As I was gathering up my yoga mat and water bottle for class the other week, one of my classmates tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey! Did you hear about our next assignment?”
I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I held the bottom of my exhale. I had missed the first hour of YTT on Thursday evening and now I missed some major assignment that had everyone uneasy. My thoughts started to race: Oh god. It’s probably another eye gazing assignment. No, worse, I thought. Something much more vulnerable. God, why are we still on this vulnerability piece anyways?
My friend continued, interrupting my wild ideas, “We have to take a 24 hour vow of silence.”
I looked at her astounded. “That’s it?” I said as I let out a huge sigh of relief, “What’s so hard about that?”
To be honest…I was excited. I felt like I was being given a “Get Out of Jail Free” card where I wouldn’t have to deal with anything or engage in the unnecessary drama of someone else’s story. In my head, I pictured the perfect scenario:
Holding hand up to ear: Oh, you want to talk about what?
Shaking head: Sorry can’t.
*points to sign* I’M TAKING A VOW OF SILENCE TODAY
Smile. Nod. Namaste.
The thought of existing in silence made my classmates uneasy, but I jumped at what I considered an opportunity to “take a break.”
You see, silence for me is a way to disconnect. An introvert by nature, silence allows me to recharge from all the noise in my life. When I consider my favorites moments, I am drawn to those times I am sitting in stillness with nothing but the sound of my own breath and maybe the sound of a pen as it touches and clicks across the blank space of a page. Over the years, it’s taken a bit of practice to get to this place, but this controllable silence has become a sort of refuge for me. In other words, it’s easy to be silent with yourself when you are alone by yourself. Taking a vow of silence for 24 hours – actually practicing silence in the midst of chaos and other people’s reactions – proved to be an entirely different story.
Fun fact: when you are silent, people tend to become a lot more animated and vocal.
For starters, my 8-year-old felt it was his job to “get” me to talk, as if by getting me to break my vow of silence, he’d win. Don’t ask me what he’d win, but it became a game for him. He started with emotional maneuvers, trying to guilt me with, “So you won’t even talk to me today?” and then proceeded to use brute force by beating me up and chasing me around the house. Thankfully this “game” only lasted 2 hours. More than anything, it was interesting to watch how different people responded to The Silent Girl. Some people were simply amused. Some were supportive and kind. Others were dumbfounded, put off and angry. And, for one person, it wasn’t until I left her presence that her outbursts and attempts to get me to talk stopped.
I began to think about how much humans value speech – its presence and what those words mean – how even the absence of words can be prescribed meaning – how we seem to define ourselves through our ability to think and talk our way through something. We seem to think that without talking there is no meaning. In my vow of silence I started to see a verbal conversation as a meeting between two people, a sort of third person, if you will, that creates space between two people. What begins as “thinking in words” on the interior, is projected outward with a specific coloring, where it meets and dances with the words and sentences of the other person. Because we use our words to think through things, we often talk too much and end up using our words for ulterior means: a sword, an embellishment, a container, beautification, subversion, a veil, a wall, a puzzle, or most often – as a story. In silence I started to see how speech became a safety net, a way to guard and reassure and explain ourselves and how in its absence, we became uncomfortable and exposed and vulnerable.
Confession: Silence – real stillness, not the self-made kind – scares me.
Awkward pauses where I don’t know what to say, make my heart pound. The silence of others really listening to me, their eyes all on me, makes me feel so exposed. Even the silence of waiting for my words, not being able to pre-write my thoughts, seems to put up an invisible wall. The thought of talking less in my classes, letting my students have silence, leaves me so unsure and unsteady. For the girl who loves silence, this type of silence is of a different degree.
This is the paradox of silence:
we want silence, but only on our terms and as a way to disengage from the truly raw and vulnerable moments of life – and on the other hand, we are terrified of real silence and what we might uncover about ourselves without the veil of words to hide behind.
Because I couldn’t label or give things a name, because I couldn’t add my two cents to whatever was going on, I was forced to observe and the more I observed, the more I got a chance to see and feel things, not through my words, but through my body. I realized how often I used words as a way to pinpoint things that cannot be pinpointed by words alone. How I used words for things that can only be experienced. I realized my own “thinking in words” grew softer in the absence of my voice. It was easier to remind myself in the recesses of my mind, I am taking a vow of silence, and return to the natural rhythm and sound of my breath, than it was if I was verbally ordering myself to be quiet. By getting quiet, I was able to simply observe other’s speech – to see their reactions as a product of their words entangled with emotion and meaning – without taking any of it on.
When we sit in stillness, we are profoundly active. In keeping silent, we hear the roar of existence. Through our willingness to be one with who we are, we become one with everything. This is the quietest revolution.