I’m studying silence right now, or maybe it’s studying me. Schooling me. Honing me. Regardless, I’m paying attention to silence. How I crave it. How I loathe it. What fear it can hold. What balm it can offer. What wisdom floats in its underwater caverns.
I’m committed to silence because as a writer, editor, and mentor, I’m committed to using my true voice and to supporting others in using theirs. To know voice means I have to get cozy with silence. To tap into the full power of voice means tapping into the full power of silence.
What silence has to offer to us, I think, is cavernous, like you can hear the echo of a drop of water falling from a stalactite and plopping on some surface ten miles down kind of cavernous. Which means lots of territory to explore and wonders to discover.
Silence has called to me for as long as I can remember, including when my twelve year old self thought it might be exciting to go be a barefoot, silent nun somewhere. She longed for the gifts of silence. I have such tenderness for that girl and how out of place she often felt.
Silence has called to me during the last long year of personal grief and loss. As I sat with myself and my broken heart in the saltlicks of dried up tears.
Beckoned me in discernment of how to use my white, cisgender woman’s voice with integrity, compassion, and impact, to be of service to the world and in addressing the particular hatreds and injustices active in my home country.
Silence summons me to attention as I acknowledge that at least eighty percent of my work as an editor and writing mentor is with women who are sharing stories of assault and abuse. Demands my inquiry into why and how women are silenced by others or tape their own mouths shut. How silence can be both punishment and gift.
So I’m starting a Studies in Silence Series here on my blog, and this is the first one.
May it be useful and nourishing to you and to me. Us, in the silence soup together.
What I’m chewing on right now is this:
Listening isn’t the same as reacting.
During the last several weeks in particular, I’ve recommitted to listening to my inner knowing and have noticed how much static I have to get through to hear it. As I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, liking and loving and ha-ha-ing at various pictures and posts, I realized what the static is: reacting.
Of course that’s not always how I use Facebook; sometimes I read and reread a post, taking it in and offering a thoughtful response. But that’s not how it was designed for me to use it. It’s designed to celebrate quick reactions, lots of them, one after the other. As soon as you’ve reacted to one thing, for you to see something else pop up and have your mind and energy bop over and react anew.
Sometimes I operate under the illusion that reacting is listening, but it’s not.
Whether I’m saying uh-huh in a conversation I’d like to end because I’m already thinking about the next thing, tossing back a defensive comment in a disagreement, or spacing out and hitting likes on social media, telling myself I want to “stay informed,” I’m actually reacting.
Reacting, as I see it, is a way of avoiding the initial discomfort of listening.
Listening means showing up, tuning in to all of my senses, and breathing, without reaction. Listening means witnessing, pausing long enough to process what’s in front of me, to float in the paradox of my separateness and connection to it, before proceeding into deliberate action. For instance, breathing space into an argument with a pause instead of a retort.
In the United States, where I live, listening is not culturally endorsed or regularly practiced. Sometimes, I know, it’s encouraged in schools or churches, but in my experience in both of those places, when I was told to listen it more often than not meant, “be quiet, defer to the authority in front of you, don’t misbehave, and memorize what you’re told.”
What was left out of the directive to “Listen” or “Listen up” was this: listening requires your full presence, all the brilliance you have to offer, and it’s not always about listening to someone else. You have to listen to yourself, too. Oh, and listening offers access to wisdom and a path to right action.
My gut tells me that listening may be countercultural but it’s one of the most natural things I can do, that listening is coming home to myself as a part of a greater whole, and honoring both self and the collective.
But because of habit and assumption and I’m sure a slew of other things, listening almost always initially unsettles me. When I let myself stay tuned in for long enough, I can relax into it and find that sense of belonging and insight, the nourishment of silence.
I know this nourishment most clearly when I write. When I show up to an essay or novel or the memoir I’m determined to finish this year, settle in, listen up, and just write. No surprise that I often need to write through some static first to get there.
For days now, I’ve been aching to write, but I’ve also been aching. Almost frozen shoulders and arms and back. A perpetually distressed digestive system. Broken, restless sleep every night. I’ve been running on anxiety, and while deep listening can ease anxiety, anxiety makes it really hard to listen. As does achiness.
So I’ve been moving my notebook around our apartment. Bringing it with me to eat breakfast, to bed, but not writing. Just sort of staring at it and feeling disgruntled.
Finally, at five this morning, when I couldn’t sleep, again, I gave up on willing myself to drift off, and got up to move into the dark silence of our apartment. I knew I needed to write. I went to the living room, turned on the twinkly lights. I copied some pieces of an essay from my notebook onto the computer and worked with it a little. I felt a glimmer of release, but not much. I got on Facebook for a little while. Like. Love. Ha-ha. I closed my computer and sat with my notebook. Nothing came. I shifted on the couch, annoyed. An hour or so after I’d gotten up, I climbed back into bed.
I tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position for my stinging shoulders and arms. I heard our downstairs neighbor wake up and move around. I fixated on the muffled buzz of talk radio, annoyed and still restless. I turned on the bathroom fan. I wondered if I’d ever feel better. I woke Mike up with all of my restlessness. He was annoyed. I got annoyed with him being annoyed. We snuggled and finally, somehow, I went back to sleep for a few hours.
When I got up later this morning, I wondered why my early morning writing didn’t help. It often does, but it hadn’t.
I realized I’d spent all of that time reacting and not listening.
I’d never actually settled in and listened to what wanted to come out of me.
Now I’m listening. I sat down, got still and quiet, noticed the dis-ease in my being, and stayed there. I stayed there long enough that silence stepped out of the shadows and released her treasures. The words came.
Today, I’m noticing my reactivity and calling it for what it is. It’s uncomfortable, but worth it. I’m hungry for the blessed center of silence. I’ve been away too long, and I’m ready to go home to myself.
Did this piece speak to you? Are you also feeling the summons of silence? What parts of it call to you? Any aspect of silence you’d like me to address? I’d love to hear from you and to be in this study and conversation with you.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.