What Are We Afraid Of?

Reflecting on the Social Awkwardness of Silence

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Sometimes silence is the best way to communicate

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s charming and delightful book on the English language, The Mother Tongue, and ran across this delicious tidbit:

English speakers dread silence. We are all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that overcomes us when a conversation palls. Studies have shown that when a pause reaches four seconds, one or more of the conversationalists will invariably blurt something — a fatuous comment on the weather, a startled cry of “Gosh, is that the time?” — rather than let the silence extend to a fifth second.

Why are we afraid of that fifth second of silence? What, exactly, are we afraid of? It is extremely unlikely that anyone present will spontaneously die, or go crazy, or get violent. Likewise, no one is going to laugh at us, criticize us, or reject us. In other words, the silence is safe. When, then, do we dread it?

And should anyone think Bryson is being melodramatic here, I agree with him wholeheartedly. We call such silences “awkward” and “uncomfortable.” We say they are “deafening” (an oxymoron if ever there were one). It seems that our fear of social silence is on a par with a child’s fear of the dark.

And there may be something to that analogy.

George Hoffman writes about “Our Fear of Silence” from a psychological perspective, noting that “the fear of silence is a learned behavior” which can be unlearned. He cites studies that show how uncomfortable college students are with silence — not surprising, given that the lives of youth today are immersed in a world shaped by television, the internet, and portable devices. As Hoffman notes, “If background noise has always been with us, it’s no wonder we can become so uncomfortable when it’s taken away.”

But I think the fear of silence predates the electronic noise of the last 100 years. Even before the rise of the mass media, we human beings have lived in the presence of another kind of noise: internal chatter. What Buddhists call “the monkey mind” or Christian contemplatives have labeled logismoi — the deadly thoughts. We are “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot wryly put it — and while external noisemakers like iTunes or Fox news just pile on the distractions, the root cause of both our lack of attentiveness and our fear of silence is the internal noise of our anxious minds.

In chapter 10 of The Cloud of Unknowing we find the suggestion that our minds are restless and prone to distraction because of “the painful effect of original sin.” Which is another way of saying it is not something we can control. Indeed, the brain is a “thought-generator,” working constantly, similar to how the heart ceaselessly keeps pumping life-giving blood throughout the body. A brain without thought is dead (for even a sleeping brain generates dreams). So part of the reason why we fear silence so much is because we have minds that keep trying to shield us from it.

On Patheos recently I’ve written about how contemplative prayer is not about “emptying the mind” (which is impossible). But it is about silence, and so we learn to hold the noises in our lives — whether external or internal — with non-attachment, so that we might learn to pay attention to the silence that is always there, hidden just beneath the din of the screeching monkey. We rest our attention on a prayer word, or a verse of scripture, the Jesus Prayer, an icon, or even just our breath, which encourages “the monkey” to calm down a bit, allowing us to notice the silence that is always luminously present within us — even if we only catch glimpses of it, between the chattering monkey or the soothing rhythm of our prayer word.

I compared our social fear of silence to a child’s fear of the dark. When we give a child a nightlight, isn’t that just like chattering away (i.e., creating noise)? The light masks the darkness, and the noise (whether of thoughts or something external) masks the silence. Yet those are not solutions to the fear, they are merely delay-tactics to allow the frightened person enough time to breathe through their fear and relax. Sooner or later, the child must face the darkness and learn to rest in it. Likewise, we will all face silence at some point (even if it’s only at the hour of our death). Contemplative prayer teaches us to befriend silence rather than to fear it. And this is the pathway to spiritual growth.

What’s important to keep in mind is that the silence is always there. Just because we are distracted, or even afraid of it, doesn’t make it go away. Silence is polite: it doesn’t force itself on us. It waits until we choose to give it our attention. But when we do, we find it is not so scary after all. It is vast, open, luminous, and present. If we let it, silence will teach us — although at a level deeper than words. It also will usher us into that place we all hunger for: the presence of God.

What do you do to cultivate more silence in your life? Please share your thoughts, either in a comment below or on social media (follow me on Twitter or Facebook). Thank you!

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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5 thoughts on “What Are We Afraid Of?

  1. What a great column to start the new year. I told some friends and we’ve already started practicing feeling ok with more than 5 seconds of silence (looking, smiling… “Ok” someone says, “it’s been 10 seconds, we can talk again” and we laugh). Lots of ways to experiment with this.

    Thinning out one’s library (if you’ve long been an “overreader” like me – “Hi, my name is Don and i admit I am powerless over my desire to binge on reading”) is a great way to introduce more silence into one’s mind. I gave away 500 books last spring and discovered I have much less interest in reading (and re-reading) the books I have. More time to be outside too!

