Thoughts on silence

Slow your eye roll.

I am not about to tell you, bedraggled war-torn soldiers of the ‘20s, that what you need is a hot 5 to 60 minutes of meditative silence every day.

Full disclosure - I do try to meditate regularly and have just begun a two year Mindfulness Based Meditation Teacher Certification Program, and I believe that you, and the society you occupy, can indeed become enlightened through sitting in silence with regularity, with no other objective or agenda besides being. And noticing what being is.

But I can read the room. I can read this room that I’m in right now — filled with the un-crossed-off-to-do-lists, the unfolded laundry, the unread books. I know that now is not the time, especially for those of us still balancing full-time at-home parenting with full-time work with full-time pandemic-trauma management, to suggest another thing to add to the pile of things you won’t do.

I’ll save my thoughts on the benefits of a regular meditation practice for a time in the not-so-distant future when we’re sharing cheese dip, singing badly at karaoke bars, and dropping our kids off at school, maskless.

But well before that, even, yes, today, we can more consciously incorporate silence into our lives not as a separate practice, but integrated into the conversations and work and parenting we’re already engaging in.

I know five minutes a day feels unreasonable, but what about one minute… a month?

I’m not talking about the structured kind of silence, where we light a candle or say a mantra. Not the kind in nature or in a place of worship.

Not the kind of silence we speak of within social justice and antiracism work, the silence of acquiescence with oppressors, the silence that leads to and continues violence against marginalized peoples and the earth.

I’m talking about the silence we were taught and conditioned to avoid.

The silence in between words. The silence in between people.

For me, growing up as the only child of two only children living on a street with no other kids, there was a lot of silence. And I filled it well - by teaching imaginary classes, running errands in my imaginary van with my imaginary babies, and ringing imaginary people up at a department store with my mom’s saved shopping bags and receipts as props.

My father was an alcoholic, and for anyone who has spent time in a house with an addict, you understand the landmines of silence. You feared the manic moments, you feared the weeping confused withdrawals, but the scariest part of all was the silence. And I was there to fill it.

At Christmas, when my dad’s mother gave him a bottle of expensive booze after my mother had thrown his stash away just a few days before, and I was old enough to know that’s weird and wrong and a bad sign, I was there to fill the pained, heavy silence.

I was, as you are, an intuitive being who understood the weight of these moments, and didn’t want to bear them. I didn’t want anyone else to have to bear them either. Every second of silence made it heavier. So I lightened it - with dance, with jokes, with chatter, with being a sweet funny little kid.

And wow, maybe you can relate, but the craziest thing happened - I grew up. And that little kid stayed inside of me long after my father died and the real threat of the silence faded. Still sitting, watching, like a lifeguard perched on the edge of every moment, ready to jump in whenever the water got too still.

You have a different story. But I’m guessing at some point in your life something happened in your home, or patterns played out in your life, where you didn’t want to have to deal with the heaviness of the reality in front of you. By filling the silence with words or sarcasm or tears or laughter or work or ordering another round or retreating to read a book or talk to your friend on a phone that plugged into a wall, you could diffuse it. Push it away, at least for the moment. Make it less awkward, bury the truth with some other fluff.

So I, maybe like you, got habituated into filling the space, filling the silence, even when it wasn’t as heavy as the enabling grandmother handing over a bottle of whisky with a bow on it to her obviously alcoholic son on Christmas morning.

Even when its just a conversation between friends, or a spat with our partners, or a negotiation at work, or a frustrated moment of parenting. Like Pavlov’s dogs, except instead of a bell that triggers our response it’s…silence.

Many of us didn’t grow up in families that practiced silence, that welcomed it. That let it be. Many of us felt responsible for other people’s lived experiences, or felt we had the ability to control outcomes in relationships or situations by what we said or did.

Most of us didn’t grow up with Thich Nhat Hanh bedtime stories, telling us that like a tree, we don’t have to do anything to prove we exist. What would it have been like to grow up knowing that “the quality of our presence already changes things”?

Not trusting that there are answers in silence diminishes our own presence.

Thinking that in order to matter, belong or exist you have to say something, is a cornerstone of a toxic capitalist masculine culture that dominates, sweeps over, moves past and ignores the nuance of our complex unfolding humanity.

(If you’re a man reading this and you can’t relate to the compulsion to fill silence in order to ensure everyone else’s comfort…that’s interesting, right?).

You can’t be present in the moment and trying to control it at the same time. One of them will have to go.

I’m not recommending you become a monk, commit to a Chosen Day of Silence, or even begin a meditation practice (we’ll talk about that later, over the dip, remember?).

But what about inviting a few seconds of silence into moments that you would have otherwise felt you needed to steer, deflect or save? The family Zoom where someone passively aggressively criticizes someone else’s Covid choices. The outdoor hang where one of your friends makes a controversial or unpopular statement about schools reopening. A genuine, heartfelt, sees-right-to-the-essence of you compliment. A confession from a coworker about a big mistake that was made. When you know the answer. When you don’t.

Give it a beat. Give it a breath.

I don’t mean plan what you’re going to say, count to three and then say it.

I mean just experience what it is to be a participant, a witness. Without looking through your binoculars to check if anyone’s drowning.

What about silence with our kids? When we ask them a question, and then begin to answer for them?

“How was your day?”

“I-”

“Did you play with Sasha today? Did you have fun at PE? Did you finish your worksheet?”

“….”

When they’re expressing hard emotions and we immediately “everything’s OK” it away. Or when we over-identify and make it about us.

We can begin to break the cycle of silence-aversion by just giving it a beat, giving it a breath. And then maybe another, and another after that. Until you think the moment’s past. And then… “the craziest thing happened, Mom!”

What about silence after an ask — whether its for a major gift at the nonprofit you work for, a raise, a car lease or a weekend away with your girlfriends.

Say what you want and need. And then, instead of immediately hedging, explaining, justifying, apologizing or saying “but anything you decide is fine” — let there be silence.

It’ll feel awkward, I promise. You might feel like your skeleton is tip toeing out of your skin wearing a grimace face emoji.

Give it a beat. Give it a breath.

All you’re doing is creating space. Space for whatever needs to emerge, to emerge. Maybe its a blowout, maybe its tears, maybe its a reckoning, maybe its an angry confrontation, maybe its a yes, maybe its a no.

Maybe its another lifeguard jumping in to save the flailing swimmer.

You can’t know what’s meant to be until you let go of the puppet strings and see what comes to life on it’s own.

I don’t have the power to absolve you of this obligation to fill the space lest we see what’s really there. Only you can give yourself permission. Only you can understand the reasons why you may have also developed an aversion to those silent seconds in between words.

But I do have the power to go back to that little girl, to me, and say to her —

Honey, you are not responsible for what comes next.

You deserve to be present in your life, not trying to control it.

You’re here.

No matter what you say.