In the interest of elucidating active aspects of listening processes (interpreting, evaluating – etc.), I, along with many academics, have neglected the aspect of silence. There were obvious reasons for dispelling the idea that listening meant being silent; this conversation intends to revisit this understanding.

Sandra Sommers is both longtime friend and significant other – she regularly observes a mindfulness practice that incorporates tools, which with use over time “helps us disengage from hooking into persistent thoughts, and, eventually quiets the busy mind.” Her practice has been a remarkable model introducing me to Jean Klein’s work which incited my interest and led me to explore her practice as it has everything to do with listening to one’s self talk. A particularly fruitful excerpt in Klein’s book, Ease of Being, has become a common reference point in our relationship.

A question Sandra asked is a case in point: “When and how does the mind enter into a sabbath rest?” One way this question has to do with listening is that when my mind is busy with my thoughts I’m not busied (focused) on another’s. We are speculating in this Salon that a space of silence would be conducive to genuinely listening to ourselves just as it would be in giving space to others to express their meanings. The following view on silence which she and I return to frequently is worth reflection. Klein was asked:

“How Can I Act In A Way That Doesn’t Create Further Reaction, Karma?” His response centers on this question of silence and genuine self awareness:

“Whenever love and kindness are in your heart, you will have the intelligence to know what to do and when and how to act. When the mind sees its limitations, the limitations of the intellect, a humility and innocence arise which are not a matter of cultivation, accumulation or learning, but the result of instantaneous understanding. The moment you see your helplessness, that nothing works, you come to a point of surrender, a stand-still, where you are in communion with silence, ultimate truth. It is this reality which transforms your mind, and not effort or decision” (Jean Klein 1984, p 28 italics added).

Authentic being such as characterized by Klein, entails nonconformity. (I don’t know that I fully agree with Klein that there is an “ease” in achieving this level of authenticity or regard for silence, but I do embrace the significance of attempting to hold regard for both in the listening process). “The word conformity is from the Greek word syschematizo. It means “to be patterned after or molded by” writes author Mark Batterson, and senior pastor of ?????Church who argues that our genuine selves are compromised by culture-induced conformity:

“The modus operandi in junior high is fitting in, and most of us give in to it for the rest of our lives. We become conformists at all costs. And the cost is a person’s unique personality, individuality, and identity. You can call it peer pressure or groupthink, but the Bible calls it conformity. ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2). That’s one of the hardest commands in Scripture because our culture is so good at conditioning us according to its values. Did you know that you’re exposed to approximately five thousand advertising messages every day? It doesn’t seem like it, does it? That’s evidence of how good our culture is at it. And we have to fight it. Not many people sell their souls to the devil, but many of us sell our souls to the culture… Instead of daring to be different, we conform to the pattern of this world. Why? We let our culture have the loudest voice. Nonconformity feels like driving the wrong way on a one-way street in rush-hour traffic. But that’s the only way to become who God wants us to be. And desire is key.”

The irony is evident when we consider that the church is viewed as the bastion of conforming forces in the world, but aside from that most of us can recall with ease instances we have subordinated ourselves to conforming in the face of social or cultural embarrassment. Batterson cites studies that are appalling for the stark picture they present of how soon in our lives the insidious loss of self occurs.

“In the early years of the Head Start program, a study was conducted involving sixteen hundred children who were tested in a wide variety of categories, including divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the ability to correctly answer a question that doesn’t require creativity, just analytical intelligence. Divergent thinking is a very different animal. It’s the ability to generate creative ideas by exploring possible solutions. When asked to come up with as many uses for a paper clip as possible, the average person can rattle off ten to fifteen uses. A divergent thinker can come up with about two hundred. Both convergent and divergent thinking are critical for different kinds of tasks, but divergent thinking is a better predictor of Nobel Prize potential. In the longitudinal study conducted by Head Start, 98 percent of children ages three to five “scored in the genius category for divergent thinking. Five years later… this number had plummeted to only 32 percent…. Five years later… it was down to 10 percent.” What happened during that decade? Where did divergent thinking go? And what does that have to do with the language of desires? Here’s my take: most of us lose touch with who we really are and what we really want. Instead of following our God-ordained desires in the direction of individuation, the voice of gladness is drowned out by the voice of conformity.”

