One interesting thing about silence is listening to what is not there.
When I reached the end of my rope recently, I experimented with practicing silence for a few days. Most simply, practicing silence means just not talking. I took it a small step further by eliminating writing as well. Now, this is not the same as "the silent treatment" that we are all familiar with from our adolescent days. Rather than that kind of pointed, petulant non-communication, the peaceful practice of silence can be very communicative and loving. It's just not verbal. This is an idea that I have had floating around in my head for a while thanks to a dear friend whose example of compassion and kindness I have often striven to follow over the years. She regularly practices this type of peaceful silence but I had never tried it before. The experience, for me, was profound.
We live in a post-psychological society in which talking, endlessly, about our problems is expected and encouraged. We've been taught that it is unhealthy to keep things to ourselves, that failing to fully express all of our thoughts and feelings is toxic. If we don't vent, we'll get cancer. If we keep our mouths shut it is akin to condoning violence and abuse, right? We are always being told to talk.
And I'm the kind of person who talks… a lot. I think a lot and I tend to think aloud. When I'm not talking and thinking or thinking about what I'm talking about or talking about what I'm thinking about, I'm writing about what I'm thinking and talking about. (Or driving. There's a lot of driving in my life, too, but that's a topic for another day.) I have to admit that listening comes less easily to me. I can't really be sure what I'm thinking until I've said it, but I can't always be sure of what I said either because my thoughts tend to be so loud. And what you just said? That's another layer of complexity entirely, that, frankly, sometimes I can't really handle.
So, for a few days I just didn't talk. And I found, to my surprise, that I truly loved what I didn't hear. I broke the aural feedback loop that was reinforcing a negative spiral of complaining and whining, which had been pressing on me in a profound, but unseen way. When I stopped talking, I stopped complaining. I stopped begging for help. I stopped making excuses. I stopped apologizing for things that weren't my fault and I stopped demanding unearned praise. I simply did what needed to be done in silence. And suddenly, washing the dishes and cleaning up after kids and pets was a much easier burden to bear. I had had no idea that I was listening to myself when I was complaining. What must my children have been hearing from me? Were they internalizing an unintended message from my heedless words and tone? Clearly, the relief I felt in the sudden quiet I created suggests that I had been internalizing a very loud, negative message myself. It seems too self-serving a hope to think that my children might have escaped the verbal barrage unscathed.
I noticed after just a little while in silence, that my thoughts began to slow to a much more manageable pace. They became quieter, less intrusive, and more peaceful. With the retreat of the verbal thought-noise, some kind of internal space was opened. Many emotions bubbled up. Some of them I hadn't felt in such a long time that at first, it was confusing. I felt joy. Warmth. Peace. Safety and security. Love. I felt sorrow and remorse for my past poor behavior. I felt the beginnings of a renewed resolve to be a better, kinder, more loving and more natural person. By the time I had spent most of a day in silence, the only words I wanted to say to anyone were, "I love you" and "I'm sorry." This kind of silence is nothing like the toxic Victorian penchant for secret keeping. This silence was the therapeutic opposite of psychological venting. This silence is the monastic imperative of contemplation and compassion, service and divine love.
These feelings of love and gratitude, of happiness and comfort, were very easy to communicate to my family without words. I spent some wonderful, deeply connective time with my husband and our children during those days. We all smiled so much more often and more deeply. We laughed together over nothing. We hugged each other and cuddled together and generally touched each other more. I think we all felt more valued and respected than we had in a long time. I felt deeply loved and cherished. The tears that came, and there were many that needed to come, were the good kind-- the kind that makes you feel clean and replenished and renewed when they've cleared.
Somehow, by restraining the power of my voice, I opened the space for a much better kind of power to intervene. By saying nothing, I watched in growing amazement and gratitude as my family went about the business of doing everything I had been begging and exhorting and commanding them to do. Chores were finished without reminding or nagging. Big changes in some arrangements with extended family were enacted. Boundaries were drawn. Help and compassion manifested themselves all over the place. I felt honored and protected. I felt acknowledged, accepted, and loved. I felt like I was finally being heard.
Life was so beautiful for those days that I kept silent that I was very tempted to keep silent forever. I found that I was perfectly capable of performing my domestic duties, including appropriately disciplining the children when they misbehaved. (Apparently, I have mastered the "time-out" look.) We were all much happier. It wasn't even particularly hard to keep silent once I had started.
Two things brought me back to the use of my voice. The first was a return to writing. I wanted to share this experience with all of you. It was both mind- and heart- expanding, an experience of tremendous value for me. The second was that we had an IEP-related meeting on Monday. Definitely not the time or place for parental spiritual-social experimentation or neo-monasticism. Perhaps I have been given such a strong voice for a reason. My intention is to use it to good effect, and to be mindful of when to turn it off.
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