Silence is often deemed to be intimidating. A threat. Awkward. We desperately try to fill it with background noise, elevator music or small talk. Many people hate sitting in a quiet room or working in a quiet office. I have worked with people who must have noise in the background.
The idea of not having noise around us, conversation, is strange to us. It makes us uncomfortable. We put the TV on even when we’re not really watching it, “just to have on in the background”. Stores are filled with the sound of radio or music which customers don’t really listen to, but the sound just fills the air.
Our perception, our preconceived notion, is that “silence” is silent. That there is absolutely no noise at all. Indeed, if that were the case, then we may well have cause to dislike it. The World’s Quietest Room (the artificially constructed anechoic chamber at the Orfield Labs in Minneapolis), which is designed to absorb sound, is said to be a very unpleasant experience, which reportedly no one has managed to stay in alone for more than 45 minutes. It is unnaturally quiet for our planet, of course, and has to be artificially produced. The thing is, silence on this earth of ours isn’t true silence. When you allow yourself to be immersed in “silence”, and you actually start actively to listen to it, you find that it is full of sound. There is always something to hear when you really listen. In the many hundreds of mindfulness and relaxation exercises I have taken part in, and delivered, in one quiet room or another, there is always an element of being aware of the sounds in the room, or the sounds outside. Birds, wind, trees, or simply the sound of your own breath.
Me? I like silence. I often work in it. I enjoy it. I feel at peace. I rarely put music on just to have in the background, and I never use the television that way. For me, “silence” represents calm. Listening to the sounds of silence is a way for me to quiet my mind, to focus, to relax.
But it is more than that. Silence is a tool for learning how to listen.
Awareness, actively listening, to what is actually there, is a great skill. Our clever brains often fill in gaps for us. Instead of using our senses to gather all the data, we allow our brains to do that for us. Which can be useful. But can also mean that we begin with preconceptions of what is happening. Our understanding can be clouded by information that our brains have filled in, without really gathering the data on what is actually there. Our preconception of silence is that it is something unpleasant, something completely empty and devoid of sound at all. So if we don’t remove that preconception, we don’t hear what is actually there.
If you can immerse yourself in silence, accept it, become unafraid of it, and stop trying to speak over it or fill it with meaningless noise, you can start to discover what listening really is. It is only when you truly listen that you really know what is there. Your breath may not be visible, but you can hear it. The breeze is hidden until it gives away its presence by rustling the leaves in the trees. You can remove your preconceptions, and realise that our earth is constantly full of sound. It is not silent.
Listening effectively to others can start with listening to silence.
Removing preconceptions is, I believe, the key to truly listening. When you listen with no preconceived ideas of what the person is trying to say, you actually hear what they are saying. You hear their pauses. Their silence isn’t really silent at all. Remove your own discomfort with silence, and you stop being tempted to fill the silence they leave. You allow them to speak instead. You give them space to hear their own voice, and often to discover their own answers.
This is a skill we can all learn. One that improves everyone’s quality of life. I believe that by removing the comfort blanket of background noise, and instead becoming comfortable with the sounds of silence, we accelerate our learning of this most valuable skill.
I created this post in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge Sound of Silence
©Liz Wootton, 2014. All Rights Reserved.