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What I Learned In Silence

February 22nd, 2017

Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom,” wrote the late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author of Thoughts in Solitude, upon entering the Monastic life.

Hi there!

I love the phrase, “the four walls of my new freedom” because it seems counterintuitive and yet rings true for me. When I limit myself or am disciplined, I feel more free.

Speaking of limits and discipline, I recently returned from a Silent retreat. What a fascinating, challenging and transformative experience!

I’m no stranger to Silence. In fact, it’s one of my closest companions. After all, I live in Wyoming where there are not many people. It’s not hard to find Silence on an hourly, if not daily, basis. Add to that I work alone, and I enjoy a lot of Solitude.

Socrates said, “Know Thyself.” In my humble experience, Solitude is the medium for self realization. I think self awareness is the first, and most important, step to living a happy and fulfilled life, and that the best way to discover, and come to know yourself is to spend time alone.

I’m also no stranger to meditation and mindfulness. I’ve meditated off and on for the last 24 years, and I’ve kept up a mindfulness practice every single weekday morning since Feb. 2013. It has been a game changer for me. (Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of one of the most influential books I’ve read, Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Before I practiced mindfulness on a regular basis, during times of stress and overwhelm, I didn’t have that space, that pause. Mindfulness practice has taught me how to create that pause, and it has made a huge difference in my life. Now, more times than not, I respond instead of react, and what a difference there is between the two. In short, responding is thoughtful and reacting is not.

And while what I signed up for, and traveled to Ojai, CA for, would include a lot of Silence and Mindfulness, it was more than that. It would be a Silent retreat, with no speaking, but also no technology (no iPhone or Facebook, etc.), which also meant no contact with family and friends. In addition, there would be no music, books or other “entertainment.” And, it would all be part of a workshop with Byron Katie. All of this would be among 115 other people, and while living in a community. This would be a difficult challenge for me, and I was eager for it.

Katie, author of several books, including Loving What Is, is famous for what she calls “The Work,” a method of self inquiry that she encourages people to do in Stillness/Meditation. The Work has helped millions of people change their lives for the better. So to be in the presence of Katie, and to witness her doing The Work with people in attendance who would be brave enough to share about their suffering would be a meaningful experience in and of itself. But no question, the main reason I signed up was to be Silent amidst people, something I had never experienced before for any length of time.

And boy, did I learn a lot from the experience.

Here are some things I learned from being in Silence:

–At the outset of the retreat, we were instructed to not give each other eye contact. It was suggested as a way to make it a little easier for people who would have a hard time not engaging with others. That for sure made the experience more challenging. I value connection, and eye contact, for me, helps make it possible, so this would make the Silence even more awkward and challenging. One of the “tricks” I told myself about this instruction was that keeping one’s eyes downcast can demonstrate humility. Humility is one of the attributes I value most in people, and, in my opinion, is what often makes a person kind, and a leader inspiring and approachable.

–As if no talking and no eye contact wasn’t challenging enough, we had no name tags. So we were Silent, not giving eye contact, and “nameless.” This is one of the things I came for. To be more anonymous and to get practice at that. (I wrote recently in a blog post, “Hungry,” that, among other things, I want to be more anonymous.)

–I like to help put people at ease, and I’m well-practiced at trying to do so. As I sat in Silence with people all around me, feeling the difficulty of not even offering simple pleasantries with one another really highlighted my want, and ability to help put others (read: myself) at ease. It was difficult and fascinating at the same time to resist the urge of trying to reduce social discomfort.

–As people, we are social animals. Most of us, unfortunately, find such Silence in large groups awkward. As a society, we want to fill the space. Notice the next time you’re in a conversation on the phone, in person, or in a group, or with a close friend… If the conversation fades and silence enters, it’s quickly “filled.” That’s what most of us do — we quickly try to fill empty space because it feels awkward and unnatural for it to just hang there, with no words in the air.

This reminds me of something writer Cal Fussman shared in a conversation with Tim Ferriss. A great writer and master interviewer, Fussman challenges us to “let the Silence do the work.” In other words, next time you ask someone a question, or you’re in a conversation and it goes quiet, dare to just let it be. Don’t jump in and try to fill the space out of discomfort. Certainly the Silent retreat felt that way for hours at a stretch. There was a lot of Silence hanging in the air, and it felt both unfamiliar and liberating. The Silence felt like possibility. I will be working to let the Silence do the work…

–When we spend time alone, available only to our own thoughts, as a listener to and noticer of our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly, we discover and come to know ourselves. I personally enjoy a lot of Solitude. For example, I hike 1,000 miles a year. Half of those are hiked alone, and it’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with. I think that more than any other habit in my life, Solitude is the one that is most responsible for my blessed life. I have a clarity about who I am and who and how I want to be that is invaluable. This self awareness informs me about what to say Yes to and what to say No to in my life. It is my guide for how to be my best. I feel so strongly that self awareness is the key to living our best life that I cover its importance in the keynote presentation I’m hired to deliver to corporations and conferences, “Epic Leadership Lessons Learned in the Field,” and I promote getting regular intervals of it to my coaching clients. The experience of Solitude I enjoyed every morning and evening, on my own exploring trails or at my AirBnb refuge confirmed for me its importance.

