Setting the Scene
I feel the need to mention here that I have experienced very little actual silence in my life. By the time I was born, there was already a big brother, followed by 2 more siblings, I then married and have had 4 wonderful children, now blessed with a grandchild… a busy working life, wonderful friends, colleagues and a thirst for learning, reading, watching TV and, more latterly, developed a not very healthy relationship with technology. And of course, all my school reports had a line in that said “Helen would learn more if she stopped talking and concentrated.” Most people who know me would at least recognise the label of chatter box…When I shared that I was going on a 5-day silent retreat they looked at me as if I had lost the plot.
The Push and Pull
When reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert some years ago, I was drawn to her experience of arriving in an Ashram and finding herself in silence for quite a long time. There was something about her writing that resonated with me so strongly that the pull to explore being in silence nudged away at me over the years. At the same time, the thought of silence terrified me. I recognise that we often live with the push and pull of yearning for something, while at the same, being wary and scared of it. My self-compassion practice is teaching me to recognise, and respond with kindness, to the presence of both desire and fear, allowing the existence of both.
I had noticed that since my mother’s death in 2015, I had filled up every available space with some kind of noise. I had an increasing awareness that, when I felt any discomfort or emotional pain, would go and do something
I went on my first mindfulness course in the beginning of 2014 and began studying positive psychology shortly afterwards. The impact of the two increased my awareness of the practice of mindfulness and its relationship and core place within self-compassion. I found that my unfolding relationship with grief resulted in me using noise and busyness to cope, and at the same time, being pulled towards knowing on a visceral level, that what I needed was to be in and with silence in some way.
Move on to 2019… and the part of me that yearned for the silence was stronger than the part, that had said, no, it’s too risky. On some level, I knew that there was far too much risk to my health and well-being if I didn’t. I am sure that this in some way is as a result of my personal and professional focus and commitment to the practicing of self-compassion.
Positive psychology has at its heart a desire for us to flourish and thrive, and research strongly suggests that periods of regular silence can result in, for example:
- Boosting our immune system
- Reduce stress, lowering cortisol levels
- Improve our brain chemistry
- Improve creativity
- Increase self-awareness
- Improved sleep quality
- Improve relationships with yourself and others
To be clear, I did trust the wisdom of my body for knowing what I needed, and the research reassuringly supports the need to know, it’s not just me. When we experience the link to our common humanity it can be powerful in connecting with others and reaching out for support. I explore and research self-compassion with open hearted curiosity (most of the time), and so the silent retreat I choose to attend was through the practice of self-compassion.
Self-Compassion and Silence
I had thought a lot about being silent and had not really thought about being with silence. There are many kinds of silence and uses of silence, from being used as a form of punishment, to an act of great courage, such as when being interrogated by an enemy. It can mean keeping a secret or choosing to listen to another speak, to the kind of silence I am talking about which is the absence of talking, being spoken to (apart from some guidance) and the removal of reading, writing, music, social media or emails: anything that may interrupt with the connection with self, which paradoxically, is anything but silent.
Within the sounds of silence, my mind got louder, busier and, at times, scared. It got incredibly wise and insightful, became more knowing, made connections and sorted out some old, no longer needed, beliefs. Within the whole process, the practice of self-compassion was my saviour, my friend and enabled me to calm myself, and offer myself the kindness and connection I would, without blinking, offer a friend.
Self-Compassion offered me a way to sit with the process and in doing enabled me to, as so beautifully sung by Simon and Garfunkel, welcome: ‘Silence, my old friend, I have come to sit with you again.’
Just like the fear one experiences as a child, when the dark casts shadows of “monsters”, when the light is on, the “monsters” are revealed as much-loved toys. Silence, experienced with the glow of loving-kindness and compassion, enables us to sit with discomfort, pain and fear and welcome them with equanimity and joy. The light comes on and silence is revealed as a much loved friend.
About the author: Helen Golstein
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’
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