The power of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

There are only two places I’ve been, so far, where I was surrounded by utter silence — inside the Grand Canyon and on a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, a place so quiet I could hear myself digesting.

Some cultures revere silence and know how much we all need it. The United States isn’t one! People love to talktalktalktalktalktalk and will spill what sound like the most intimate secrets in a quick conversation with a stranger. It’s exhausting and disorienting if you come to the country from a more discreet, reticent culture.

And silence?


Jose and I did a seven day silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 a month or so before we married. There were 75 people of all ages and it was fascinating to be surrounded by people with whom not a word was exchanged until the final Saturday evening, when we “broke silence” and found out, verbally, who everyone was.

I admit, we had whispered occasionally in our shared monastic bedroom but mostly relied on Post-It notes to communicate.

I was shocked to see participants walking through the woods — on their cellphones — or leaving in their cars to head into town for…talking?

I blogged about it every day and found the experience healing and insightful. Talking and listening is really really tiring! If you actually pay attention to others, this consumes a lot of energy.

Not talking is very freeing.

Silence imposes discipline.

It forces you into your own head, a place many prefer to avoid.

I was fascinated, when I tell people I did seven days without speaking, (we could ask questions of the teachers once a day), they all said: “I could never do that!”

And I would reply….why not?

Here’s an interesting NYT story about staying silent at breakfast:

Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities. “Buddhists, Celtic Mystics, Sufis, Vedic Mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches in 1979 as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting — in part because it’s challenging. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.

….“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”

Here’s a list — one of my posts from that 2011 retreat — of all the sounds I heard instead.

13 thoughts on “The power of silence

  1. Someone once told me that most people will rush to fill a silence. Even if it’s only to clear their throat. She was trying to teach me to embrace awkward silence, to let it linger, and see what people would reveal in those moments that could help me better understand how to relate to that person. I experimented with this idea. It’s incredible how true it is and how much that simple exercise can make us better communicators.

  2. The only time I like silence is when I’m sleeping (and I usually use a hypnosis track to get to sleep, so there’s still noise). Other than that, I’m not a fan. It grates against me, for some reason. Still, I think a retreat like what you describe might be fun. I might find it relaxing.

    1. A lot of people find silence uncomfortable. It’s worth exploring why.

      I was VERY resistant to the idea when Jose took me there but within a few days I really grasped the pleasure of not talking, not making eye contact, not having to be polite and social. It showed me how much energy it consumes…and it’s a lot.

      It also showed me how much ambient noise is now considered normal — we went to a local restaurant after we left the retreat and (of course) there were 3 huge TVs over the bar and I felt physically assaulted by the unwanted noise and artificial stimulation.

  3. it is interesting, many people are very uncomfortable with silence and feel they need to fill the spaces. I love music, and talking and listening and sounds of most all kinds, but silence is sacred and sweet to me.

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