NOTE: This post is an excerpt from a presentation I delivered at the Illumin8 AZ 8/8/2017 event.
Silence can be described in many ways: from awkward and uncomfortable to peaceful and contemplative. It can be used as a tool for listening or for quietly judging people. Silence is powerful because it can make us feel many different emotions.
So, what is silence? It might sound silly to ask such a simple question, but we might otherwise be taking silence for granted. Technically, silence is "the absence of sound." What makes it powerful is that it leaves us alone with our thoughts. What can be so bad about that?
Listening to and understanding our thoughts through extended times of silence can change our beliefs about ourselves and that can be uncomfortable. We like to believe that our thoughts are orderly and connected, but they rarely are. We can prove this to ourselves if we take the time to listen to our thoughts in silence.
This type of silent listening is a practice called mindfulness, which is commonly defined as "awareness of present experience with acceptance." Mindful meditation is scientifically proven to strengthen parts of the brain that lead to happiness and contentment. If you want to know more, then I highly recommend Ron Siegel's "The Science of Mindfulness" audio series as a starter.
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, which is another one of those words we take for granted. To be mindless is to act without thinking. Acting without thinking does sometimes originate from expert knowledge. Most of the time, however, our actions are taken without intention.
Awareness is about slowing down and paying attention. Daniel Kahneman says "you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail." We cannot "pay" attention to our thoughts in silence unless we stop and ignore whatever else is happening around us.
Acceptance is having psychological flexibility. We understand the world using rules and beliefs we've formed through life experience. When an event violates those rules and beliefs, it causes cognitive dissonance and great emotional and mental discomfort. Psychological flexibility allows us to accept outrageous events without the need to be outraged.
Silence can help us to develop awareness and acceptance within ourselves and others. Comfort with silence means comfort with ourselves. Practicing silence leads us to value silence and not run from it or have a negative experience with it in conversation. I believe it is our inexperience with silence that makes us avoid it as much as possible.
Next time you experience an awkward or uncomfortable silence, use it as a reminder that you need some practice. If you need some methods or silence-related activities, reach out in the comments.