Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Importance of Silence

a conversation about why we need silence with stephen chinlund

CG: Why do we need silence?

SC: We need it for our well-being; for slowing down, for understanding what life is about, for being happy in the world as we encounter it; to tune in to what’s happening inside our own bodies – which we hardly pay attention to; for being creative; for savoring important moments; for being thankful for the people in our lives…and much else.

CG: So part of silence involves pausing.

SC: Yes. Silence is an antidote for our speeding.

CG: A remedy, for our state of overdrive or perpetual motion, which is an occupational hazard for many of us; especially in 24/7 cities like New York.

How or when can silence be most meaningful, Steve?

SC: Wanting it is the thing. If you truly want it, you’ll find it and make regular places for it. If you haven’t experienced silence before, it’s a bit of a Catch-22. Because you have to allow time for it first, in order to discover and appreciate how incredibly meaningful it is.

Being afraid of or bored by silence prevents a lot of people from trying it. They actively avoid it. And getting past this anxiety – which is often a fear of having uncomfortable thoughts or memories rush into that “empty” space – or getting past the expectation of boredom, can seem like a big step to take, sometimes too big.

CG: Hence the tendency to fill up the silences with activities, busy-ness, or the sound of our own voices. Which doesn’t allow room for other, very important experiences to enter.

SC: Yes, because when you’re truly silent, and taking the time to be quiet, whether it’s for a half-hour or a whole morning…or even a whole day, vital new things come. They don’t always come in the first five minutes. It takes time for them to arrive, and unfold. But they come.

Whole libraries have been written about silence, including books by the German philosopher and mystic
Meister Eckhart, the mystic-poet Angelus Silesius (The Cherubinic Wanderer), Francois Fenelon, the main advocate of “quietism” in the late 1600s, Thomas Merton and others.

CG: I’m sure we’d all be wise to develop our “third ears,” to hear what’s being said not just in the lines of conversations but also in the silent spaces between them, where there’s a great deal happening; where what’s unsaid is equally important to understand. I’d extend this to marketers, who could better relate to the people who buy their products and services by adding or using a well-tuned third ear.

SC: The
Quakers listened in the silences, and to what was underneath what was being said. They were also a canny bunch of businessmen, and even used the power of silence in the boardroom, when they were running companies; especially when things got contentious. It worked well for them, their disciplines of silence and consensus.

There’s also a new book out by the novelist Anne LeClaire called
Listening Below the Noise: a Meditation on the Practice of Silence. It’s about the promise she made herself to be completely silent all day, every other Monday. Out of this commitment, she discovered many new and wonderful things about her life and potential.

CG: Let’s come back to this key issue of commitment, to not just wanting silence but also dedicating ourselves to it, for however long or short a period of time we choose.

SC: If we’re really committed to being inside it, we’re able to drift into less active and non-verbal ways of thinking, feeling and being. To let go of all the stuff floating around in our heads. Then it becomes very exciting.

This happens for me when I paint: magic happens, once I move past all the “frontal” thinking and enter into whatever I’m painting; enter into a noiseless flow. When I engage the silence this way is when I create the most satisfying things. It’s an experience second only to sex. Blissful.

CG: How would you describe a clear state of silence as a room or landscape? What would it be like?

SC: A place full of life, of sunny and dark places, flowers and caves, pleasant and unpleasant aromas; things beautiful and strange; a place that’s endlessly rich. An intimate place you enter into; merge with.

CG: How do we set the stage for this?

SC: I’d encourage each person to do it their own way. You might go to a Quaker meeting, which has a special kind of power. Or into a church – a cathedral of silence. You might draw or paint, and make a commitment to be silent when doing this. Give yourself the luxury to sit somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, and promise yourself you won’t say anything for an hour or two, and see what happens. Go wherever it’s quiet and congenial for you.

And if you find yourself wavering, don’t get sidetracked or give up too quickly from exploring silence.

CG: Slowness and silence for all of us, and time for these, aren’t luxuries, but necessities; enriching and revitalizing.

SC: All kinds of people in this wonderful town [New York] that I adore feel if they had two or three times as many hours of the day it wouldn’t be enough to keep up with all that’s happening personally and professionally. This isn’t the answer.

CG: If we don’t incorporate silence into our lives, as a way to connect with our interior landscape, do we risk living incompletely, too much on the outside of things, outside of ourselves? A theme Robert Sardello focuses on in his book Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, and a fount of healing for Carl Jung.

SC: The fact we spend so little time in silence, inside the quiet of our beings, and don’t even expect to spend any time, is a terrible deprivation. It’s like being malnourished or unloved.

There are cultures, especially in Asia and Muslim countries, that are far more comfortable with silence than our American one. Even in Europe you sit back after a long lunch not having to talk, and you quietly savor the experience.

Zen Buddhists are great models, partly because they’ve carried the thinking about it to an almost baroque level: Zen and the art of archery, of painting, tennis, even motorcycle repair. The root is silence.

CG: It’s also fundamental to achieving mastery, creative silence; and going back to what you said at the start, to achieving a deep state of well-being. Most of us might be surprised to find out just how deeply we can go, what do you think?

SC: Definitely. I guarantee that if you promise yourself to be silent for just five minutes each day, each week, and honor that quiet time – silence without distraction – you’ll have a deepening experience. It yields all kinds of welcome surprises, from peacefulness to creativity.

Silence is also necessary for reflection, and for pondering important questions and issues.

CG: In our virtual and digital and social networking age, where it’s about action, interaction and transactions, how is silence let alone meaningful silence possible?

SC: A good question. When two people are together physically having a conversation, there can be a shared silence, whereas in virtual conversations people feel insulted, confused, upset if there’s silence.

I think noise and speed and chatter and twittering are substitutes for vital interior explorations, internal explorations we need to engage in.

I have a character in one of my plays who says when I was a kid summer lasted forever, then I started to grow up, got married and had kids, now suddenly I’m an old man. Part of this speech reflects the absolute pell mell character of many lives, that are lacking in deeply quiet introspective time.

CG: What’s the most important aspect of silence we should be contemplating right now?

SC: That there are treasures inside us, wonderful treasures, that no other person can tell us about; that we can only discover in and through silence.

If we can get ourselves past any anxiety or boredom, and just let the silence be there; let ourselves be in it, then that remarkable hidden room, that rich hidden landscape each one of us has within will be revealed to us.

CG: Steve, thank you.

Colin Goedecke is a senior marketing writer, messaging strategist and interviewer, with a 23-year history helping leading and emerging companies worldwide platform and tell their stories. The Importance of Silence is the 17th in a series of thought pieces, to help us think, act and communicate in wiser ways. Others can be found at

Stephen Chinlund is a painter, playwright, minister (and Harvard man, class of ‘55). He’s a former Executive Director of Episcopal Social Services, Rector of Southport Connecticut’s Trinity Parish, and Chairman of the NY State Department of Correction, among other dedicated positions in his abundant and still unfolding 40-year career.

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