Silence and the art of discerning

Photo by Dušan Smetana on Unsplash

The Resources

A lectio on lockdown

The lockdown here in New Zealand has forced most of us – except essential workers – to move to a different rhythm and at a different pace from our usual (whatever that may have been).

We have been limited to a bubble of relationships and pushed into finding ways to stay connected, to accommodate unwanted change, to support each other, to recognise and attend to our own needs and to acknowledge and grieve the needs that cannot currently be met. We have also been encourage to be kind, to be courageous with a strength that comes from the heart (kia kaha) and is not seated in individual heroics, but in a sense of community – everyone in this together.

I have noticed in the bubble that there are fewer distractions to diffuse the inner tensions between my desire to become the person I want to be (awakened, compassionate, wise, humble, grounded, joyful, generous, grateful) and the reality of the person I am (work in progress).

All of which is to say, I think, that if we enter into and embrace this time of slowing down and quietening down, then there is every chance we will hear the whisper of our souls calling us to greater authenticity, to fuller wholeness and to live from the deep wisdom that has been seeded within us since before time began and which needs only the encouragement of light to draw it forth – the light of your attention, the light of your awareness, the light of your energy.

I wonder what has risen to the surface of your awareness from this time apart?

For this central city dweller, one of the most notable aspects of the lockdown has been an increased outer quiet – so little traffic noise on the road or in the air – and generally fewer interactions with fewer people.

As with meditation, the outer quiet draws attention to the inner tumult. For a while, it is nice to escape the noise and to unhook from the busyness….but it can be hard to sustain the relish of an hour’s quiet when it becomes an extended reality. We can start to look for a little drama, a little entertainment or a nice fuzzy distraction to take the edge off the interior buzzing. Have you noticed that happening?

Kathleen Dowling Singh suggests that the practice of silence is the doorway to liberation from illusion, in part because our speech allows us to continue spinning the story of who we are, what we like, what we dislike, what we assume about ourselves and others, what we expect of ourselves and others etc. etc. The ego loves to play and replay these stories and talking hooks us, swiftly and easily, into selfing which is also storying, which is always partial and limiting and ultimately illusory.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

As important as it is for us to tell our story, the deeper truth is that you are not the story you tell about yourself.

The practice of silence – the big dream

This is about more than simply not speaking. To practice silence is to take an inner attitude of receptivity to grace and insight, this way our silence is not a ‘No’ to speech, but rather a ‘Yes’ to an affirming presence, a radiant awareness of the essential nature at the heart of being.

Kathleen outlines two ways to engage in the practice of silence.

Noble silence is like a monastic vow of silence – it is refraining from all conversation (not all speech – it’s fine to ask for the salt or greet the bus driver). Although it is mostly associated with retreats and monks, it can also be practiced at home for a short or an extended period of time. Any time you can allot to the practice of noble silence – a part of each day or a few hours a week – will keep you moving in the flow of your intention to unhook from the story, to open to grace, to awaken to the fullness of now. If you want to practice noble silence in your every day, simply inform those around you of your intention so that they can support you and then resist your own urges to engage in conversation and unnecessary speech for the time you have specified.

Essential silence is the other way to practice silence and it can be practiced all day and every day, but it does require a discerning heart. If noble silence is like a fast from words, essential silence is like being on a diet. No word snacks. No word binges. No junk words. Only essential words, only appropriate words….and so we must listen deeply and learn how to discern in order to choose wisely.

Essential silence plunges us into self awareness as we must listen to our desire and intention when choosing to speak or not to speak. Essential silence is not cool and aloof, nor is it fearful or withholding.

As we learn to be aware of the movements of our motivation in speaking we need to discern if we are being quiet to avoid a challenge or avoiding taking a stance? Are we avoiding speaking as an easy way out? Are we silent in denial or in separation?

Are we speaking in service to our self or in service to our awakening? An awakened heart is warm, open, joyful, playful, authentic and honest.

When we dwell in spacious grace, the need for storying falls away.

The practice of silence – the small steps

If you aren’t ready to plunge into the deep end with silence, you might ease yourself into the pool with these poems and reflection questions…

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves.

Pablo Neruda

Language ~ by Rumi

To speak the same language is to share the same blood, to be related
To live with strangers is the life of captivity
Many are Hindus and Turks who share the same language
Many are Turks who may be alien to one another
The language of companionship is a unique one
To reach someone through the heart is other than reaching them
through words.
Besides words, allusions and arguments
The heart knows a hundred thousand ways to speak


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

― Mary Oliver

Read each poem through slowly, savouring them line by line, and noting any words or phrases that particularly speak to you. Return to the poem or line that has stirred something within you and reflect on it, gently asking questions along these lines:

  • where in my life have I or am I experiencing this? what has that been like for me?
  • how might I say this in my own words?
  • what is this inviting me to? how do I want to respond?
  • where am I at with this now?

You’ll probably want to journal with these questions and they may lead you into deeper thinking, but once you have reached a place of stillness in your processing, give yourself time to pause there with awareness and the open hearted intention of being present to the ebb and flow of thoughts without needing to follow them or give them any of your energy…allow yourself to open to the liberation of silence, letting go of the story and the story teller, and let yourself be held in this warm, open embrace without the need to put words around what you are feeling/thinking/sensing.

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