What does it mean to encounter silence in the midst of our most intimate relationships? Unless you are an absolute hermit, other people factor in your life. From children and spouses, to nephews and neighbors, co-workers and companions, to be human is to be in relationship — and sometimes, relationships can be noisy places indeed.
In this episode we explore some paradoxical approaches to silence — for example, Kevin speaks eloquently of finding the silence even in the midst of a baby’s cry. He goes on to compare the challenges of balancing one’s own needs with the needs of loved ones to the dance of attention in a meditation practice — between awareness of silence and the inevitable irruption of distracting thoughts.
Keep the silence and stillness within. Because it’s always there, right? It’s always there. If you’ve met it once, if you’ve met it twice, if you’ve met it every day of your life, you know it’s there, it’s within. — Cassidy Hall
But there’s also the “inner relationship” — how we relate to our own self. Carl muses on how sometimes anxiety and depression come to call — and can make it challenging to remember that silence is always, already there.
In all our relationships — whether internal or external — silence calls us out of a place of self-focus into a place where we can be concerned with loving others — or welcoming whatever arises in the context of our lives. Silence teaches us that silence is always present — even in the midst of a baby’s cry, even in the midst of rage or fear or bitter loneliness.
We look at the monastic notion of the “school of love,” considering how silence is actually an instructor in the school of love — teaching us how to love others, as well as to love ourselves. But we also acknowledge that in relationships silence can sometimes be a way of avoiding intimacy — where “unheld conversations” can signify a kind of external silence which masks interior noise. Again, though, silence can be the doorway through which we move to find reconciliation or greater intimacy — even if it means moving through “the fire” of conflict or challenging conversations.
Our conversation includes some thoughts on the sometimes contentious relationship between silence and language, and how poetry represents a way to bridge that particular gap.
What is a poem? A poem is just a useless spray of language. And yet, in that useless spray of language we find beauty, we find meaning, we find insight, we find connection, we find ourselves.— Carl McColman
Among the resources and authors we mention in this episode were poems by Rumi and Thomas Merton, and mention of the work of Cynthia Bourgeault as well as the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, particularly in regard to the deadly or afflictive thoughts. The following resources can help you learn more:
- Coleman Barks, tr., The Essential Rumi (includes “The Guest House”)
- Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
- Thomas Merton’s poem “Love Winter When the Plant Said Nothing” can be found in several books, including:
To learn more about the desert tradition of non-attachment to afflictive thoughts:
- Mary Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter
- John Cassian, Conferences
- Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer
What’s the connection between words and silence is that they’re so interpenetrated that you need to have them both. You actually can speak yourself into the silence… The only problem with words is that we get trapped in them. — Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is a university professor, writer, speaker, and retreat leader based in Connecticut.
Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.
Carl McColman is an author, catechist, and retreat leader based in Atlanta.
Plan?!? What plan?
Episode 5: Encountering Silence in Relationships
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded: November 13, 2017