Silence isn’t kept, it’s made.
We often speak of silence as if it is a moving object that we need to grasp onto. We speak of “keeping” or “maintaining” silence. I’ve said it myself, during times of spiritual direction or in group settings, “Now we’re going to keep silent for two minutes,” as if by our keeping it, we are somehow preserving silence for ourselves. It almost becomes a passive act, in which we are merely vessels through which silence flows for a short period, and As I have experienced silence, however, I notice that it is much more active than all that. Silence isn’t kept, it’s made.
When we make silence, we engage in the action of building a safe and welcoming space. In that space, all are equal–there are not interrupters, no one can shy away from sharing, no expectations that something must be said. When silent space is made, particularly in a group setting, the Holy Spirit may flow freely, inspiring all, helping us to sense God’s presence more keenly.
In today’s world, with all our technology and various distractions, making silence can be very difficult. In times when we do not interact with others (which is very different from making silence, which is interaction at a very deep level), we pull out our smart phones, flick through screens of information/entertainment, or put in ear buds to drown out the eerie static that exists when human interaction is stifled. When we consciously choose to not utilize these distractions, we are making silence–it is an action, not merely the cessation of action. It also takes active work to clear our minds of all the internal distractions that bug us in moments of quiet. Do people like me here? Why was my friend mad at me earlier today? Am I being a good enough friend/parent/child/lover to those around me? All of this is without mentioning the banal distractions that crop up when we are making silence, like concerns about irons or ovens being left on, the growling stomach, the pet fur left behind on pants and sweaters.
Usually, when I have asked students or directees how they feel following a prolonged time of making silence, I will hear responses like “refreshed,” “calm,” or “peaceful.” Occasionally, however, those who experience such silence describe themselves as being “exhausted,” “concerned,” or “worried.” What they are worried about is not the silence itself, but the feeling that they might not be doing it right.
As for me, sometimes the most profound experiences I have had in making silence have been the least peaceful. Silence is often accompanied by disturbing memories, or a word from God that shocks me out of complacency. Once, I found myself actually fleeing the room after an attempt at making silence–the weight of what was revealed to me through meditation having caused me to panic, with an understanding that I am known by God, yet loved all the same. Silence doesn’t have to be “peaceful” in order to be effective.
So how do we make silence? For everyone, it will be a little different, but I find that there are a few conditions that must exist at a minimum. These are:
- Avoid distractions, both external and internal. This can be achieved by turning off or leaving behind all electronic devices, taking off your watch, and saying “No!” to the chatter that goes on in your head when you quiet yourself down.
- Be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Sit in a chair with a straight back, and put your feet flat on the floor or the ground. If you are able, sit on the floor or the ground, or on a short cushion. Make yourself comfortable enough that you will be able to withstand your posture for a long period of silence, but not so comfortable that you are tempted to fall asleep!
- If you are worried about time (which is a realistic concern in modern society), then set a timer. You can use your phone (but don’t have it right next to you where you will be tempted to distraction). All phones now have a timer function, or there are apps available that will help you meditate using traditional sounds like bells or wood blocks to help you know when your time is up. Some people set a kitchen timer, and then go into the living room to make silence, so that they are not tempted to focus on how much time is left.
- Ease yourself into it, and practice, practice, practice! No one can make silence for three hours on the very first go! (Very few can do that after much practice, either!) Start off with just a minute or two, and gradually build yourself up to more. You will know you are ready to increase your time when you find yourself wanting more when your time is up.
- Take it easy on yourself! You will be distracted, especially at first. Do not take this as a sign of weakness, but as part of the process. As one ancient practitioner once said, simply smile to yourself and go back to your work of making silence.
No human being is perfect, and no time of making silence is perfect, either. You will find a pattern that works for you, and eventually, with practice, you may be able to make silence even in the midst of a busy train station, or on the bus, or in your office or cubicle. Such pockets of silence are essential, especially for those who are introverted, and can become connection points with the Divine that build and sustain a healthy spirit.
Yours in Silence,