To write or speak about silence is an oxymoron. Perhaps the best way to begin this Provision, then, is to just be silent. So before you scroll down and read any further, mute the volume of as many sounds as possible and sit in silence. Then, when you are ready, scroll past the white space to read what we and others have to say on the subject.
So, did you do the exercise or did you scroll right on down here to read the Provision? If you did the exercise, how long did your silence last? Chances are, not very long. That’s because silence makes us uncomfortable. In his book, Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn reflects on this in terms of his experience at 8:46 AM Eastern Daylight Time on the first anniversary of September 11, 2001.
“Driving down the highway in Massachusetts,” he writes, “I participated in a moment of silence for those who died and those who survived via radio as no doubt millions of others did across the country and around the world. Everybody knew what to do. We were not given instructions. No one suggested how to feel, or what to feel, or how to deal with our thoughts and emotions.”
To do so “would have been absurd and disrespectful and wholly inappropriate. It would never have crossed the organizers’ minds to include any instructions for how to hold a moment like that. It just wasn’t and isn’t necessary in such circumstances. Everybody already knows what a moment of silence is. We were all one in that silence, even as we were each with our own unique thoughts, our own unique emotions, our own sense of purpose and loss, whatever our relationship to the event was.”
But what would it “have been like if instead of a moment of silence, we had been asked to observe five minutes of silence, or ten, or even an hour? Would we have still known how to be in the face of the enormity and barbarity and senselessness of it all? We might expect that of a Desmond Tutu or a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa or a Martin Luther King. But what about us regular folk? Would we be able to sustain an awareness of the rupture of our hearts? Could we be still?”
“What if we didn’t know how long it would last? Could we still inhabit that place in ourselves from which observing and bearing witness happen? Could we still inhabit that place in us which is speechless? Could we still inhabit that place of what in this moment just is, with no boundaries anymore between past, present, and future? And wouldn’t such a silence work on us, stretch us, challenge us, grow us, change us, and heal us? I think so,” Kabat-Zinn concludes.
I think so too. And I think that’s what lies behind David Whyte’s surprising, poetic discovery:
Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,
to find the body
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life’s enduring pain,
and the world for one
closed its terrifying eyes
“This is my body, I am found.”
There’s no way to be spiritually well if we do not embrace silence. Ironically, there’s also no other way to be socially successful. Until we learn to sit with ourselves in silence, there’s no way to experience the release of our fears and no way to approach others with gratitude. Instead, we bully, blow, and bluster our way through life as though, with enough noise, our fears won’t be discovered • either by ourselves or by others.
Unfortunately, modern society thrives on noise. Total silence is no longer possible. There are, in fact, so many sounds in the background that many people purchase “white noise” machines in order to drown out the other more noxious noises. Cell phones, pagers, and wireless devices ring at the most inopportune moments. Talk radio, reality television and music videos fill the air. We are inundated with sound.
But no amount of noise can cover up the truth about ourselves and it usually makes things worse. The more caught up we get in the chatter, both internal and external, the more restless and demanding we become. Only in silence can we find a better way.
I’ve learned more about this since moving to southeast Virginia three years ago. Silence is a larger part of my life now than ever before. For one thing, our move to Virginia coincided with our entering the empty-nest phase of our lives. Once the children have grown up and left the house, things get a lot more quiet. For another thing, we went from the inner-city of Chicago, Illinois (1979-1993), to a suburb of Columbus, Ohio (1993-2002), to a bird sanctuary on the shores of Queens Lake in York County, Virginia.
Talk about a journey into silence! Chicago was a high-decibel environment at all times of the day and night. Neighbors would laugh, children cry, gangs fight, cars race, trains rumble, deals finalize, receipts print, and phones ring. The sights and sounds, the energy and vibrancy, of city life were a 24 / 7 phenomenon. In Columbus things got a little more quiet. There was not as much street noise, but there was still plenty of hustle and bustle with shopping, public transportation, and schools all within walking distance.
Since moving to the shores of Queens Lake, things have gotten much more quiet. Driving to our home includes driving through a national park. The roads are lined and canopied with large, old trees. They stand in silent witness to a time gone bye. The topography and foliage surrounding our home connects us with that witness on a continual basis.
I recently heard a talk by Julia Butterfly Hill, in which she described her experience of climbing and then sitting in the top of a 200-foot-tall, northern-California redwood tree for more than two years in order to protect and save the tree from loggers. She found the silent witness of those ancient trees to be life transforming. Her feet may have never touched the ground in more than two years, but she was grounded all the same.
That’s what hanging out with plants and trees will do to you. You become much more familiar and comfortable with silence. I no longer wake up to chaos and commotion. Instead, I move quietly through the morning and tour the botanical garden that lies right outside my door. Only the birds interrupt the silence. And in that silence I often found myself, as David Wagoner writes in his poem “Lost”:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must trust it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
That poem, written some 30 years ago, speaks powerfully to the things we can discover about ourselves through standing still, in silence. We grow in our sense of identity and in our connection to the frameworks that organize and guide our lives. By standing still, wherever we are, we have the opportunity to know those frameworks and to be known by them. In silence they become a more integral part of our destiny, cause, and calling.
Great coaching knows the power of silence. In any given coaching session, we may only ask our clients one profound, provocative question, but if we can hold our tongue while they think and feel their way through the answer, if we do not intrude upon the silence with further suggestions and ideas, if we are able to let go of the urge to talk, then the silence becomes what David Whyte calls, “Enough”:
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
Reading the news, listening to the radio, and watching television are not going to do that for us. Even coaching conversations can, at times, get in the way. To unlock the door to goodness, peace, and joy both for ourselves and for others requires that we become both familiar and comfortable with silence. It is there that we learn the who, what, when, where, how, and why of life.
Coaching Inquiries: Are you ready to open yourself up to life? How familiar and comfortable are you with silence? How could you experience more silence? Where could you go to stand still with the trees and the bushes? Would developing your inner wisdom make you more successful in your dealings with people? How could you become more connected to that wisdom on a daily basis?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Your Provision, Embrace Responsibility, was a perfectly wonderful piece. I needed it right now, after going through some therapy which is so helpful. This piece stands out to me like a signpost. Thanks.
Were you at my church in Columbus, Ohio this past week? I am completely fascinated that the LifeTrek Provision on responsibility and the pastor’s teaching on how to respond to life’s problems had such a similar message, during a week when I so needed to hear it. Seeing Star Wars also added to the feeling that God was speaking directly to me (through Yoda). I have spent enough time on the dark side by not embracing responsibility appropriately. Thank you for a perfect message!
In your Provision, Embrace Responsibility, you missed the chance to quote Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Book 6, Chapter 2(a), where Father Zosima’s brother says, famously: “Believe me, everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.”
Kate’s last two Career Pathways have resonated deeply with me. After working full time for 17 years, I’ve decided to request a reduction in my work schedule in order to achieve a better life balance. I look forward to talking with you more about how LifeTrek Coaching could facilitate my process.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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