Being in Silence

IMG_2974We live in a very loud world. The industrial revolution shattered the silence and rhythmic sounds of the natural world and the technological revolution has escalated noise to new heights. It seems that most people can hardly last three minutes without grabbing some electronic device that breaks the silence and infuses it with a cacophony of unnatural sound. Silence is quickly becoming a lost art, and it may be irretrievably lost if we don’t intentionally protect it.

The constant soundtrack of machinery and gadgets dovetails perfectly with the extrovert ideal that informs our culture. We hold talking in very high regard. We value babies who are bubbly and chatty with strangers over those who prefer the quiet spaces of home. We place a high premium on the verbal aspects of intelligence (which is why girls tend to perform better in school). The boisterous, football-playing, party-going teenage guy will attract more attention and praise than the quiet, studious boy who hangs out in the library. There’s certainly nothing wrong with extroverted qualities, but in a culture that values extroverts over introverts we run into trouble when we judge ourselves and others for not talking or being social enough.

When it comes to relationships, couples often worry when they don’t talk enough. One of the top concerns among my clients and ecourse members is, “Is it okay to sit in silence with my partner? Doesn’t that mean we’re boring and we don’t have enough to talk about?” My answer is that it depends on the type of silence: connected silence or disconnected silence.

Some of the richest moments I have with my friends and family are when we can sit in connected silence together, each of us deep and content inside our own minds. It often happens while we’re driving that I’ll look in the rearview mirror to see my older son looking out the window at the fields of cows or big sky and my younger boy in wide-eyed reflection. I admit that sometimes I have to fight the urge to break the silence with a meaningless question or to turn on some music; this is how strong the conditioning is to fill the space. But I don’t. I observe their faces and then delight in the opportunity to wander around in my own mind in the company of my sons. And nothing is so sweet as driving with my husband in silence while our hands communicate everything that matters as they bridge the gap between our seats.

On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than disconnected silence. This is the tense silence that you can slice with a knife and carries anger, resentment, or unresolved conflict. This silence results when one or both people have closed their hearts and are no longer willing to connect. It’s painful and lonely to sit in this silence, but it seems to be a part of every intimate relationship at times.

There are so many ways to be together, so many ways to communicate. Talking is certainly one of those ways but it’s not the only way, and if you find yourself talking just for the sake of talking try to hold back and allow for the presence of silence. Many people talk from an anxious place, either because silence incites the anxious chatter of, “There must be something wrong with us. If we don’t have anything to talk about our relationship is doomed,” or as a way to try to stave off the anxiety. Better to restrain from your habitual ways and see what happens when you sit quietly with yourself and another.

The following quote comes to mind by Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”:

“…[T]he next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, writing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.”

In a world that can’t stop talking, a practice of silence must be cultivated. The next time you find yourself alone – in the car, on a walk, at home – see if you can resist the urge to fill the silence. The habit will be strong to reach for the phone, computer, television remote, iPod – anything to break the silence. At first it will be uncomfortable. It’s always uncomfortable to break out of what’s familiar. Stay with the discomfort: notice it,  breathe into it, become curious about it. It’s just energy. It’s just an uncomfortable feeling. But once that passes you may notice something else emerge: grief, perhaps; a new idea; a memory; an image that captures your imagination. If you stay with it long enough, you will discover a gem inside the silence, a moment that will never be found if you fill your life with noise.

15 comments to Being in Silence

  • Late

    Hi Sheryl,

    You know – it was only this weekend that I was listening to a TED Talk – that really provoked my thought, and greatly associates with your post. It was about The Power of Introverts, and some of the negative connotations that comes with being one. The speech however challenges our perceptions, and enlightens others of their importance.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

    I found it moving.

    As for silence – both my partner and I are making an active effort to cultivate the connected type. It needs to be protected from the constant buzz of machines, and the mindless natter of technology!

    There is real joy in stillness.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Tina

    Blessed silence, actually the sound of crashing waves on sand, revitalizes after a holiday gathering. Nothing beats it. Thanks again, Sheryl.

  • Ali

    This is a beautiful blog!!! I was a HUGE extrovert a little while back. I wouldn’t want to be the first one to bed thinking I’d miss out on something great or funny that my family was doing. I would never want to say no to plans with friends and if one of them called me for last minute plans I’d always get up and go. I felt I needed to fill whatever space of free time I could. Music always played in anytime that I had by myself. In the last year or so and especially since taking Sheryl’s ecourse I have learned the beauty in simplicity and quiet. There were times at the beginning that were hard to let go of the thrill of all these things. When my anxiety was really bad in January I took a “me month” (which rolled into February once I saw how beneficial it was to my growth). I told my friends that I was ok but that I was devoting time to myself with no distractions or obligations. The winter season last year where I live was very dull. We had some snow but no bright sunny winter days. I took the hibernation time and used it to find the connected silence with myself and invested in my boyfriend (now husband 🙂 ). I now really enjoy those quiet times of silence….driving to work without the radio on. Sitting in the car holding my husbands hand daydreaming out the window. Sitting on the couch observing our lit up Xmas tree(last year I kept it up until march because of the warmth it made me feel). Purposely leaving my cell phone away from activities that I do. I have found more balance between the loud and quiet times and allow things to busy myself more as a treat and have felt much more peace and contentedness come over me. And after much work I also got to marry the man of my dreams!!!!!!!

