By Hugh Russell -
I grew up as the oldest child in a large family. Our home was filled with activity and noise, and if you wanted to be heard you had to talk fast and you had to be loud. I have noticed that I carried those habits of communication into my adulthood. Through my own spiritual practice and experiences as a life coach, I have discovered silence as a valuable improvement tool. As a life coach I have to frequently remind myself and my clients of the value of silence. It is easy to become so focused on goals, actions plans, to do lists, and activities that we forget to pause and make space for silence. However, as we practice creating more silence in our lives, we may be surprised by the wisdom, calm, and insight that often arises spontaneously out of silence. Listed below are several situations where silence can be particularly useful.
1.When you are listening.
Are you truly present to the other person when you have a conversation? Or are you already planning what you are going to say next? Or worse, are you thinking of something unrelated? Next time you are in a conversation with someone, try practicing being present with silence. In addition to paying attention to their words and gestures, just notice what it is like to simply be with them without needing to respond with words. Allow yourself to focus on the essence of the other person with exquisite attention and awareness. Perhaps you will notice something beautiful about this person that you have never noticed before.
2. When you are speaking.
We often fill up space with unnecessary words. If we take time to slow down when we speak we will likely express ourselves with more clarity and thoughtfulness. Most of us have probably experienced times where we spoke without thinking things through. In a recent news conference President Obama was being pressed by a reporter about why he waited several days to publicly express his anger about a company who received money from the government bailout giving large bonuses to executives. Obama’s calm response was, “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.” Regardless of your politics, the practice of waiting to speak until we know what we are talking about seems like a wise one. Even just a brief silence before we speak can help ensure that our words are a thoughtful response rather than an emotional reaction. Another way to improve communication with silence is taking brief pauses after making a point to make sure that the person we are talking with is following along and understanding what we are saying. Too often we rush through our thoughts without knowing if we are being understood. As a listener, I find that I feel more connected with the other person when I have those pauses to digest what they are saying and to ask questions if needed.
3.When you are about to say something negative.
If what you are about to say is truthful, kind, and useful, then say it; if not, silence is often best. Although there are times when it is appropriate to share authentic frustrations and negative feelings, we often spend too much of our time saying things that are negative, gossipy, and unkind. Gossip and negative comments zap energy from ourselves and from those around us. The next time you notice yourself about to say something negative, pause for a moment. Consider what you want to get out of saying that thing. Are you looking for support? Sympathy? A way to connect with someone else? Is there another way to get what you are looking for? It can be helpful to have a supportive accountability partner because we often are unaware of the negative comments we are making and the impact our comments have on those around us. For example, in my former workplace, we started a conscious practice that if you became aware that you were about to say something negative, you had to pause quietly and raise your hand. The physical act of raising our hand provided a means for us to get encouragement from each other whenever we showed constraint. We served as each other’s accountability partner by gently, even playfully, bringing to the speaker’s attention any negativity that they expressed. It was amazing how quickly the environment at work improved.
4. When you need to rest.
Our body-mind functions most optimally when it has an opportunity to restore. Many of us spend our free time watching television, on the computer, playing video games, or filling our minds with noise in other ways. While these may be enjoyable, they are not restful or restorative for the mind or body. Taking even just a few moments of conscious silence each day can be deeply restorative and rejuvenating. You can start by taking ten mindful breaths in silence. Silence allows you to enter a deeper state of relaxation. As you switch from doing to being you will notice your breath and heart rate slowing down and your body returns to balance.
5. When you are overwhelmed.
Thoughts have a physical effect on your body by releasing chemicals that are processed by cell receptors located in every organ of your body. Silence gives your body a break from the physical effects of your thoughts and provides your body a chance to start restoring balance.
6. When the answer to a problem can only be found within you.
When faced with a problem we often run to other people to find out what they think we should do. Taking time for silence can allow an opportunity for your inner wisdom to provide you with a solution that is best for you rather than what someone else thinks is best for you.
7. When you need to face yourself.
We often use noise as a distraction so that we don’t have to face some emotional or physical struggle within ourselves. These struggles will get progressively louder until we deal with them. I know of one lady whose body was signaling her that she was sick. She was convinced that she had cancer. Instead of seeking medical help she surrounded herself with increasingly more distractions until she could not put off going to the doctor. Unfortunately she did have cancer, and it was so far along that there was nothing she could do about it. She died soon after.
8. When you need to focus.
Spending a few minutes in silence before starting an activity can help you move forward with greater consciousness and presence, allowing you to focus and perform more optimally.
9. When you pray.
Too often our prayer life can be so focused on telling God what we want that we forget to listen to God. Silence in prayer allows us to receive God’s answer. How God speaks to us varies based on our particular situation and our own style of receiving and listening. Thomas Keating states it this way:
The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts and emotions
Thomas Keating. Open Mind, Open Heart.
Look for moments during the day to add silence to your life. You may want to pause before making a phone call or before eating. When having a conversation, remember to give space to the other person. Try turning off the television for a few hours, a day, a week, or even a month. Notice the difference that makes. Experiment with having less time in front of the computer.
Hugh Russell helps individuals, small businesses and non-profit agencies identify, implement and sustain improvements. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Spiritual Life Coaching website for access to more resources.