–Silence isn’t empty. It’s full. I recall the words of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest.” Indeed, Silence is not empty. In fact, the chatter that goes on inside each of our heads is quite voluminous. Often, it’s anything but empty or “silent.” Sometimes in Silence there was so much going on in my head that I wished Silence were empty!

– Without talking, or any music or other audio distractions, we are better listeners. We are better at noticing things. I noticed the sound of my rental car’s blinker, even. Take away talking and you hear everything, and small details or things we normally wouldn’t notice can become fascinating. I was reminded of an excerpt from Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures of Going Nowhere: “Sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

–Speaking of noticing, the definition of mindfulness that I love best is that of Ellen Langer’s. Langer is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of mindfulness.” (Check out this fantastic conversation with her.) She says mindfulness is simply noticing things. That is all you have to do: Pay attention. Take notice. I noticed a lot. I remember going on a caving expedition one time and, for a few minutes, we turned our headlamps off so we could experience total darkness. It was total darkness. Nothing but black. During that experience, I remember thinking all of my other senses were heightened, as if you when remove one sense your other senses, in compensating, or in being more freed up, become even more attuned. This is how I felt for the five days when I did not say a single word. All of my other senses were heightened. I heard more. I saw more. I felt more. I smelled more.

–I am a very curious person and, not to brag, but I’m a pretty good listener. I work hard at it. I love meaningful connections and conversations. I love to ask people questions, and to hear their responses and to learn about them. It was so challenging for me to not be able to do this, and to not think of it as so many lost opportunities. And, as is usually the case, the challenge of it taught me new skills and insights.

–Speaking of new skills, I honed an important skill – resisting. Saying No to my normal behaviors and trying something different than what I am used to. I learned some skills that I know will serve me in certain situations when I have a strong desire to say something, but prefer not to.

–I love to share and contribute, especially if I think that what I share will be of some value. I share a lot publicly, in my work, in my blogging, and in my relationships. Sharing is part of who I am. However, I decided in advance of the workshop that while I’d do the assigned work, I’d mostly be an observer and see what I could learn and how I could personally grow from the experience. However, I quickly realized that “observing” felt like watching, and I didn’t want to be a spectator but to be immersed and participating and getting the most out of this unique experience. I resolved to pay very good attention and try to notice as many things as I could. I also decided to challenge myself to not raise my hand and offer to contribute anything or do anything that would call attention to myself. I’m happy to report that I pulled this off. It was an uncommon experience for me, and frankly, I’m surprised I succeeded!  (I did find that writing all of the things I had felt called to ask or share later in a journal felt almost the same as expressing it to the group, which was an interesting learning, and could be helpful to me in the future as I try to navigate how I will limit my time online, which may result in limiting my public sharing.)

–There’s a saying that goes something like this: “If there are 5 of us, I’ll have 4 teachers.” Everyone I sat with in Silence during the workshop – people I didn’t get to “meet,” given our Silence – I felt a closeness to, and in a way I can’t explain, they were all my teachers during the five days. I still think of them now and can picture their faces. I can still hear the stories some of them shared while doing The Work with Katie. I am pulling for all of them…

–For 2017, I have resolved to “talk less” and say more. What this means, to me, is being more intentional about what I say, share or write about. Being in Silence, amidst 115 people for 5 days and not being able to talk was about the best practice there could be for talking less. I honed the skill, and now let’s see if I can use it. 🙂  Katie has an eloquent presence about her. You can see her carefully choosing/”searching” for the right words before she says them. It doesn’t feel like she’s editing, as much as she wants for her words to count. I really appreciate that, and was inspired by watching her be this way in her communication. She talked less, and in doing so, said more.

–Words matter. During a time when I said not a single word, I learned more than ever how much words matter. This truth has deeper meaning after witnessing so many people doing The Work around suffering. So much of it was/is tied to something a parent said or a partner said that has had lasting, negative impacts on the person and his/her life. As a wife and a parent, in particular, but also as a coach that people trust, it was an important reminder that our words matter, and that we should not be careless or reckless with them.

