastic measures. All we need to do is remember to create some space for silence to enter our lives and do its work in us.
Anyone can undertake the work of silence. It requires only openness and receptivity, a relinquishing the complex blandishments and noise of consumer society for simplicity, silence, and self-forgetfulness, a turning away from narcissism to welcome the other. The work of silence is so simple, yet to go against the grain of society and the culture is very difficult. But it is worth the effort: the work of silence…provide[s] stability and even joy in a disintegrating world. People who undertake to live like this become beacons, islands of safety where others can find a refuge. The resonances of silence permeate around them, whether they are aware of them of not.
She suggests this very simple practice:
…perhaps one of the most important, and that is learning to sit perfectly still for half an hour, perfectly relaxed mentally and physically, not meditating or doing anything with the mind except allowing the silence to seek it. This can be done, like learning to meditate, in increments.
Gradually, over time, again without your knowing why or how, silence will seat itself in you, in your core, and you can access it with increasing fluidity. In fact eventually you will be living from the wellspring of silence instead of having silence as something you seek. It will come to live in your core.
In this understanding of silence and solitude they become a necessary part of being a good citizen, neighbour, friend, parent.
Silence is ecological, our natural habitat, not the world of noise that surrounds and stresses us.
Silence is political. It’s ecological. And it’s subversive. It’s our birthright and our natural home.
In the midst of increasingly tumultuous world events and snowballing calamities, it’s time to reclaim it.