Silence is a funny thing. On the whole I think that most people’s experience with silence is pretty limited since we are flooded with so much distraction these days that contemplative solitude can be hard to come by. One of the funniest things about silence is how varied people’s responses to it can be.
I remember working with a lady at the acupuncture clinic a few years ago. Let’s call her Jen. Jen was presenting to the clinic with a few things that she was hoping we could help with. She had trouble sleeping, struggled with anxiety and suffered from tension headaches.
We talked about the role of lifestyle; about taking time to slow down and relax. We also talked about the role of acupuncture in the process and she was eager to begin. Once I had all of the needles in place I said, “Well, I’ll step out for your rest period while you relax and enjoy the quiet.”
“Step out?”, she said. “You mean you leave me here with needles?”
“Yes,” I said. “We leave the needles in place while you rest to maximize their effect.”
“For how long?”
“I can make it half an hour if you prefer…” I said jokingly.
“Oh, ha ha…”, she said… “Well it must be less than 30 minutes now… We’ve probably been talking for 2 minutes already, right?”, she said, desperately trying to negotiate.
“30 minutes…”, I replied, knowing that only 10 seconds had passed. “Just close your eyes and relax… Imagine being on a tropical beach… Just enjoy the quiet for a few minutes.”
“Well….. Ok….”, she said, still not totally convinced. “I’ll try…”
Jen was not the first person I had worked with who struggled to relax and enjoy the silence. Being able to let go, be in the moment and enjoy the stillness without being constantly distracted or busying ones self is a skill and many of us are out of practice.
I went to my desk to work on some paperwork while Jen sat. As I was working the office phone started to ring… and it was Jen’s name listed on the phone. I didn’t think much of it figuring that it was a husband wondering what time she would be leaving or asking to pick something up on the way home so I answered the phone.
“Healthy Balance Acupuncture Clinic… How Can I help you?”
Then from the other end I heard the words I’ll never forget… “Has it been 30 minutes yet?”
“Yeah. Has it been 30 minutes yet?”
While sitting with needles in both hands she managed to get her cell phone out of her pocket, looked up the clinic number online then called for an update.
“It’s been 12 minutes, Jen.”
She sighed loudly. “How much longer, then?””Umm…. 18 minutes.”
Another sigh. “Well, don’t forget about the 2 minutes that we were talking.”, she said.
We both laughed about the exchange more than once. It was a struggle for Jen, especially at first, to sit quietly. Over time, though, she became more skilled and was able to quiet the chatter in her mind and ease the restlessness. Eventually she was even able to enjoy the quiet rest.
I’ve thought about Jen many times. What is so disturbing about quiet these days? Why is there so little of it? Why do we seem to make efforts to fill every waking moment with distraction, noise and chatter? What is in the silence that worries us so?
Is it that we might recognize our own lack of control over our thoughts?
Is it a restless feeling of not knowing what to do with ourselves?
Is it a fear that the absence of diversion may cause unresolved feelings to stir?
Is it not wanting to take control over the wandering of our own mind?
Is it restlessness? Struggle? Trauma?
What is there in the silence that so many will go to great lengths to avoid it? That it will be avoided to such an extent that extended silence is almost unheard of in our modern lifestyle?
As I pondered this I began to wonder if the answer, like many things in life, could be found in the words of Yoda. If you remember, when Luke was training with Yoda, (and if you don’t remember you should probably watch the movie again) Luke sensed a dark presence near a cave. Yoda directed him to enter and so Luke reached for his weapons to take them.
“You will not need those.”, Yoda said.
“Why? What’s in there?”, asked Luke.
“Only what you bring with you.”, was Yoda’s reply.
What if that is the element that can make silence and contemplation so uncomfortable? What if it is what we bring with us to the silence that drives us to busy ourselves with meaningless pursuits while the deeper corners of our own self remain locked away? What if it’s fear of facing our own self that feeds our insatiable appetite for distraction?
I consider my job done now as I have shared the question. I won’t presume to know the answer… Especially not for another person. I am going to search for the answer for myself, though, by spending the next few days in silent contemplation with no electronics, conversation or distractions. It’s time for me to enter the silence myself and find out exactly what I bring with me. I’ll see you on the other side of the silence…