[Part of a series, this essay continues our exploration Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow, specifically in the context of what may serve the healing process moving forward. The book is available.]
In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde wrote that “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”¹ Millions of voices have been silenced over hundreds of years by America’s narratives and collective Shadow. Yet, the mystical branch of every wisdom tradition and the deepening evidence of true science are increasingly clear that silence — becoming aware of, working with, and quieting our incessant mind chatter, and regularly retreating from the noise of our human-made infrastructure — is good for us and allows us to hear, see and feel more deeply. Each is true and necessary. Preventing the external silencing of any voice and encouraging and choosing the intentional silencing of our interior and exterior noise are necessary for individual and societal health.
The United States’ external attempts to silence others is clear whether we look at the histories of women, Native Americans, and African Americans, or the attempts to impose our will and way of life on the people of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, among others. Despite formal statements regarding the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, also known as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, both formal and informal behavior and the nature of many of our systems and institutions at worst limit or deny these freedoms and at best make them inconvenient for selected people at specific times and in specific places. Revisit the links at the beginning of this paragraph for some examples.
On the other hand, the prospect of intentionally choosing silence (and its sibling, stillness) remains and may be becoming increasingly counter-culture, in cities for sure, but even in rural and suburban areas — anywhere people choose to be at the mercy of phones and apps, and yes, that includes the apps that invite us to engage stillness, silence, and meditation. Try the following suggestion the next time you eat a meal or snack alone in a quiet space (if it’s rare for you to eat in a quiet, private place, perhaps give yourself a brief opportunity to try this). It’s especially effective if what you’re eating is crunchy and requires robust chewing.
About halfway through a mouthful, simply stop chewing, and sit with the stillness and silence that remain for 10–15 seconds (or longer). Perhaps close your eyes. Simply notice how this feels, then begin chewing again. Stopping virtually any activity for a brief time period may bring you a similar experience.
Because of the expectations, speed, and noise that are common in American culture, getting still and silent may feel uncomfortable because of the apparent rewards for getting things done, getting them done quickly, and letting others know you got it done. Less apparent, research-based rewards for practicing stillness and silence, however, can positively impact blood pressure, heart rate, muscular tension, and the ability to focus attention (see resources below).
- Notice and speak out against the inappropriate silencing of others.
- Give yourself the gift of practicing silence and stillness every day — even for just a few minutes.
- Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, (Crossing Press, 1984), 41; and The Cancer Journals, (Penguin, 2020/1980), 13. The essay appears in both volumes.
- Some resources (among many) regarding the benefits of intentional silence:
An Ode to Silence: Why You Need It in Your Life
And how to find more of it Silence. Some of us welcome it. For others, the thought of sitting in silence is enough to…
The power of silence: 10 benefits of cultivating peace and quiet
We live in an increasingly noisy world. The constant drone of traffic, household appliances, music, television and…
How Listening to Silence Changes Our Brains
Quiet is increasingly scarce in the modern world. But growing evidence shows that we need it for our health and…