A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Quaker wedding. 1 As part of the ceremony, we sat in silence for close to an hour, punctuated now and then by someone speaking briefly, then lapsing back into silence. It was an unusual ceremony. I felt uncomfortable in the silence. I had the urge to speak, to do something to break the quiet. Other people who weren’t Quakers found it difficult as well. Personally, I think I am not used to that amount of quiet contemplation. I was reminded of the famous Blaise Pascal quote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
We rarely have silence in our lives. Or rather, we have moments of silence, but never moments of stillness as well. To sit for an hour, not doing anything apart from listening to your own thoughts is an intimidating process. Yet it’s something Quakers seek out in their practice. Other religious practices do the same thing, with silent prayer and long meditations. I’m not a religious man, but I have found smaller doses of silence an effective tool to clear out the noise and focus on the signal.
Generally, I think we need to seek out these still moments. It’s important for art and for your own health, even if it’s only for ten or so minutes. The world is only getting noisier and more frantic day by day. If you stop for a moment, you can hear what you actually think. You can hear all the nonsense that churns around in your head day by day. If you do it enough, you might actually realise what you want.
The only problem is that this process is hard and uncomfortable. We crave stimulation at all time and even ten minutes of silence can be too much. Added to the fact that true silence doesn’t really exist, unless you’re holding your breath in the void of space. It seems such an alien thing to do. I struggled with it in the wedding. The silence becomes oppressive and all-encompassing. Time moves slower. The temptation is to say or do something to break the silence.
This process of silence is essential for the creation of new work. You need to be able to listen to the world and listen to yourself as well. It’s often hard to figure out exactly what the interesting part of the work is. Focusing on the work is another issue, especially in the age of constant distraction. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, I try to put it aside and either sit in silence for a bit or go for a walk without listening to any music. It allows me to figure out what I really want to communicate. By removing audio stimulation, I am able to focus easier.
Wendell Berry said it best in How to be a Poet:
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.>
Please read the whole poem, because it is masterful. I especially love these lines. It shows that poetry and the art of creation is a sacred practice. It should be treated with reverence, like a prayer. It’s communing with your subconscious in a way that doesn’t happen very often in modern life. In this way, we can create something new.
Like all this advice I give, I’m not brilliant at incorporating silence into my life.2 It’s hard to find the time. I feel guilty for not writing or reading in my limited spare time. But I’ve started walking home in silence, not listening to a podcast or music. It’s helped my mind roam and ruminate over thoughts and concepts. Occasionally I write down a line or two, but that’s not the purpose. It’s time to check in with myself and figure out what’s going on.
We need less stimulation than we think we do. We would all do well to sit quietly in a room alone.