Updated: Jul 15, 2021
You're sitting in the car with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
No one is saying anything. A minute or so goes by and you feel compelled to say something so you ask THE question: “What are you thinking about?” And then it’s even more awkward because they feel compelled to say something that won’t upset you in some way. Ever been there? I have. Many times. In fact, I spent many years wanting to know what was going on in my partner’s mind, often nagging them to share with me.
I have come a long way in my relationship with silence.
Meditation has taught me its value. I love how the poet David Whyte describes it: “The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence. But… that silence is in order for you to perceive something other than yourself..”
What is it about the silence that is so frightening? Why, when nothing is being said, do we interpret that as negative?
Before I began meditating, I would not have been able to say truthfully that I loved my time in silence.
Now I can, and I do.
I have finally, in the second half of my life, learned to go inside, spend lots of time meditating, contemplating and being still. I am able to really understand the poet-philosopher Wendell Berry’s teaching that in silence “one’s inner voices become audible so that one responds more clearly to other lives.”
We do become more in tune with ourselves as well as with others when we can become comfortable with silence.
But what about when we are with others who are silent? That remains a challenge for me!
My husband is not a chatter nor a sharer. I suppose he could be described as the strong, silent type. He is a writer so words are important to him, but not spoken ones!
The challenge for me is trusting that his not talking doesn’t mean anything negative.
My daughters, who are living with me, are quiet in their own ways, and they don’t like being asked a lot of questions.
Whether it’s because I am a woman, Jewish, a lawyer, or my mother’s daughter, I like having lots of conversations, particularly ones of substance. And yet, I find myself these days in a quiet house.
I’m sure that for some of you, that sounds divine, but I grew up in a family of four kids and then had my own family of four kids so an active, boisterous environment feels right to me. Since I no longer go to an office, there is often more quiet than there is noise in my day. I miss the cacophony of sounds.
I think about the saying: Bow to every circumstance as a teacher.
I am bowing to the quiet, this time in my life when there is less talking, less conversations and more space, more silence.
The other day I got into my car, about to drive somewhere I had never been. I put the address in the GPS and started the journey. The GPS lady instructed me to start driving down the street and then to make a turn onto the freeway. And then nothing. Silence. She stopped telling me where to go! I could feel a bit of anxiety slipping in… why isn’t she talking? How will I know if and when I need to make another turn? What if she never talks again and I get lost? What if I end up in a bad neighborhood?
All these thoughts went through my head in a matter of moments.
The quiet was scary.
Then, I slowed myself down. I noticed my thoughts and felt them hijacking me. Then I remembered that I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts and began to let them go. I checked in with myself and took a few long, slow, deep breaths. I looked out the window. I smiled at a woman in a car next to me. I began focusing on the song playing on the radio. As I took my attention off those recurring thoughts and brought myself into the present by connecting with my senses, I felt my body relax. I started to giggle at the ridiculousness that I was getting angry at a GPS! And then, as if on cue, she spoke to me. She told me to get off at the next exit. I felt relief. I felt cared for. I felt safe again.
I recognized that sometimes when I am with people and no one is speaking I worry about what they are thinking and not saying. The GPS moment underscored what I of course know that sometimes silence is just silence! I needed to trust that when something needs to be said, it will be!
There’s great wisdom in this Spanish proverb: “Open your mouth only when what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.”
There’s so much beauty available to us when we choose not to speak unless what we have to say is more beautiful than the silence. David Whyte assures us that in silence, “we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.”
So, while we may be challenged by silence at times, in particular by other people’s silence, we know that we grow from it and become more open, vulnerable, and even transformed into a new version of ourselves.
I think about the sweet silences with others that underscore what’s to be gained in moments of quiet. I spent many hours with all four of my children, rocking them in the middle of the night, never doubting the depth of the connection with each child in complete silence. My love for them, without words or sounds, always filled the room.
More recently I have sat with my dad as he goes in and out of sleep, holding his hand, recalling the days that were filled with more vibrant conversations but knowing without question that in the quiet lives an enormous love and devotion.
As Emily Dickinson reminds us: “Saying nothing sometimes says the most.”
Take a moment to be in silence. Listen to your inner knowing. Even when you are with others and there is an uncomfortable prolonged silence, trust that love exists in the space and that words may not be what’s needed.
Rather, you are all that’s needed.
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