I emerge from 12 hours of silence and move into a period of quiet. I am focused. I am grateful. I am alive.
This wasn't how things always were. For many years I was an endless charade of activity and noise. I would fill all the empty spaces of my life with more emptiness. That emptiness took the form of words, of unnecessary actions, of the avoidance of living through mindless doing.
I've now been out of corporate America for almost a year and a half, and I've spent more time in silence the past 18 months than I had the past 18 years. That's only a slight exaggeration.
Since I arrived at the monastery, my commitment to silence has been injected with steroids. I do not live in a completely silent monastic community, though I am silent far more than the average person ever will be.
I want to you to understand this: silence is a practice. And it can change your life. The second flows only from the first: practice leads to change.
When I speak about silence, I'm not talking about meditation or any other directed discipline. Meditation is wonderful and I'll address it in future writings, but when I speak of silence I mean just that: silence.
As in: you don't speak. Your external words stop. And your internal chatter dissipates. That's it. Anyone can do this. Anyone, anytime, any place. And it's free.
The Power of Silence
Silence has the advantage of doing what thousands of hours of self-help promise but rarely deliver: change. This is because when you are in silence you are literally existing differently. You're doing and being in ways that others are not.
You've entered a different state of consciousness, without all the bullshit baggage associated with words like "consciousness": no mountaintop transformations or escaping to another realm or achieving enlightenment because of some "breakthrough" that's really just a temporary release of dopamine cloaking itself as life-altering discovery.
No, you get something much more useful: transformation via practice.
It's one of the simplest things you can do, but it's not easy. It requires patience and deliberate commitment. Yet there are few practices in life more rewarding.
The Gifts of Silence
Silence isn't something you "do" in order to "get." It isn't a linear system of achievement. It's a sacrificial practice of grace. It's not something you start doing because you hope it will change your life. You do it to enter into a more actualized relationship with yourself, and because it is good in its own right. The changes are its byproducts. It is not the other way around. As soon as you turn it into a reward, it becomes another commodity to be consumed. Forget that. Just shut it and observe yourself. The gifts will follow.
Silence Makes Us More Relational
When you spend significant time in silence, you have no choice but to actually relate to the people around you. You can't hide behind words or busyness or "commitments". More importantly, you are forced to relate to yourself. To spend time with yourself, without judgments or filters or expiration dates. When you are silent, the mirror is always close by. The aches and wounds hiding inside of you are far more difficult to avoid.
Instead, you come face to face with them and have the opportunity to bear witness to them, to acknowledge them. This alone causes them to lose some of their power. You come to a greater understanding of your own self-hatred and self-inflicted pain. In time their grip on you is weakened, because you develop the courage to really see them.
Silence Insists Upon Honesty
Words often distance us. They fill space that doesn’t need to be filled, and they are the chief carriers of one of our most insidious ailments: lies.
We all know we lie a lot. Ever wonder why phrases like “vulnerability” and “keeping it real” and “authenticity” are all rage these days? It’s not because of some glorious secret the self-help gurus have been hiding in their $5,000 programs, it’s for the simple fact that we’re remarkable bullshitters. We lie to others constantly, yet we lie to ourselves even more.
Silence doesn't stop this dishonesty on its own. But it creates the conditions by which you can notice the dishonesty with brutal honesty.
Silence is one of the most powerful resources we have, because it teaches us to lie to ourselves less.
Silence Strengthens Our Memories
The poet Jane Kenyon wrote that pain engraves a deeper memory. I would paraphrase her beautiful words by saying that silence engraves our memories more deeply. We’re given greater freedom to see the events of our lives for what they truly are: inscriptions of our journey; weavings and woundings that can never be taken away from us.
In that sense, silence strips platitudes of their facade, because in silence you can’t talk about being more in touch with yourself, you just are.
You can’t talk about being more honest with yourself, because the lies are right there for you to see.