Sandra’s experience bears this out.

Two stories immediately came to mind upon reading the above by Batterson. The first happened when I was in the third grade the second in the seventh.

Third Grade: We had all stayed indoors for recess on a rainy Oregon winter school day. The teacher had stepped out for a few minutes, leaving the class temporarily on our own. At some point my attention landed on a hardened drop of glue on a desk. I had noticed and become enamored with how it had become near-transparent in the drying process. In a flash, my mind made a connection that brought the exhilaration of inspiration, and I sprung into action. Without thinking, I tore a partial sheet of paper out of my notebook and folded it into a small open-topped box, much like a tiny coffin. Next, I place a prized pencil eraser in the form of a small alien creature inside the box. And finally, the piece de resistance, I took my Elmers Glue bottle and squirted the thick white fluid over top of the pencil eraser inside the box, watching with both delight and horror, mesmerized, as it spread slowly, sludgishly, brazenly down the sides, finally rising until it covered the alien eraser and I could no longer see it inside its tomb. Anticipating in full excitement the day, for I was sure it would take days, when the glue would finally dry into what I imagined to be crystalline transparency, mysteriously revealing the captive alien I had embedded and enshrined within it. Satisfied and excited, I set the experiment on a communal bookshelf. Still reveling in the pleasure and glow of inspiration, creativity birthed, the teacher walked in…I did not lose my sense of pleasure and exhilaration at what I’d just done, as it now melted into more of a delicious secret. A fellow student, though not fully foe also not quite friend, picked up my treasure and held it up to the teacher, saying simply, “Look!” The teacher’s pleasantly neutral demeanor immediately turned dark as she began scouring our faces gloweringly, demanding, “Whose brilliant idea was this?!?!” All exuberance smashed, I can still feel how I shrank back inside myself, small, guilty. I barely squeaked out, “mine.” It felt oxymoronic (had I known the word back then), and confusing, to identify myself as the stupid culprit with the correlation of “brilliant” she’d used to force me into admission). “Well, don’t you try to come and get school glue!”, she continued accusingly as if I already had, as she looked over to a large gallon jug filled with a white opaque substance and sitting on the high top shelf of a cabinet in the corner. Confusedly, I put the pieces together realizing for the first time that that was an option, that there was such a thing as “school glue,” feeling acute shame that I might have done such a thing, but also indignation because I had not and didn’t even know enough to have been able to do so. I remember clearly and viscerally this event in my life, wiped from my memory is the outcome of the experiment; I have no recall of whether the glue dried clear enough that I could see the alien entombed within it or not. I may well have thrown it away that same day to try to rid myself of the shame of that bright daring inquiry.

Now I am recalling seventh grade. I remember being in a lighthearted mood, feeling happy and carefree, again in class. The teacher, a distant cousin of mine and new attendee of our local church, who I didn’t particularly like, (he’d always struck me as someone trying way too hard to be liked) but, since he was new to our community and I had accepted and ingrained in me Jesus’ teachings/example of welcoming everyone, (except maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees), I tolerated his overly (in my mind) jovial outcries referencing our relatedness, as he often exclaimed, “Hey Cuz!” when passing in the hallway or first encounters of the day in the classroom. This particular day he was making passes around the room, teaching to some topic I’ve long forgotten, and asking occasional questions as he slowly made his rounds. I guess in my exuberance for the day, and I do remember making comments, though not remembering any of them, I must have sounded flippant, impertinent, impudent. On about his third round, he came slowly around toward my desk again, this time a bare pause as his pencil dropped from his hand. I bent over as I simultaneously said, “Oh, you dropped your pencil”, reaching for it and extending it up toward him in the same breath. Before the sentence was even finished, cut off with his sharp, “Sandy! Every time I come around you make some smart-alecky remark!” Frozen now, my arm, and heart, still extended toward him, the felt tenderness having culminated in a gesture of restoration now naked in my wrongdoing, overly-familiar liberty. The worst of it was that in that same instant I realized he’d set me up, intentionally dropped his pencil at my desk, “knowing” I’d say something, though this time occasioned a genuine gesture of restoring him with his needed utensil. This realization brought with it tears of embarrassment and hot indignation at being so intentionally shamed in front of my peers. I still remember the feel of my heart and soul shrinking, shutting down in that moment of being publicly called out. I never talked to that teacher again, even in church, and in school only as needed, didn’t ever let my eyes meet his again. To this day I carry with me the sense that when I am in a good mood, a buoyant mood, I am dangerous, if not to others then certainly to myself. These lighter moods I feel likely to bring carelessness and offense to others, and so moderate myself against abandon to free authentic expression, well within the definition of “conformity”.