-Some struggle more than others when required to be in Silence. I wonder if people who consider themselves shy might find this not as awkward as people who consider themselves outgoing? And yet maybe even shy people find this Silent setting hard because no one is speaking up. There are no extroverts taking the lead to start or carry the conversation.

–Some people are better at Stillness than others. For example, the woman who sat next to me on the first two days, was very good at sitting still and quietly. She hardly fidgeted. I have a lot of energy and can be still, but not as easily. I fidget a lot. At home I never sit for long, walking during my phone calls, and only sitting for stretches of 60-90 minutes at most, and not all day long. So it wasn’t that I was bored as much it was hard to sit so still for such long periods.

–While I love people and can be with a lot of people, as I get older, I’m becoming more of an introvert. (Technically, I’m what Dan Pink would call an ambivert. You can take his quiz here). This experience was sort of like a combination of being alone and in a crowd all at once. I found myself in a large crowd for several hours each day, but “off the hook” as far as having to socialize. It was difficult and awesome at the same time!

—If the lights were dimmed or off, I think the Silence would not be as difficult or awkward because we could more easily “hide,” which would make the awkwardness of Silence amidst so many people not as challenging. The lights were on and we couldn’t hide in the darkness. This was valuable. There were no shortcuts or ways to make the experience easier. Not to diminish my point, but I know it’s the same when I have sunglasses on. I feel a little bit hidden when people cannot look into my eyes. When I wear earbuds on an airplane, even if I have nothing playing into them, it sends the signal that I’m unavailable and, in this small way, helps me to hide.

–During the experience, I wondered about people who don’t feel they have a voice, and how it must feel to be Silenced against your will. I felt compassion for people who don’t get to have a voice.

–In Silence, time slows down. The 60 minutes of Stillness twice a day while waiting for the main workshops to begin, were very long. Because I love and value time, I appreciated that the 60 minutes were so long. Remember, no music, no reading, no eye contact, no darkness, no visiting, just sitting. Removing all of the normal distractions stretches the time. Who doesn’t want time to seem more abundant?

–To use a word from OnBeing‘s Krista Tippett, I was more “porous.” More was allowed into me as a result of the Silence. I felt my feelings more.

–Sherry Turkle wrote a book called Alone Together. The title refers to today’s times where you can be in a group of people, or with your family in the same room, but you’re not really together, rather you’re what Turkle calls alone together. You are physically close together, but you’re each far away, alone in your own worlds, thanks to your devices and their capability to connect you to friends and things that are “not here.” During the retreat, many of us waited, in Silence, for the doors to open for the workshop seasons, and we were all alone in our own worlds, looking down and away from each other. Alone together took on a new meaning for me. It felt like we were alone, but together in our Stillness. 

-Speaking of alone and Silence, if you’re human and you’re normal, you are hardly alone when in you’re in Silence, what with all of the endless chatter and inner dialogues going on your head. In fact, it could probably be argued that there’s a lot more going on when you’re alone with your thoughts than if you’re in a conversation with others.  

–Everyone has a story. I know this, of course. Especially in my work as a life coach, I know firsthand of the suffering so many experience. Still, when you can’t talk and project yourself, or exchange information about yourself –– you can’t edit and share the story you want to share – we make up our own imagined stories about others. When we do this we know we’re not basing them on anything but our imagination and/or past stereotypes and/or experiences, but still it is a little unfair. I caught myself imagining the stories of many of the people around me at the workshop each day. It was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t nail any of the stories.

–Hiding. I figured out before traveling to California for the Silent retreat and workshop that I do a fair amount of “hiding.” And thanks to  David Whyte, and his Hiding essay in the wonderful Consolations, I am positive that hiding can be a good thing. He writes, Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light. Hiding is one of the brilliant and virtuoso practices of almost every part of the natural world: the protective quiet of an icy northern landscape, the held bud of a future summer rose, the snow bound internal pulse of the hibernating bear. Hiding is underestimated. We are hidden by life in our mother’s womb until we grow and ready ourselves for our first appearance in the lighted world; to appear too early in that world is to find ourselves with the immediate necessity for outside intensive care. Boy, do I appreciate those words, but to be honest, too often they give me an out. I hide a little too much. I had noticed that when I am in Solitude, which is about half of my life, I’m effectively hiding from others – not always intentionally, but sometimes. When I’m in social situations, just being my best self and asking people questions and then listening to them, I’m effectively hiding myself from others – not always intentionally, but sometimes. Well, I’m here to report that when I found myself Silent amidst 115 people, I couldn’t hide from myself or others. That was uncomfortable, and a worthwhile experience to say the least! That is the Epic I signed up for right there, and boy did I get it!