You can’t talk about the importance of self-care, because you have no choice but to actually be with the person inside of you, and see her, in all of her aches and joys. Silence does not tolerate running. It demands tenderness and grace, because these are what feed our memories.
And our memories are our imprint upon the world. By solidifying our memories, we gradually learn to live them: they're not longings of the past or fantasies of the imagined future. They inform us, right now.
Noise suppresses and subverts our memories. Silence strengthens and focuses them.
Silence Slows You Down
Silence makes you painfully aware of how stupid rushing through life really is. How you miss the present because the future becomes the past before it even seems to happen. Silence forces you to exist right where you are, in real time, in the ongoingness of your life. It strips down the preposterous "be present" cliches and replaces them with something real: you don't try to be present, you simply are more present.
Your movements slow down. Your actions become more deliberate. Your thoughts become more ordered. And then, when you do speak, you are slow to waste your words on that which doesn't matter. Because silence helps you to see just how much in life is inconsequential and ridiculous. How the vast majority of what we allow to enter our worlds is toxic waste.
This allows you to adapt, and act accordingly. Silence makes it more possible to live life in congruence with your values.
It doesn't guarantee you will do this, but it makes it a lot harder not to. That's just awesome.
I have noticed that I very rarely rush anymore. I am far less easily rattled. And the world has become a far more beautiful place, because living in silence quite literally makes me more alive. When you slow down, every single day, you actually live more. The unbearable nature of life feels more bearable, because you see that life usually feels most unbearable when you're trying to make it bearable by avoiding it.
Silence Cultivates Self-Reliance
What’s most remarkable about silence is that it makes you more confident. In fact, one of the greatest things you can do to achieve greater self-confidence is to shut the fuck up for a while. You’ll be amazed at the power that emerges out of voluntarily giving up your voice.
You will be reminded of the capability of your inner agency; that your freedom can never be truly taken away, only given away. Silence protects our agency by feeding it with awareness.
When you emerge from a period of silence, your movements are more purposeful. Your thoughts are more intentioned. Your insatiability is tamed. You become less fearful and more empathetic; more willing to suffer along with others, to be uncomfortable and tested.
And you become minimalistic in its truest sense: you realize that you need very little.
This is the essence of self-reliance.
I have found that my experience of fear itself has changed, because I now know that fear is often nothing more than busyness taken to its logical conclusion: nowhere.
It's become far easier to speak my mind, to approach a beautiful woman, to lay myself bare when I need help, to stand for what I would die for, because silence takes me out of my self-absorption and narcissism and leads me to actually experience that which is around me.
Less narcissism leads to more living. I'd rather live than hide.
And my capacity to listen has been enhanced more than any book, course or teacher could ever hope to teach me.
Listening is, after all, the art by which we offer our love to the broken around us. This is incredibly powerful.
Silence is paradoxical in that it's one of the most active things I’ve ever done. It is the absence of avoidance. It has no tolerance for cowardice or delusion. It commands that you pay heed to what you probably most want to avoid: yourself
I ask you to do only this: spend some time in silence every day. Just quiet yourself. Say nothing. Do nothing. Merely exist with yourself for 30 minutes. I guarantee you can find the time.
Take note of where your thoughts go, of the wounds that come up, the memories you forgot you even had. Notice how your body moves, where your tension hides, where your eyes want to wander. Observe where you want to say things, and then notice how so much of what you're about to say doesn't need to be said.
In time, patterns will emerge. Subtleties will present themselves. You'll notice you might become more patient, or giving, or determined. You might find clarity where it had been eluding you for so many years.
Or you might merely find yourself more contended, more at peace, more able to want what you already have, rather than what you don't.
I leave you with this simple prayer, which I gently whisper to myself when I enter a period of silence. It's by no means necessary, but it helps me to be more conscious of what I'm doing: living.
Quiet my heart
Allow me to enter the space I do not want to enter
Welcome me to myself
Give me the courage to see myself as I really am,
To notice what I can control, what I cannot control,
And act accordingly