Silence plays a uniquely important role in any deep engagement with oneself, others, life, or the transcendent. Consequently, people on a journey from the surface of life to those deeper places often ask me questions about it – things such as, what to do on a first silent retreat, what to do with the voices in their minds they hear when they meditate, and why we seem to fear silence so much. These are excellent questions so let me say something in response to them. But first let me step back and say some things about silence itself.
Silence is the stillness of Presence – not simply our presence but the transcendent ground of all presence. It isn’t, therefore, something to achieve. Silence is our constant ignored companion. It never goes away. It is us who go away from it because it reminds us of the neglected inner garden that is our soul.
Robert Sardello points out that our tendency to think of silence as the absence of sound makes silence into emptiness – a kind of nothingness. But silence isn’t the absence of anything. Silence is prior to sound, not the lack of sound. It is the sound of existence; it is the music of pure being. And when we drop into silence we move into deeper contact with both the beauty of our own being and of Being itself.
This is the reason silence has such an important role to play in deep engagement with anything and everything. We remain on the surface of life until we allow silence to be part of our engagement with ourselves, others, the world or God. Our intimate relationships remain safe and superficial until we can be with the other in silence – not the passive aggressive forms of this that are so common but the open and trusting posture of presence that is so essential for genuine intimacy. And of course we also remain a stranger to our own being until we can simply be with ourselves in silence.
This explains what happens when we are still enough to intentionally drop into silence for even a short visit. Perhaps we are hoping to encounter God but what surprises us is that the space we attempt to clear for God seems to be filled with our thoughts. What should you do about this if you are trying to mediate? Simply release whatever you become aware of – and I do mean whatever (even thoughts of God) – and gently return to presence. Presence to anything is presence to everything. This means that presence to God always involves presence to self, just as presence to self always involves presence to God.
Silent retreats are a great way to show hospitality to your companion-silence, but they need not be formal. My first silent retreats were days spent alone on my sailboat and nights spent in secluded anchorages. I did this every summer for years, long before my first visit to a monastery for my first formal silent retreat. But remember, the point of such retreats is to be still in silence before yourself and God. Don’t treat the silence as an empty cup that you are hoping to have filled. Be content with simply being present in whatever degree of silence and stillness you can experience. And then allow that engagement with silence to be your threshold to deeper encounter with whatever it is that you encounter. This kind of silent retreat isn’t a time for reading or journaling. Nor is it a time for working through some problem. It’s a time to reconnect with your companion-silence. It’s a time for a step toward deeper engagement with yourself and God and preparation for deeper engagement with the world and with life itself. It’s practice in moving from the circumference of life to its center.