In the last six months I’ve had three experiences of silent retreats. This has given me the opportunity to reflect on the power of silence and the range of responses it elicits from people. Some people embrace silence. I am one of them.
I live with my husband and our two teenage children, all of them play different musical instruments, there’s not a lot of quiet in our house. On the rare occasion I’m in the house on my own, the washing machine or dishwasher are usually running. I welcome silence.
However, I have observed some people seem really uncomfortable at the prospect of a period of silence. On reflections at the end of silent retreat periods, some of these people come to enjoy the silence, but some don’t.
It’s also possible to look forward to a period of silence only to find you can’t engage with it and I have had this experience in the past. What does this tell us about the functions of silence?
The Functions Of Silence
It is clear that silence has power. Like any power it can be used to hurt or to heal and perhaps this is why people respond so variably to it.
For some people silence means loneliness, isolation or awkwardness. It can be used to indicate emotional withdrawal, disapproval or even punishment. In our language the word silence is often used with negative connotations; a conspiracy of silence, being given the silent treatment, lifting the veil of silence. In our busy, noisy world many people seem to fear silence.
Research is fairly clear that too much noise is bad for us. But does that mean that silence is good for us? Well not necessarily, silence is more than the absence of noise. However, research is beginning to suggest that silence itself is beneficial both physically and psychologically.
Spending time in silence has been found to have positive effects on the body in terms of reducing blood pressure, boosting the immune system, reducing blood cortisol, promoting hormone regulation and prevention of arterial plaque formation.
Psychological benefits of silence can include enhanced creativity, focus, self control, self awareness, perspective and spirituality.
Silence can be used both positively and negatively in communication, and thus can influence our relationships. Most of us clearly recognise the difference between a disapproving silence and that which is affirms that what we are saying is being truly listened to. The use of silence in communication is also culturally bound and can mean different things in different contexts.
Internal Vs External Noise
In a public place very rarely do you see someone just sitting. The minute they are “alone” they check their phone, and then use it to connect to some digital input. Are we so unwilling to be alone with ourselves and what is the level of noise in our society and the absence of silence doing to our mental health?
I have already said that silence is more than the absence of noise. Our internal chatter also contributes to the lack of silence in our lives. The constant pressure of the list of things we “need” to do in our heads, plus our culturally driven self evaluations often make us uncomfortable just sitting and being. Perhaps it’s no wonder we immediately check our email or social media as a distraction. This can then become a vicious circle as we then have even more things to attend to or compare ourselves with.
The Paradox Of Silence
Ross (2014) suggests that silence is both context and process. It is both our natural state, having being evolutionarily necessary for our survival and also a choice. The choice is to pursue a metaphorical space, not bound by language, which allows our human constructs to fall away allowing access to our authentic self and communion between our inner and outer selves. Silence is a place of paradox which has the potential for the balance of dialectical conflicts and healing, allowing us to hear our heart, quiet our chaotic consciousness and achieve some inner stability. If we can learn to cooperate openly with silence in our lives the potential benefits to health and well-being are huge.
Routes Into Silence
As suggested above silence is not necessarily linked to the environment. Experienced meditators can achieve non reactive states of presence in even very disruptive situations. However, for most people learning to use silence positively does involve relative quiet and various forms of meditation training, retreats and wilderness experiences have tapped into this, but accessing the power of silence does not have to cost money. Open curiosity and the willingness to encounter yourself in silence are the most important resources. Spending time in nature can be just sitting in your garden or going for a walk. Learning to meditate can be achieved by accessing many of the free web resources and going on retreat can be simply sitting in your local church quietly during your lunch hour. As a practicing Christian I can tell you no one will mind you doing this and belief in God is definitely not a prerequisite for being there.
The potential healing available in silence and being with our difficult thoughts is not always pleasant or comfortable and this is one of the reasons that many people abandon meditation. Learning to use the power of silence has wonderful potential to improve our lives and is free to all with the persistence to cultivate it.
Reference Ross, M. (2014). Silence: A User’s Guide. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
About the author: Sarah Monk is a student on the MAPP course at Buckinghamshire New University. She has a degree in psychology from Southampton University and an MSc in Clinical Psychology from the University of Surrey. She has voluntary roles with a number of charities and lives well with C.F.S.