In retrospect, I’m sure both these teachers thought themselves to be and wanted to be upright and good in their instruction of me, and both had their own “effective histories” still carried within themselves, their own experiences of harsh instruction, unfair judgments against them. Though, even in my child-state I clearly knew, felt in my own soul, that they were out of line, they and others who “instructed” me in such ways, yet, nevertheless, inside their words, their tones, and demeanors of harshness, I listened. Even as my soul railed against the injustice of their harshness, it nonetheless took lessons from them, my soul “listened.” How might better listening on their part, listening behind the perceived insults of “waste” and “disrespect” from this first 8 and then 12 year old girl, listening instead into a curiosity about what was meant and felt and desired, how might this have facilitated something different, both in me and in themselves? How might better listening into their own souls’ emotions and woundings have resulted in something other than assumptions and projections about ill-behavedness and ill-intention?

This listening defines the essence of a soul’s work. We seem to spend our lives doing the work, actively or through the consequences of our avoidance, of identifying who our authentic self is, in relationship to those who throughout our lives have reflected their impressions and projections of us onto the mirror of our souls. In the sense that listening necessarily includes silence, the examples given above are examples of the poor use of silence…silencing, and molding (controlling) the voice of others.

These personal vignettes corroborate additional studies Batterson noted:

“For more than thirty years, Gordon MacKenzie served as creative paradox at Hallmark Cards. His job was helping colleagues slip the bonds of corporate normalcy. He also held creativity workshops at elementary schools. In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, MacKenzie levels an indictment: “From cradle to grave, the pressure is on: be normal.” When hosting creativity workshops, MacKenzie would conduct informal surveys by asking, “How many artists are there in the room?” In the first grade the entire class waved their arms like crazy. In the second grade about half the hands went up. In the third grade a third of the kids responded. And by the time he got to the sixth graders, only one or two kids would tentatively raise their hands. According to MacKenzie every school he visited was participating in the suppression of creative genius by training kids away from their natural-born foolishness. Instead of their genius being celebrated and validated, it was criticized and inoculated. And the voice of normalcy became the loudest voice in the room.

‘There is a fool in each of us, you know.

A rash, brash, harebrained, audacious,

imprudent, ill-suited, spontaneous, im-

politic, daredevil Fool, which, in most of

us, was long ago hog-tied and locked in

the basement.’“ (MacKensie, cited in Batterson 2017 Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God)

While we are in wholehearted agreement that the wholesale compromise of children’s creativity and uniqueness is effected by an ignorant abuse of power that unduly silences and indeed is most tragic, truly stunning, we would hasten to argue Batterson’s formula is impotent where deep listening to oneself and others is not practiced; we can even concur with him Jesus’ aim is to bring us to a genuine liberation of consciousness. But how might listening reform silence from a menacing threat into an assistant in coming wholly to our selves (holy to our God ordained selves in Batterson’s view)? Klein’s answer that we come, by reason of our being flummoxed, into communion with silence and thereby ultimate truth too, leaves me more than a little flummoxed.

