I had a striking experience recently of our need for silence as well as our need to allow things to grow rather than forcing them.
A few days ago, I attended two events with poet-philosopher, David Whyte, whose contemplations, stories and poems urge us to follow our own very particular path through life with enough courage to face the changing seasons, the thresholds and the challenges that confront us. As he relates a story, or offers us a poem, he is generous with his use of silence. As listeners, we get time to soak up the images evoked by his words. When we meet wisdom cloaked in the potency of narrative or poetry we seem to need a lot of quietness to take it in.
Coming to the events, this kind of silence was notably absent. I usually love arriving early at performances or workshops. I like the sense of intimacy as a community of largely unknown people prepare ourselves to receive something. I love the mood of expectation, the chance to see if friends are present, or simply feel myself part of this temporary community. On David Whyte’s last visit year, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in decades, and enjoyed the buzz as old friends reunited and new ones encountered each other.
On this occasion, the hosts of these events denied us these moments of preparation and quietness as a ‘warm up guy’ on the stage invited appreciation of our speaker from the audience. Although I have no doubt those who contributed felt genuinely appreciative of David Whyte’s work, it diverted us from gathering and experiencing ourselves as a collective. Our attention, instead of being in our hearts and with the gathering crowd, was directed towards the stage. This well-intentioned host awkwardly enforced an intimacy which was at odds with the gentle version David Whyte cultivates.
I could feel the antipathy in the audience creating the reverse of a receptive mood. At the next event, I deliberately arrived late so I would not have to experience the ‘warm up’. Yet when I got to the venue, the action was still on stage and I could feel the coolness of the audience—the reverse of what was intended.
The experience made me realise several things.
- There is a huge difference between being forced to feel something and being invited to experience it. The warm up guy urged people onto the stage and commanded us, ‘C’mon, get intimate with each other!’
David Whyte allowed us to experience this intimacy by letting us listen in attentive silence to what he offered or, during a longer workshop, by inviting occasional conversation in pairs or threes in response to what we heard. Intimacy arises best through trust, warmth and the sharing of deep truths at the right moment.
- We yearn for precious silence, for allowing a pause at a moment of depth or when we are in preparation for something new.
I see this often in my own work, the need to allow a long, full silence when an insight arrives. This silence allows the wisdom we have revealed to reverberate in ways that seem to open, comfort and cleanse those parts of us most in need of care.
- We can trust a group to gather in a receptive mood, and convey our trust not by telling people they must feel it, but by silently welcoming its presence. Trust can happen in silence or at least, quietly, through a mood of appreciation, of warmth, and by allowing people the freedom to enter the terrain of the heart.
Allowing is such an important gesture—Alice O Howell reminds us to do more allowing as we strive to grow inwardly:
…we might be mistaken in always thinking that we have to struggle and achieve our growth, and that the secret of inner growth might be better seen as an allowing rather than a frantic fighting for perfection—a cracking or perforating of our shell, allowing the light to begin streaming through us…
It’s always helpful to experience these jarring episodes. This one allowed me to ponder how we invite trust, intimacy and silence into our own lives—not by forcing them or commanding them to turn up, but by preparing and creating an atmosphere where we allow them to thrive.