    But one thing you wrote gave me pause: In chapter 10 of The Cloud of Unknowing we find the suggestion that our minds are restless and prone to distraction because of “the painful effect of original sin.” Which is another way of saying it is not something we can control. Indeed, the brain is a “thought-generator,” working constantly, similar to how the heart ceaselessly keeps pumping life-giving blood throughout the body. A brain without thought is dead….

    Really? I guess the first thing is, it seems to me that original sin as the cause of our distraction is a much bigger thing than saying, “we can’t control our minds.”

    Krishna Prem (born Ronald Nixon, became a Krishna devotee in a Himalayan Ashram in the 1920s and later developed a more universal teaching, incorporating the most profound mystical/contemplative teachings from around the world) presented a diagram in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad that I read years ago, and have found over the years that it’s the best guide to how “original sin causes distraction” (and conversely, how to experience a truly silent mind – fully awake and no thoughts) I’ve ever seen.

    He was talking about the ancient Hermetic axiom, “As Above So Below.” (Sorry, I wish I could reproduce the image – it makes it crystal clear one you see it). The “Divine” world of “Heaven” is above, and “reflected” below is the “earthly” sphere. In the center is a dot representing the soul. When our consciousness is focused in the center, the earthly sphere is a perfect reflection of the heavenly sphere.

    When – because of “original sin” – that is, at least, in the Upanishads, our identity is “off center” – we are “identified” with the various flotsam and jetsam that flow through our awareness – we are not able to be “perfect instruments of the Divine.”

    Getting back to silence, instead of struggling with our thoughts, when we “relax” our identification with all this stuff going on, and let our sense of “I” settle back into that Divine Center, thoughts just fall away of their own, and Silence ensues. It’s not so much a matter of making an effort as allowing that Silence which is always there to take us over.

    In other words, the falling away of “original sin” into original wonder.

    • Don, thanks for an insightful comment, and I’m especially intrigued by your mention of Krishna Prem’s diagram. I hope his book is not among the 500 you gave away! I’d love to know the title/page number, I’d like to track the diagram down and take a look.

      I think you’re right that original sin means a lot more than “I have difficulty silencing my mind.” I think original sin is a very dangerous topic, and one that has been used in unloving ways at times in church history, so that’s why I tiptoe around it. But I do think it’s helpful especially for the beginner in silent prayer who is frustrated over the noise of the monkey mind.

      To frame things a bit more positively, I certainly have received graced moments of vast, luminous silence, countless times over the years; many times while praying, but also at other times (I think one of the benefits of a daily prayer practice is that it opens us up to receive such graced moments at any time during the day or night). In my experience (and maybe I’m a poor contemplative!), such graced moments feel like eternity, but rarely last much longer than a few seconds (or maybe even a minute or so). Then, inevitably, the mind jumps is, “isn’t this awesome!?” And then the monkey is chattering away.

      And I smile, and return my attention to my breath.

      What’s beautiful about such moments is they may only last a short time in terms of kronos (clock-time), but in terms of kairos (the present moment) they are doorways generously opening out to eternity. And thus they are indescribably beautiful.

  2. What came to mind, the monkey mind I suppose, while reading is ‘Come children listen to me” (Ps. 34:11 REB).
    I thought that in practicing silence we are really opening our ears to hear the voice of God. And , at least if you consider Revelation, the heavenly realms are filled with noise. LOL. So that blessed lack of noise in our mind and surroundings, becomes filled with a new sound of the heavenly realm as we quiet our thoughts , and turn off the technology. In the silence we listen for the Voice.
    I feel I am saying this very awkwardly so I trust the readers good grace in understanding what I am trying to communicate!

    • If I’m reading you correctly (and correct me if I’m not), you’re musing on a very interesting question: does the Holy Spirit try to communicate to us through silence? I think the answer to that question is “yes” — but such communication occurs at a level below the threshold of our conscious awareness. So we are only conscious of the silence, but in faith we recognize that such silence sings with the presence of God, and if our ears were truly attuned to is, we would be awestruck by its beauty.

      As for heaven being noisy, keep in mind Revelation 8:1 — even heaven knows the beauty of silence.

  3. Silence is listening intently to God and in communing without words your heart and soul breathe as one.
    A few years ago as part of a sermon I spoke on “listening for God in the silence.” The church was located on one of the busiest roads in Edmonton, Alberta which also happened to be the same route leading up to Fort McMurray the busy bustling oil sands of the North. At almost every moment in the church you could hear the cars swooshing up and down that busy road regardless of the time of day. As I spoke about the importance of silence a complete calm came over the church and the area. For a few moments not a sound was heard, no cars, no noise, no voices, just a suspended tangible eternal sense of the presence of God. Everyone realized that something significant had happened. Whether it was because we were open to being stilled that the silence happened or perhaps it was because we were opened to being silent that our hearts were stilled long enough to be part of a profound experience where it all that mattered was being present.