When I go on a retreat, I make sure I spend part of it in silence. Something as simple as greeting another person becomes a whole new experience. Instead of a head full of thoughts about what to say and how to respond, you simply look at the others and smile. Without the distraction of words, you are given the opportunity to really look them in the eyes and they you. In the silence the connections become even stronger. I remember feeling so much compassion for these “strangers.”
After the 24 hours of silence — eating together, walking together, passing one another in the hallways, etc., all in silence — our first opportunity to speak was at dinner together. I sat with someone who had just arrived. When she learned that I was from State College, the conversation eventually turned to the local happenings that had gained worldwide attention. Moving from the peace of the silence to the ugliness of those events, my body began to shake. In the past I had similar conversations many times, but never immediately after coming off the depths of inner silence, and the physical manifestation was startling to me.
In the Christian tradition, John of the Cross said, “Silence is God’s first language.” There is a power to silence. In my roles as a celebrant and spiritual director, I sit with people to hear the stories of their lost loved ones’ lives as we create an honoring ritual for them. I sit with others and hear them processing their journeys through grief after loss, sharing their spiritual life and longings, and musings about aging. I watch them intently as they share. At those times when there is quiet, it is very apparent when it is silence with significant meaning, not just a pause of not knowing what to say next. We can sit in that silence for some time. When they eventually turn their gaze towards me, I ask the next question. These people are not even aware of how long we’ve been in silence. Much is going on for them.
Parker Palmer, a writer, speaker, and activist, also appreciates the power of silence. In his work to create Circles of Trust -- safe gatherings for sharing -- one of his touchstones is, “Trust and learn from the silence. Silence is a gift in our noisy world, and a way of knowing in itself. Treat silence as a member of the group. After someone has spoken, take time to reflect without immediately filling the space with words.”
I have come to love silence – it feels spacious, free, peaceful, healing and loving. However, this was not always the case. I remember the silence of first living alone after college – I often filled it with background noise. Not today. Now I leave it as it is, silent, and I’m drawn to it.
And not surprisingly, science supports silence’s benefits. Although there are many studies touting the need for silence, there are two I appreciate that especially highlight its advantages. It’s also interesting that the neither of these studies set out to identify those benefits.
The first, a 2006 study by Luciano Bernardi, a physician and professor at the University of Pavia, Italy, is a selling point for all Type A personalities who might otherwise dismiss any thought of engaging in silence. Bernardi studied the physiological changes of subjects alertly and attentively listening to different musical tracks. However, he inadvertently discovered that the two minutes of silence inserted between the music tracks were more relaxing than the relaxing music, or even the silence at the beginning of the experiment. The benefits of the silence were enhanced by the contrasts of the music itself and the focus it required.
The second, a 2013 study by Imke Kirste, a Duke University regenerative biologist, examined the effects of different sounds on adult mice brains. She used auditory stimuli such as baby mouse calls, music and white noise. Silence was the control group of the study. Kirste found that none of the sounds had a lasting impact on the brain, but surprisingly the control group listening to silence showed cell development in the hippocampus region of the brain, the part having to do with emotion, learning and memory.
I invite you to befriend silence. Spend time in meditation, go for walks in the woods, establish quiet times in work and at home, and definitely unplug. As Henry David Thoreau said: “In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.”
This article originally appeared in Centered Magazine