Again we are gripped by another irony: how does one speak of silence? Easily enough I speak of the evil of ‘silencing’ another; easily enough I know what it means to be awed silent (speechless?) before the Numinous; but ultimately what is silence and why have I come to assume it is nothing? What to make of the palpable silence alluded to by those who call attention to the diminishing quietude of an old-growth forest? Precisely what is diminishing?

The truth depends on a walk around a lake,

A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and

A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.” (Wallace Stevens – Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction)

What have I overlooked; and more to the exquisite point, how does one listen to another without silencing one’s inner chatter, bringing oneself to a silent stillness that perhaps we rightly assume would be a boon to genuine listening? What sweet calmness over takes me when the never-ceasing noise abates; what brings the effects of such longed for calming? “Only when we know how to be silent will that of which we cannot speak begin to tell us something,” writes Gemma Fiumara in her thoughtful book The Other Side of Language: a Philosophy of Listening. I am relatively certain that when someone desires to tell me something of which I have no idea the meaning intended that my imagination must come into play; how, on the other hand is silence brought into play? Of that I know not what to say!

Don’t misunderstand; I have read more than a few books touting the benefits of silence, even those which have attempted to convey what silence is like. Surely now I have developed a desire (lustful?) for what I have not. Again the poet Stevens writes,

“But the priest desires. The philosopher desires.

And not to have is the beginning of desire.

To have what is not is its ancient cycle.

It is desire at the end of winter, when

It observes the effortless weather turning blue

And sees the myosotis on its bush.

Being virile, it hears the calendar hymn.

It knows that what it has is what is not

And throws it away like a thing of another time,

As morning throws off stale moonlight and shabby sleep.” (Excerpt from Steven’s Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction)

Indeed I can understand that “not to have is the beginning of desire.” Not only Priests and Philosophers and Poets desire; Listeners desire. I actually do desire to taste such a silence. How and where do I find it and enter into it?

I have it on reliable authority that “a mindful practice of deep listening brings us to integration and restoration of ourselves and others.” Yet even here within the cessation of ‘external noise’ the internal thump of blood and wheezing of exhalation sounds out silence; the breath itself, gift of the living, seemingly hinders silence. Though also, comes to mind (here again I say exquisite) that still-point between the end of inhale and beginning of exhale, and, “s/Silence” that seems to pervade and surround all that is sound, and noise, and heard, when one is tuned toward that s/Supreme i/Ineffable. And how, we ask, does it come to mind but through the mystery of attention, sensibility to our very thoughts. Perhaps silence like beauty, as John O’Donohue reassures “is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it. Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness there is beauty.” More the subject of the soul than object of the mind, beauty, O’Donohue reminds us, conducts the “slow industry of transformation.” Is it too much to speculate that silence is not as evasive as I’ve reckoned, but instead the fact is that we are in our daily goal oriented overly rushed activities unconscious that ever-present silence waits unattended. “Silence rehabilitates” asserts Irish author and Celtic scholar Nὀirἰn Nἰ Riain. “To choose stillness is ultimately to desire personal, wholesome self-transformation. It is an opportunity to listen.” “John O’Donohue,” she continues, “makes the connection between the trilogy of sound, listening and silence with some personal advice: ‘Give yourself the opportunity of silence and begin to develop your listening in order to hear, deep within yourself, the music of your own spirit.’ In the space of silence, the inner contradictions that work against well-being are addressed and healed (Nὀirἰn Nἰ Riain 2011,Theosony: Towards a Theology of Listening). Perhaps conversely then, wherever there is an authentic soul listening there is quietude, pause and restoration of silence’s healing mystery. That would be quite unique indeed!

Yes, let’s do take notes and examine ourselves and one another as befits listeners: what is silence? And how might it help where words and subtle extra-linguistic expressions avail nothing? How do we hear…listen to…our inner most authentic self? How do we know it, distinguish it from our more conforming presenting self? We all have had experiences such as those described here…what stories and experiences within your own soul and memory come to mind? What questions about listening, silence, conformity and authenticity are elicited? We invite you to share here and see how, just maybe, a community of listeners can help us learn, grow, heal, and transform, and, learn to listen deeper to our own selves and those around us.