Today I want to talk about not talking. About not reading and not listening and not watching.
As someone who has always had a prayer life, even in the midst of greatest doubts about the existence of anything beyond the here and now, I’ve nurtured moments of silence almost every day. Recently my need for silence has vastly increased, and I have no idea whether this is a deepening of my spiritual life, or a symptom of my easily over-stimulated nervous system as part of the fibromyalgia. I don’t know, and no one can tell me. But silence helps one tolerate “not-knowing.”
What about you? Do you have, or do you take, the opportunity to be in silence? Turn off the music and the T.V., turn off the cellphone, and the computer? What happens when you do? Do the thoughts (“monkey mind” as the Buddhists say) drive you nuts? Or does anxiety drive you crazy? Do you have musical ear worms? Throughout the holidays, I has “Sleighride Together with You” driving me bonkers, and a friend to thank for starting it! How do you get rid of those earworms? Do you have to always have something to read?
There’s a lot to be said against silence. The silence of woman abuse, child abuse, sexual assault MUST be broken, as well as the silence of addictions and that insidious epidemic of depression. I can’t tell you the number of courageous, hard working, compassionate individuals I know who have quietly whispered to me that they are on antidepressants, as though they’re admitting to something shameful and weak, as though they “can’t take it”, as though they’ve “failed” at LIFE 101. (To break silence: I’ve been on antidepressants twice in my life. They can be life savers, literally and figuratively. There is definitely a place for them in the toolkit of helps and remedies.)
Considering the state of the world and of many of our lives, though, perhaps depression is actually the healthy response, the cry of our selves that something is drastically wrong. This is another reason to break silence.
Some difficult silences should be respected, of course, when a secret is kept for one’s own protection or the protection of others. We don’t yet have a world safe enough to reveal all secrets.
Two of my greatest teachers have written about what has remained silent that need not, should not remain so. Sandra Butler wrote about sexual assault of children in The Conspiracy of Silence, and Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes has written about the healthy psychological development of women in Women Who Run With the Wolves and in the spoken word series The Dangerous Old Woman.
Dr. Estes’ work reminds us that when silence is opened up about the positive aspects of our lives, it can bring joy and possibility, love, acceptance, and mystery.
I’m talking now, though, about the awareness of unfolding mystery that may only be known through a practice of silence. Dr. Estes speaks of silence as an instrument to be played, to be used for changing one’s consciousness. It can be the rest between the notes of everyday life, the rest that helps us understand the meaning, or to create it, from the whole of the day’s sounds.
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NOTE: I have had to take a short break from writing this post in order to do a necessary errand at Walmart. Oh. My. Sunday afternoon at Walmart. Black carts with people attached seemed like oversized ants pouring every which way from a disturbed anthill. The fluorescent lights flickered. The “music” irritated. Talk about changing one’s consciousness!
It reminds me of how our taste buds, flooded with the salty, sweet, and/or fatty tastes of most food not made from scratch, can no longer appreciate the subtle tastes of unprocessed food prepared simply. I’m also thinking about how I tried to go off caffeine, several times, when I lived in Toronto and used public transportation daily. When I was caffeine-free, I could barely tolerate being around so many people. It seemed I became so sensitized to every exhausted, frightened, or grieving face, every unhappy child, and every person dealing with disabilities that I was exhausted before I even started work each day, filled with anguish and helplessness at the state of things. Perhaps caffeine was keeping me speeded up to the pace of the city, providing a type of numbness that enabled me to function more easily, if a little insensitively. It has taken a long time to control how open I am in different situations — and not always successfully, as per my experience today at Walmart.
I also had the profound experience of sensory overload when, at the age of 19, after having lived for several months in a convent without leaving its grounds, I went to a shopping mall on a few errands. I could barely walk in a straight line, so overcome with all the bright colors and smells of the department store. I didn’t dare go into a music store! (They had music stores back then, selling the new technology of cassette tapes as well as vinyl albums. . . )
And remember what happens when we turn off the bright lights and suddenly find ourselves in the dark? We can’t see anything at first, but then we adjust and things that were just invisible a moment ago become visible. Now, though it’s not a direct analogy, it can help us glimpse the idea that there are things we can find within ourselves that we can never find if the noise around us is too loud. If we can let monkey mind settle, and our nervous systems to calm our incessant compulsions to do, do, do, there are treasures to find there.
I hope to write more about this. In the meantime, please share your responses and experiences.
With much warmth and many blessings,