By Helen Preston, counsellor and holistic therapist
Last Christmas, my 20 year-old son bought me a book called ‘A Book of Silence’, written by Sara Maitland. In it, she explores and contemplates the silence she experienced after moving out of the city aged 40.
My son and I share a love of silence, so it was a thoughtful gift. We value silence and how it helps to calm and soothe the soul. In a world where it can often seem like a valuable commodity, it is worth taking a little time to explore silence’s healing power and seeing it for the undervalued resource it is.
Mobile devices constantly bombard us with noise. Music, podcasts, videos, phone calls – earphones in and off we go, isolated in our own little world of chosen sound.
At home, we often have the TV or radio on in the background. Or we talk for the sake of talking when there is nothing to say – and where silence could prove a more powerful and meaningful way to be present.
On the long journey driving him back to university, my son and I talk sometimes, but equally importantly we are both very comfortable being together in silence. We share our space comfortably. By way of contrast, some people I know are uncomfortable with silence and feel compelled to fill it with random streams of thought. Albeit unconsciously, they fear it.
Anyone who has listened to Eckhart Tolle will know that he uses silence or pauses to punctuate his language. I found it a little disconcerting when I first began to listen to his audio work. My mind was impatient for the next piece of information, to hear the next word and grasp the next concept.
The voice in my head judged the silences to be irritating. My conditioned mind wanted a continuous stream of noise. It took time to move beyond this situation and really ‘listen’ to both the words and the silence.
All too often we listen to respond, pass judgement or assess how what we are hearing fits with our beliefs. But if we are only prepared to listen to what we already know, we become stuck and entrenched. There is no room for new concepts or ideas. Eckhart says of silence:
“To listen to the silence, wherever you are, is an easy and direct way of becoming present. Even if there is noise, there is always some silence underneath and in between the sounds. Listening to the silence immediately creates stillness inside you.” (page 103, ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’, New World Library.)
A few years ago, I ran various relaxation and mindfulness groups for teens. During one such session, they were invited to leave their mobile phones behind for an hour and walk in silence with me to a local beauty spot. The idea was to be fully present and to observe the sights and sounds around us.
When we arrived at our destination, we would discuss our experiences. The walk was only between five and eight minutes long, but many of them found it difficult to be in silence. Some giggled, one held her hand over her mouth to remind herself not to speak, and several were unable to help themselves and spoke anyway.
One girl found it easier than the others though. She liked silence and, upon arrival at our destination, shared the fact that she had seen birds, flowers and a cat of which the others had no recollection. She had been quietly present in the moment and enjoyed the experience.
At the end of the sessions, she intimated that she now regularly took the dog for a walk to continue enjoying silence as it made her feel calm, peaceful and relaxed. Although the others initially struggled with the exercise, interestingly they also enjoyed it more than any other form of mindfulness that we practiced.
Certainly, many people find it easier to listen to a guided meditation than to feel safe and calm in silence. It takes time and practice to allow space to creep in between your thoughts, not to follow them as they pop in but just notice to them without judgment and let them pass.
Noise can be a means to help us hide from unpleasant and fearful thoughts, enabling us to avoid our feelings of vulnerability. When we take the time to listen in silence to our inner dialogue though, it is possible to make a choice.
We can either keep beating ourselves up or mindfully change that inner voice from critical and condemning to warm and comforting. ‘You’re doing your best’ is much more positive than ‘you’re an idiot’. But we all run these negative dialogues because we have learned them. It is often someone else’s voice that we hear and someone else’s opinion that we have come to believe over time.
But silence can give us time to weed the garden of our mind, declutter the dark corners in which we hold thoughts of shame and clear a space for the real beauty of our soul to flourish. Imperfection, suffering, making mistakes, failing and feeling inadequate are all part of the human experience. So take a deep breath and listen to the silence, allow it in and become friends with it.
When working with clients, my role as a counsellor is mostly to listen. I listen to the words and the emotions, but also to the silence. Just holding that silence for a few seconds longer than normal can give people the space to access memories, thoughts and images, enabling them to unearth something of significance that would otherwise be lost. And that really is the magic of the healing power of silence.
Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.
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