Why the sound of silence is terrifying

The first episode of BBC2 programme The Big Silence really moved me. The documentary takes five people whose lives are consumed by ‘busyness’ and puts them into an eight-day silent retreat – the point being that they will eventually listen to their soul and discover their true selves.

As someone whose entire existence depends on being busy, I recognised the ‘disease’ presented in the programme. Father Christopher, a monk who has set this challenge, said we should all find 20 minutes every day to sit in silence and meditate, otherwise our soul will die.It seems so simple, yet so difficult to find 20 solitary minutes in a diary that has no room for manoeuvre, space or spontaneity.

And the thought of spending days without doing anything, or talking to someone, has me panicking, feeling claustrophobic, and clamouring to be let out and back to busyness. For me, there’s a belonging in being busy; a connectedness in constantly checking for text or email messages on my smart phone; a significance in sliding from deadline to deadline. Without that busyness, I fear I have nothing. And so I defend against that black hole of deafening silence.

I especially identified with Carrie in the programme, who has been busy since her Dad died six years ago. She’s scared to stop and listen for fear of what she might hear. I’ve been feeling the same for over 11 years, since my Dad died. I’ve felt such an emptiness since then, which I’ve filled with dancing, partying, working (especially working). I only know how to ‘do’, not how to ‘be’.

I can sit in silence and enjoy the quiet time in the evening with no television on, and just the hum of the fridge and the whirr of car engines passing outside. But to sit and truly listen to what’s going on around me – to listen to the stars and the candle flame, as they were encouraged to do on the programme – seems, to me today, to be a silence too far, too unattainable.

I feel uncomfortable with other people’s silence. Socially, if there is a lull in conversation, I feel obliged to fill it with something. Always better than nothing. And when I’m counselling clients on my placement, I fear the moment when they dry up and look to me to lead them from their discomfort onto dryer, safer territory. And I battle everything within me so I can stay quiet and sit with that silence, terrifying though it is – knowing that it’s often in the privilege of uninterrupted silence that clients can begin on the road to true understanding.

If only I practised that on myself: if only I could sit and not flinch from silence. I’m beginning to wonder if, in the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem The Invitation, what sustains me when all else falls away – and do I truly like the company I keep in the empty moments?

Right now, I’m scared to find out. So I’ll just keep on keeping busy. For now…

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