    Thank you Sheryl for allowing us all to come as we are and work on these small but significant areas of our lives.

    If anyone of you enjoy a good read and want to get back to enjoying the small things in our high speed society I would strongly suggest:
    Thrilled to Death by Dr. Archibald Hart

  • madhukanta dasa

    Desiderata
    Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
    As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.

  • Glo

    How apt for me to be reading this today. Was told today by my University peers that if I am not vocal enough (which I’m not), it means I won’t be a good leader in my professional work. After reading this, I’m thinking… who cares? I like listening, taking it all in and just letting it wonder into my mind. We can’t all be chatty… because then no one would be paying attention! 🙂

  • cam

    This has been on my mind a lot lately. The last week i have been so anxious about my relationship that i am feeling stuck in my head and so disconnected from him.
    It comes and goes, but at the moment i am very much in the middle of it. Stuck in this loop of worrying that we aren’t right, that we have nothing to say to each other, this then makes me more tense and in turn have nothing to say as my body is in high alert trying to find this so called “love” i think i have for him. I try to let it be but it really does hurt and get tiring. I try not to seek reassurance from him that everything is ok between us, my mind throws every negative idea possible at me, but i always cave.
    I cant help but also feel so self involved for spending so much time in my head.

  • Melissa

    Thanks for your post, Sheryl. I have always found your articles extremely helpful. I am in a similar situation as Cam (above). I recently met an amazing man- loving, caring, compassionate, everything I’ve wanted and needed, except for one thing: he’s the quiet, subdued type. Sometimes if I’m not talking we just sit in silence. I have been having major anxiety and even insomnia and loss of appetite worrying over this. I worry that we just aren’t compatible or that he can’t make me “excited” enough. Strangely enough, I only worry about his when we’re not together. When we are together, even though there are silent parts, I feel relaxed, comfortable, loved, and he keeps opening up to me more and more, so we’ve been able to share many funny and silly moments. We’ve only been dating 2 months, but I guess I worry if it’s “enough” for me to stay happy in the long-term. I can’t say I’ve been very “bored” with him, but my anxiety is telling me that I am and I don’t know if it’s a sign that we’re just not compatible. I have anxiety and wounds from my childhood (alcoholic dad and mom incapable of expressing emotions), and reading several of your other articles, I wonder if it’s the fear talking and I am just simply projecting because I am finally with a guy I would view as safe. One answer I haven’t seen in your articles is how to tell the difference. The anxiety is telling me to get out of the relationship, because I feel like I’m suffering far too much, but if it is just fear talking, I don’t want to lose a potential life-long partner. Any suggestions to help with this?

    • If you have a history of anxiety and a difficult family history it’s safe to assume that you’re struggling with relationship anxiety. I would strongly encourage you to consider the ecourse so that you can address the anxiety from the root and not walk away from a potentially wonderful life partner.

      • Melissa

        Thanks, Sheryl. I have been saving up for a couple of your ecourses, so I hope to soon be able to take them.

  • ivee

    thanks, Sheryl, for this post! just a few days ago, i was my usual talking self to my boyfriend, telling him about my day (an anxiety-filled one), blahblahblah. sometimes i admit i get scared when he and i have nothing to talk about..so i usually “fill the space”. during that moment, he asked if he can hug me and if i could not talk for a few minutes. so i asked, “so what will i do?” he said, “i just want to hug you in silence”.

    that made my heart melt…

  • Chelsea R

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’ve been struggling with my anxiety for almost a year now and this exact post describes one of the things that freaks me out the most. If my husband and I have silent moments my mind goes in to hyper drive of all the what-ifs. I wonder to myself why are there moments of silence if we are right for each other we shouldn’t have these moments of silence. When we sit in silence I feel like there is something wrong with us and that we are disconnected and I know that’s just my fear voice taking over. I hate so much that I have this anxiety and I feel like its not fair to him either. I try to tell myself that everything is okay between us and we’ll be just fine. We have a beautiful relationship and he’s a truly amazing person but I just cannot over come my fears that our relationship will one day be doomed. I really just want to go back to my old self with no negative thoughts and have peace of mind again. It breaks my heart that this is happening and that I can’t control it. I want nothing more than for us to have a beautiful marriage and for me to be okay with the small things that I think are huge like the silent moments. I want to realize and understand that these moments are normal. I want to be stress free again and able to feel like we are going to be ok.

  • Carly

    Sheryl,
    Your wisdom comes from a divine source within you. I am so blessed to have this unending support in my own personal journey. Sitting in silence is the key. It is in silence when we can truly connect with ourselves and bring compassion to our pain bodies. When I am feeling anxious, I like to meditate and imagine I am hosting a party and the anxiety is that guest that no one really likes because they are obnoxious, but they still accept them anyways and try to enjoy themselves. It is so much easier to just accept that person into your home with love and compassion. When we try to kick them out, we know what the result of this usually is. Usually they don’t exit quietly. You have reminded me of the importance of looking inward and finding the message that is hidden beneath the projection and turmoil. The suffering you experienced yourself has opened up the gates of people worldwide. It has provided a space for people to feel vulnerable, to feel loved and accepted. A place where people who have strived to be perfect their whole lives can feel imperfect for once. I cannot thank you enough for being vulnerable for the sake of all of these people. Your words always bring me a glimpse of hope in the worst of times.

  • cam

    I just feel lost