“Imagine…a group of people who, alone or together, in a quiet place where not radio, no backgound music can be heard, simply sit for an hour or half an hour in silence. They do not speak. They do not pray aloud. They do not have books or papers in their hands. They are not reading or writing. They are not busy with anything. They simply enter into themselves, not in order to think in an analytical way, not in order to examine, organize, plan, but simply in order to be….Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between the two.”  

Thomas Merton

As a shy youngster I remember being drawn to the idea of taking a vow of silence. I wasn’t religious, but I must have recognized the power in it. I met a woman who actually did this for a year as a teenager. She didn’t say much about it. She just made her choice, and then one day she decided to speak again.

At the retreat center where I managed silent meditation retreats, some people found not interacting with others verbally to be a challenge, but most fell into silence with relative ease, if not relief.

When we aren’t speaking we are receptive; “listening” and more aware of the other senses. Silence strengthens our awareness both of what’s happening inwardly and in the world around us.

On retreats people are also encouraraged to “hold” the silence for one another. Almost as an offering – a gift. In my mind I picture this as someone walking slowly with a small lit candle cupped in thier hands, protecting the flame so the wind can’t blow it out.

Silence can be a place that embraces us and nurtures us when we’ve been harmed by too much noise. It’s like a giant spacious room where we can spread out as much as we need.

Silence, like privacy, is a right we all have, the counterpart to our right to free speech.

A common meditation instruction is to “rest” in silence. There are many ways one can rest in silence. We can settle into the dark of closed eyes and a focus on the breath of body.

We can actively try out a “hearing” meditation and notice sounds that arise when silence is interrupted –  punctured by the unexpected dog bark, the refrigerator gurgle, the motorcylce rev,  fingers tapping a keyboard.

The noise of the world, and especially our communication devices, is so compelling! So interesting! The phone calls we’re waiting for, the new email, the ping of the text message. Maybe something really good is on the other side of that ping. We like the noise and we like making the noise (until it drives us crazy).

Silence can be revolutionary in a world so full of noise. What if we all did it for a day? Everyone in your home, your town, your country? What if no one spoke? OK, maybe sheltering in place feels a little like that. But imagine sheltering without electricity or wifi: no computers, televisions, phones.  Imagine agreeing to just listen for 24 hours.

So, when  you are alone with yourself, perhaps on self retreat, let the silence be your ally. Today is your day. This is really all about you. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You must value your time/space.  Don’t let the world convince you there’s somethign more important to do. There isn’t!

Pablo Neruda
Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.