I was busy. As a business owner, married mother of three, daughter, and professional speaker, I was the friend who didn't acknowledge a text until a week after you sent it. I would cuddle my youngest, willing myself not to think about the looming deadline I would work on after he fell asleep. I was known to cry on the way home from vacation because I was sad to return to my hurried life. Coffee in the morning, red wine in the evening and a steady stream of adrenaline were my drugs of choice. They helped me hang on. I didn't want to live that way, but I didn't know how to change it.
Until a doctor delivered some bad news. My vocal chords were bleeding and the initial remedy was to dramatically reduce the amount of talking I did. Running a virtual business and facilitating a steady stream of workshops made that difficult. I tried, but five weeks later the news was worse. I needed surgery, and to make a full recovery I would have to be silent for three weeks.
As jarring as it was, I planned as I always did to make the time go quickly. A weekend trip to an old friend's, a wedding and big Labor Day party would prevent me from feeling isolated. But a couple of people suggested I take some time away by myself to heal. So, I spent five solitary days in silence in Park City, Utah. It was a trip that changed my life.
Here are five lessons I learned about the value of silence:
- Silence makes you vulnerable. I had to tell our clients I'd be unavailable to present or talk for six weeks (the second three weeks I could use my voice only sparingly as I rehabbed). They were so supportive. Clients postponed speaking engagements and project kickoffs, and I got over 100 well-wishing emails. Talk about humility. I realized that the people in my life didn't expect or even want perfection. They wanted me to be happy and healthy.
- Alcohol and caffeine keep us from listening to our bodies. I had to give them up because they impacted my vocal chords, but as important, they prevented me from listening to my body's needs. There were warning signs that, if I'd paid attention, may have prevented my health crisis. My need to push farther, faster kept me reliant on the drugs. But without them, without talking, came observation. Observations of others, of social dynamics, of my own body. When you listen to yourself, you can act in ways that are healing and self-sustaining.
- Silence helps you connect with others. I used to connect to others through talking. Now I connect with others by remaining still and being present. Through my morning sitting practice, I connect with myself first, so that my interactions are based on the peace and silence and grounding I felt when I sat silently. That silence stays with me throughout the day. I sit still rather than react in an uncomfortable situation. I enjoy listening. I feel compassion and forgiveness for myself and others. I speak and work from that compassion. During my weeks of silence, I had amazing conversations with others. I laughed and felt connected without ever speaking a word.
- Noise and busyness are distractions. Succumbing to others' schedules and demands wears us down and keeps us from remembering who we are. Living up to others' expectations, not setting boundaries, and being 'always on,' robs us of our experience of ourselves. Being silent helps us reenergize and remember our own desires. I came out of silence speaking my truth instead of acting based on other's truths. I realized I was carrying too big a burden because I wanted people to be happy. When I realized my responsibility to myself, I started to create a life where I can be happy and in turn be a better mother, leader, spouse, daughter, etc.
- You have to make room for silence. It won't just happen in our busy world. I started setting a daily intention, so that as the busyness of my day creeps in, I can recall my intention and get back to my grounded self. When faced with an uncomfortable situation I know now not to react. Instead I am learning to stop, sit, listen, then act. It sounds like it would take a lot of time but it doesn't.
It's a way of life that accepts there will always be people who need you and work to get done. And despite that, create silence for yourself. Resist checking your phone for ten minutes after you get up in the morning. Ride the bus or walk down the street without checking your phone. Keep your device off the table when talking with a friend. Don't take a call when driving. Practice being silent instead.