A while back, I was participating in a guided meditation practice in a workshop at my yoga studio. The facilitator instructed us to imagine walking along a road that would lead us to a guide who would share wisdom with us, something we particularly needed to hear at this time. I followed the road and found myself in a meadow I have visited before in previous meditations. There is always a festival going on, with tents and maypoles and lots of people celebrating. At the periphery of the meadow I met my grandmother, Elsba, who has also appeared to me before in meditation. Into my palms she placed a large white pearl as she said, “There is much to be learned in silence.”
It may seem contradictory for a writer and writing teacher to be extolling the virtues of silence. After all, I make a large portion of my living from the desire of individuals, myself among them, to articulate their visions, thoughts, feelings and stories. And I always find it a privilege to be a witness to those expressions as over time they become ever more intricate, more articulate, more crafted.
At the same time, the whole world has gotten noisier. More people are practicing expression—be it in music, words, or images—than ever before. More people are disseminating information and opinions; the Internet provides an ever-expanding number of outlets for this expression. My email inbox is full; the FaceBook status feed is endless; I could spend all my time tweeting and texting and browsing and blogging. Never mind talk radio and its TV corollaries; never mind the 24-hour news cycle.
It seems that everyone is so busy expressing themselves that we are in danger of losing the art of listening. The anxiety to produce an expression makes it very hard to be receptive. If I’m preoccupied with formulating what I’m going to say, how can I devote time to taking in what you’re saying? One of the conversations that goes on among artists and writers these days is that if everyone is making art, who is left to receive it?
Not only is it hard to listen to one another, with disturbing ramifications for personal and social relations, but more importantly, it seems to be more challenging than ever to listen inside ourselves. To do this requires quiet, stillness, being at rest.
The internal and external pressures to produce make it difficult to seek or allow that silence. Many writing handbooks insist that one must write every day, or that one must produce a certain amount of pages each week. There’s a pressure to keep up a presence by posting frequently on social networking sites or blogs. We measure our productivity as artists in quantitative, rather than qualitative terms.
And I do find a certain diminishment of content can result. Where do we gather the wisdom, the depth that is so needed in our blathering culture if we are caught up in the same pressure to constantly blather?
What if our measure were not how much did we produce but rather, what is the quality of our ideas? Not how many pages did you generate today but, instead, what is the most important thing you have to say and have you explored it fully before you said it?
The author Thomas Carlyle said, “Silence is deep as Eternity, speech is shallow as Time.” It isn’t that I think writers and artists should cease our labors altogether. But I do think we might consider valuing our contemplation time as highly as we do our output.