–I don’t mean to brag, but I am an expert at self criticism. I think, over time, thanks to so much time in Solitude, and becoming so familiar with, and defending myself against what I’ve come to call the “Wrath of Shelli,” I’ve developed more understanding about myself, which has led, pleasantly, to more compassion for myself. But what I learned during the Silent retreat, especially along with witnessing so many people who were courageous enough to share their suffering with us and Katie in front of the room, is that if we’re brave enough to be honest with ourselves, we’re likely to respond to ourselves with compassion instead of criticism. This is a huge learning for me. I saw it happen before my eyes with 18 out of 18 people who did The Work. I could see the compassion for themselves start to appear as they acknowledged truths about themselves. And, I noticed it in myself throughout the five days as I reflected and did my own “Work” and worksheets on my own areas of suffering or negativity. The more honest I was willing to be, the more my self criticism gave way to compassion. Hallelujah to that. As Kelly McGonigal has suggested, self criticism is not motivating. Those of us who are self critical try to convince ourselves that when we are hard on ourselves it motivates us to work harder, but that is not what actually happens. It is unhealthy and not helpful. So for that reason alone – to try to become more self compassionate – I recommend periods of Silence and self inquiry. Create opportunities for stillness and then do an inventory around an issue that is weighing you down or holding you back. And, dare to be honest.

–I prayed a lot, and prayer came more naturally for me.

–I consider myself a grateful person. I hope I am appreciative because it is something I really appreciate in others, no pun intended. I found myself even more grateful than normal when given so much time with so few of the normal distractions in life. And anytime I’m grateful, I feel my best.

–Now, a major detour from the tone of the other things I learned… I returned to Wyoming with a tick from the trails of Ojai! Early on in the five days, while back at my AirBnB, I felt a nuisance and slight pain in the lower part of the back of my neck. I couldn’t reach it with my hand and I couldn’t see it in the mirror. When I got home, 6 days later, and asked Jerry to look at it, it was a tick! He removed it and I started freaking out about Lyme disease. Fortunately, my son, Hayden, informed me that only 1.2-1.7% of all ticks carry Lyme disease. That is helpful to know, for sure, and I feel fine as of today, but this was the only real “bummer” of the Silence. Maybe I would have asked someone to look at it, even a stranger, if not for the vow of Silence. Just something to think about for the next time I guess. 🙂

Thank you so much for reading. I value your time, so I appreciate your taking the time to read my thoughts.

I hope you’ll return soon. I will be publishing a blog post about what I learned with no iPhone or Facebook in my next blog post and it’s an important one for me as I’ve been struggling a lot as of late with my amount of tethered-ness to them. I will also be writing about what I earned from Byron Katie, uncertainty, daring to fail, deep work, and more.

Related posts:

Dear iPhone & Facebook: I Love You Too Much

Falling in love with Ojai, California

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I am a certified life and leadership coach, personal development consultant, keynote (inspired) speaker, leadership development facilitator, adventure guide. I’ve coached 130 individual leaders from across the U.S. during the last 6 years. If you, or someone you know, would like to change your life and/or your leadership impact, I’d be honored to coach you. If you’re interested, please email me. I also bundle coaching with wellness and guided “Epic Adventure.” All of the adventures are “unplugged,” and offer you Solitude and space and time to be inspired and reflective.

WOMEN: Do you want to make some changes to your life, and go on an Epic Adventure with me? Right now I’m recruiting for my Epic Women Zion National Park Day Hiking/Life & Leadership Coaching program, as well as my Epic Women Wind River Range Backpacking/Life & Leadership Coaching program. Please email me at coach@yourepiclife.com if you’d like information about either of these, or to schedule a call.

Stillness. Sunrise is my favorite time of day, and I captured this over Worthen Reservoir en route to a hike in my backyard, Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

  • Terri Watson says:

    I…..loved……this. Read on a quiet solo morning before work. And sitting with my Silence. Really meaty. Thanks!

    • Shelli says:

      Dear Terri,
      Thank you for your time in reading it, and I’m so glad you like it. It means a lot to me that you do. Thank you again, so much, for stopping by and reading it, and for your note! Fondly, Shelli

  • Martin Fox says:

    Go Shelli Go. Sounds like a wonderful experience.

  • Leann says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Shelli. I look forward to your next blog post!

  • Donna Sayles says:

    Hi Shelli, sounds like an amazing experience. As an extrovert myself, I too, can also say I value my time of solitude. The test revealed that I am also an ambivert. I’m not surprised since I truly appreciate my “alone” time as well as “social” time. Keep on writing, you have a beautiful gift! You should write a book!!

    • Shelli says:

      Dear Donna, THANK YOU so much for taking the time to read my blog and for your wonderful comment. And, thank you for your kind words about my writing. It means more than I can say! Thanks again.

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