Tag Archives: silence

Sitting in Silence

Silence is something we often explore in meditation and for spiritual purposes, as in the practice of silent retreat. Without vocalised interactions, we turn inwards, in theory, listening to the quiet inner voice, finding peace and so forth. While I’ve done plenty of sitting in silent meditation, I’ve never entered extended periods of silence for spiritual purposes.

I’ve recently had tonsillitis, and between the sore throat and the swollen tissues, talking has been really uncomfortable. I’ve been obliged to become mostly silent, and it’s been an interesting experience. 

I am of course still communicating, because not communicating would be unbearable to me. I’m relying a lot more on facial expressions, hand gestures, body language – there is a lot I can get done this way. I’m typing and using devices when I need to share things that I can’t gesture. It turns out that if I have my written ‘voice’ I don’t feel too troubled by the loss of my spoken voice. As being ill has kept me at home, it hasn’t caused any great technical problems to have to type rather than speak.

It raises some interesting thoughts for me around the role of communication in life, and in our spiritual lives. Increasingly I see the bard path as the heart of what I do, and that absolutely revolves around communicating. It can tend to prioritise the ability to make sounds with your face, but I feel very strongly that no one should be excluded on the basis of how they are able to communicate. 

For me, spirituality is a conversation. The silence is for listening, but extended silence isn’t a conversation, and the exchange matters. What I do tends to be fairly people-centric because I communicate best with people, but I listen a lot more widely. 

I can learn in silence, but I don’t find my own  spiritual self there. I find more benefit in sharing, in vocalising, in communicating. I’m more my spiritual self when I make sound, or make words, than I am when I turn inwards for extended periods.

Nature, silence and quiet

Silence isn’t especially natural. In most places where there is life, water or wind, there will be sound – deep caves may be silent, and there may be silence in very thick fog, but that’s about it. However, in an insulated human home, it can be truly silent. I find this disconcerting, and it is always an issue for me at the point in the year when I have to close windows at night. Sometimes I can still hear the owls, but I have to be incredibly quiet and paying attention.

Nature tends to offer us quiet and subtle soundscapes. Some things are loud and raucous – seagulls, high winds, fox songs… but many wild things are subtle and easily missed. For me, the soundscape is as much a part of the experience of being outside as the visual appearance of the landscape is. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this – interested in the picturesque, but oblivious to a lot of what is around them. I say this with confidence having observed other people out walking in parks and at beauty spots.

I’m always amazed by people who go out into ‘nature’ and are then so busy with themselves that they don’t seem to see, and most assuredly cannot hear whatever is around them. People for whom landscape is aerobic exercise, parental guilt appeased, or post-lunch attempts at virtue. I see them not seeing the wild things – where I have paused for a buzzard, raven or deer and they walk on by with no sense of what’s looking at them.

When you talk loudly with other humans, the sounds of the landscape are drowned out. The subtle tinkle of a small stream. The rustle of small rodents in the undergrowth. The calls of small birds – and larger ones. Sound is often the best clue for spotting wild beings and the person intent on a good conversation won’t pick up these clues. What frustrates me is the number of people who are really loud in beautiful places, not just wiping out their own scope for hearing anything other than their own voices, but filling the landscape with their banality. Perhaps they can’t hear how quiet it is. Perhaps the quiet unsettles them, so they fill it with noise. There’s nothing quite like walking in a beautiful place and having the landscape filled with someone’s loud and wholly tedious conversation about some TV show.

At this time of year, if you are quiet, you can hear the leaves falling. You can hear them as they brush against other leaves on the way down. You can hear them as they meet the undergrowth, or land gently on the earth. It is a soft, subtle sound, and it is beautiful, and enchanting, and not available when people are talking loudly. Life is full of such opportunities for small beauty and magic, but often we’re too busy talking over it to even notice.

What does it mean to dance?

I was sent to dancing lessons from early on in life. I’ve always thought of dance as being about the music, especially once I got to the point of being able to improvise. I’ve danced as a performer, but more usually I’ve danced amongst people with no audience.

This weekend I had the experience of watching dance – some I realised I’d not done in a long time. I’ve watched morris dancers in the last few years, but it’s not the same as sitting down quietly in a room to watch something that isn’t about repeating patterns. The dance I watched – Without Measure – had no music. Some of the pieces were performed in silence, some had spoken work soundtracks. In the absence of music, it had me thinking about sound and bodies in some unexpected ways.

