Recently I went to the Peak District for a weekend of yoga and mindfulness.
Nine of us met the teacher and each other for the first time on Friday evening for the first yoga session, followed by dinner where we got to know each other a bit. The teacher suggested that during the weekend we breakfast in silence to preserve the peace and calmness of the early morning sessions. Dutifully we agreed but after experiencing this on the Saturday morning, the group voted to restore breakfast conversation.
The interesting thing was however, that by Sunday morning, having spent 24 hours sharing our stories, fears, head massages and cake, breakfast was spent in an easy quiet of familiarity.
It got me thinking about silence and how we experience it.
Often in group when there is a silence the first person to speak will say how unbearable it is and that they are talking in order to break it. It may be that their experience of silence is that it precedes anger, or is the aftermath of a row. Maybe they grew up with a parent who could not express their anger, so raged silently in that way that fills the air with tension. Something about the lack of noise is unbearable.
One of the women on the weekend said that she lived alone, so for her silence was a reminder of that. Talking to her about this it seemed that it was more palpably a reminder of the loss and grief that had forced the silence upon her.
In therapy the silence can be heavy with expectation and charged with anticipation. A client’s silence can be because they are searching for the words to articulate something that has not been spoken about before. Engaged silence is the respectful and holding environment that such disclosures require.
Engaged because sitting in silence with someone is a world away from ignoring them. One of my yoga friends told us about a retreat where not only is talking banned, but also hand gestures and signals. In this environment if you need something, you have to wait for someone to attune to your need, to work it out and provide you with it. Wow, imagine that, how connected would we have to be with each other to make that work? The words we use with each other are often about keeping a distance, words are about controlling the space between us as much as they are about connecting. We tell our colleagues about our weekend in a way that presents a story, we knowingly add to the way they experience us with what we tell them. Stripping the words away means we give the world ourselves as we are.
True silence is of course hard to find short of burrowing down a disused mine. On that first breakfast I was blown away but just how loud crockery is! But shutting out the obvious noise is a great way to tune it to what is happening beneath it.
One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is to draw a stick man in the middle of a page, imagine it is me and draw or write the noises I hear all around it, in the place that they are coming from. Try it in the garden on a summers afternoon, the birdsong, lawn mowers, children playing, etc will anchor you in the here and now. Do it in a coffee shop and you will find out just how many sounds there are that you disregard or tune out. It is a great way to practice a bit of mindfulness without the wandering thoughts that inevitably accompany a breathing exercise.