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Kirsten DeLeo

Silence – What Freedom

Meditation can teach us a lot about the power of silence - how to listen and simply be present.  In a meditation workshop I recently lead, Diana, a young social work student raised her hand after some hesitation at the end a short session of sitting. “I have never sat in a room with strangers in complete silence intentionally.” She took a deep breath. “First, I felt uncomfortable with the situation. Then I realized that I had absolutely nothing to say or do! I had nothing to prove, didn’t have to be this way or that way for anyone. Silence. Wow, …what freedom!”  Everyone in the room broke into laughter, relieved, as she stated the obvious. In our culture we are uncomfortable with silence.

There is a lot of talk about listening and communication skills. I prefer to call them ‘shut up’ skills. This may sound crude, but it puts the finger on how we usually listen. How many times do I listen only to wait for a pause in the conversation so that I can express my point of view? While others are talking don’t I find myself rehearsing what to say next?

Lack of awareness is harmful. If we lack awareness while listening, we can miss the little cues the other person is giving us to hint at what is really going on. We miss the full meaning of what is said, or remains unsaid. We do not allow for intimate moments of silence, which, like invisible threads, weave and hold together the truth of what truly needs to be expressed.

Pauses and silence in a conversation are as important as the words spoken.
Especially when people are vulnerable and hurt, silence can take on a much deeper meaning. In moments of silence, the truth has a chance to emerge.

Sitting quietly on our cushion we learn to make friends with ourselves, to just be. The little chatterbox in our head that goes on and on, without a single break, gradually begins to slow down and becomes quieter. With a good dose of patience and humor, we finally can relax within ourselves, unafraid of stillness. As a result, we are more at ease when we happen to find ourselves in ‘uncomfortable situations’, when we do not know what to do or say. There is less of an urge to fill the silent gaps with words; to fix and manipulate the situation by quipping a joke or trying to say something profound and meaningful, not because we are trying to make the other person feel ok, but we want to feel better about ourselves.

One of the gifts of meditation is that we grow less judgmental and learn to become accepting of ourselves, and more forgiving. We have less and less the need to validate our presence through words. We finally can stop pretending ‘to have to be somebody’. Being present, fully present and open is, in fact, good enough. This is marks a radical shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being’.

Listening and being present in this way does not mean we turn mute and unresponsive. When we listen well we know when to talk. We speak from a quiet place inside us, and what we say comes from a very different place. People can hear that. This kind of contemplative or meditative listening extends from our practice and can be deeply transformative. The quality of our presence can make the person we are listening to feel heard and understood. It reminds them of their own sense of meaning or purpose, and they in turn reflect this back to us.

Communicating hope, confidence or reassurance doesn't always need words. Being comfortable when the conversation grows silent, and simply sitting and enjoying each other's company can be incredibly meaningful. Likewise, a warm, unafraid glance can say much more than words. 

Meditation is a simple, yet powerful resource to connect us to this way of being.  It reminds us that being present and open is often all that is needed.