When you dance in silence, it is the sound of the movement, and the sound of the audience, that occupies the space. Small sounds that would normally disappear under the music become intense and important. The breath of the dancer becomes part of what you experience. Watching anything in silence is normal, but when there is so little constructed soundscape, you become really aware of the smallest sounds you accidently make. This is not a performance in which it is easy to cough.

We normally dance to music. We normally have the speed, rhythm and mood of the dance shaped by the music playing. We’re used to the sense of dance coming from this relationship with sound. Take the music away, and a whole host of questions arise about the nature and purpose of dance.

Sitting in silence

One of the reliable features of a Contemplative Druidry session is Stroud is that we sit in silence together. There are no instructions about what anyone does during that silence, no aims to achieve, and normally it raises nothing to discuss.   I find this a very powerful experience.

Normal human contact tends to revolve around activity or speech. In most contexts, silence is a sign that something has gone wrong socially, and people will try to fix it or become very uncomfortable. Equally, stillness and inactivity are not part of regular human encounters. There is a sense of acceptance in still and quiet sitting. There is a peace in shared space where nothing has to be done, or achieved. There is no hierarchy, no authority and no dogma. Whatever happens to a person, and whatever they choose to do with themselves in that time tends to remain private.

When I started on this two years ago, I came with the pressure/expectation that something important should happen while sitting. Something to share. It took me a while to learn how to be absolutely fine with there being no great insights and no revelations. This has had implications across my whole experience and practice of Druidry. I’m much more accepting of the quiet and ordinary, and not looking for the validation of something dramatic. This in turn has opened me to the small beauties of small things.

Outside of meditation spaces, I increasingly value the scope to be quiet. I like it when I don’t have to be entertaining or interactive. People I can be around who do not always require words. I like walking quietly, talking when something arises, and just being with people when there is nothing to say. While speech is a powerful form of communication, it can also be used to hide things. We use noise to cover fear, uncertainty, awkwardness. Silence can be revealing in its own ways, and it’s good to have some space for it.

On retreat

Being at everyone’s beck and call wears us all out after a while. Some people, no doubt have a higher tolerance for it than others, and the scope we have to retreat varies a lot too. I spent years in a situation where the only place to retreat was into my work, or the odd, snatched few hours of walking. Other druids would announce that they were off on retreat and I would feel quietly envious and wonder how they got away with it. Quiet, peace and space are essential for having any kind of relationship with yourself, or any chance to hear your own thoughts. The continual running around feeling busy can become less and less productive and more unhappy without the space to step back and get some perspective. I spent a lot of years feeling threadbare and disorientated for just these reasons. What makes it difficult to step back is that there are always people who want you to be somewhere else, doing something else and who are not very sympathetic to demands for time out. Employers infamously being the worst culprits for this. Part of the price we pay for participating in modern life is that you can’t just sneak off into the woods when you feel like it. Even as I am now, with the ‘improper’ job can’t always hide, because there’s the child and the school run to honour. There are people who fear silence, peace and solitude and go to any length to avoid them. Standing on the outside, it sometimes feels like a lot of modern living is designed to do just that. The bright lights, the tiny boxes capable of making ever more sound, the ways of staying ‘connected’. Which means available, plugged in, on demand and never able to fall into any kind of peace. For some, that silence is apparently threatening. What do you find, within yourself, when there is no rush of stimulus, no distraction? There is often emptiness in silence, but the deeper, slower thoughts surface, profound ideas have the space to form. I suppose if that doesn’t happen, the silence is just an empty, scary place where you stop feeling like a person. Like everything else, much of it comes with practice, and the less habituated we are to being quietly with our own thoughts, the harder it is to do. I was 19 when I first found the space for proper solitude, and it was a revelation. One of the things I love about the boat is the ease of moving. There are lots of spots on the canal where you’re miles from the nearest bridge, foot traffic is right down, car traffic nonexistent. No one knows exactly where we are. Phones were mostly turned off, and on Saturday I didn’t even open the computer. I feel calmer and more myself. The more time I take for mindfulness and contemplation, the more simply and effectively I work when I get there. It cuts away all the faff and doubt. In the quiet spaces away from most people, I feel my druidry much more keenly. Now comes the challenge of gathering that into myself and bringing it back to the noisy places, where I need it most, and perhaps others do as well.