Sometimes I wonder if I talk too much. Other times I wish I had more to say. And then there are the times I feel as though I’ve gotten it just right. But how do you know the difference between“just right” and not enough when it comes to what you have to say? My yoga teacher inspired this contemplation one day in class by asking us to consider, “Does what you have to say improve on the silence?”
I actually enjoy silence. I remember special times with my father, as I grew up, when neither of us said a word. Some of my most cherished memories of him are the times we spent together in the car on the way from Detroit to Pittsburgh, when he would take me to college. It’s about a four-hour road trip, and while we often had little to say, we thoroughly enjoyed just being in one another’s company. I felt as close to him in our silence as I did when we had what I regarded as deep discussions about everything from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet to my latest boyfriend troubles. It was during these times that I experienced what I call the intimacy of silence with another.
On the other hand, silence on the yoga mat helps shift me from an external to an internal focus, preparing my mind and body to come to rest, as preparation for silent meditation. Through silent meditation one can experience what I call the intimacy of silence with oneself. The intimacy with self that comes from silence in meditation creates the opportunity for deep levels of self-discovery and self-awareness, helping you become more efficacious both on and off the mat.
One of my favorite stories about silence concerns Mother Teresa of Calcutta. An interviewer asked, “Mother Teresa, when you pray to God what do you say?”
“I don’t say anything” she replied. “I just listen.” “Well,” the reporter continued, “when you listen to God, what does He say?” “He doesn’t say anything,” she said. “He just listens, and if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.” This is what I call the intimacy of silence with God.
Silence allows you to pay close attention to what people are saying, as well as to what they are not saying. Silence speaks volumes, sometimes louder than words. You can learn a lot by paying attention to silence. But sometimes remaining silent feels awkward and causes you to fill in the blank with something, anything, just to have something to say. What cured me of that temptation was something one of my clients told me. “You don’t say very much,” she said, “but by just listening to me, you’ve taught me to listen to myself.” This is the power of silence.
When you learn to become comfortable with silence, you begin to hear your own thoughts more clearly. As you listen to your own thoughts, you are better able to discern whether what you are about to say improves on the silence. Is what you are about to say truthful? Is it necessary? Is it hurtful? In an essay on truthfulness, Maya Angelou wrote that being brutally honest is the same as being brutal. If it’s brutal, she observes, it is not worth saying. It does not improve on the silence. Sometimes it is wise to remain silent just so you don’t clutter another’s path with your own pain.
How many times do you interrupt to make your point while someone else is talking? How many times do you butt into someone else’s conversation uninvited? How many times do you try to fix a problem someone is sharing with you instead of just listening? When you do this, ask yourself: Does any of this improve on the silence?
Of course there are times when silence can be damaging. When you fail to speak up in certain situations, when you hold secrets from intimates, when you withhold information that might be helpful to someone, you might be doing more harm than good.
The way you regard silence affects the way you experience it. When you perceive silence as a gift, the energy of silence flows freely and with ease. When you experience silence as an obstacle, communication can feel blocked and awkward. Silence offers many gifts. It allows you to hear others, which allows you to get to know them better, which allows for deeper connection. It allows you to hear yourself, which allows for deep inner listening, helping you to know yourself better.
As you intentionally practice listening to your own thoughts before expressing them, notice how your silence changes your interactions.
In the meantime, unless you have something to say that improves on the silence…SHHHHHH…just listen. It’s a gift.