Whether listening to someone else, listening to ourselves, or listening to nature; the role of silence is critical. Indeed, it could be argued that the ability to be silent is the most basic skill required to truly listen.
Listening to Others
Listening to other people is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we hear (or read) the word listen. And, not without cause. We spend a lot of time in communication with other people; whether sitting in a café chatting over a coffee, spending time in intimate conversation with significant others, or in a formal (or informal) setting with a group of people.
If you were a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and able to listen-in to these conversations you would probably notice that there is not a lot of quiet time, not much silence.
Yet, silence could bring a greatly enhanced meaning to conversations. Silence can allow for a more abundant depth of listening than can a spoken response. This is especially true of conversations involving significant emotional content (such as: grief, turmoil, ecstasy, wonder, pain and loss, depression, or love and excitement.)
Silence is recognised as a core skill in the art of active/creative listening. It is a crucial part of healing circles, or indeed, any groupwork circle. Within such circles the sharing is often deep, emotionally imbued, and sometimes uttered from a place of vulnerability. Silence following such sharing does two things: First, it indicates to the sharer (speaker) that they have been heard, and that what they shared is acknowledged within the silent space that follows. Second, it allows those of us who have been privileged to listen to drop into a silent space to reflect upon what has been said and discover our common humanity.
Listening to Nature
Richard Louv1 coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in 2005 to recognise the growing awareness that our disconnection from nature had serious implications, not only for our environment, but also for our own selves.
The writer, Hermann Hesse, noted that, ‘Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.’
That requires silence. To go into the forest, or the bush, or any natural setting, obliges us to do so in silence. In silence it is possible to truly hear what the trees, nature, the forest, the birds, the animals, are saying. Such an encounter with nature is at the heart of the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku (literally meaning to bathe in the forest environment, to take in the forest through giving mindful attention to our senses.) One of the first researchers into the benefits of forest bathing, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, says that ‘…it is clear that our bodies still recognise nature as our home…’ 2
To reconnect with nature, to recognise our home, and gain the tremendous benefits that home (nature) provides, we must appreciate the significant role of silence.
Listening to Ourselves
How often do we truly listen to ourselves? Were we to stop and sit, and honestly listen to ourselves, we might be surprised by what we learn. The 17th century French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, went further, proposing that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from (our) inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Is Pascal correct in this assertion? Perhaps if we did as he suggested, and sat in silence for awhile and listened, we might discover that he was telling a truth.
How do we listen to ourselves?
One of the most beautiful descriptions of this inner listening comes from Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, a Ngangikurungkurr woman from northern Australia. She describes the word dadirri as:
“inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia (and the world – ed.) is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation.’ When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. Through the years we have listened to our stories. They are told and sung, over and over, as the seasons go by. Today we still gather around the campfires and together we hear the sacred stories.”3
What we further notice in this beautiful word picture is that all three aspects of listening (to others, to nature, and to ourselves) are woven together like a fine tapestry.
How do we do this? What techniques should we develop so that we can access that deep spring of awareness? There seems to be four barriers we must first get past:4
1. Declutter your mind. Tapping into your inner wisdom is difficult if there is a lot of clutter in the way. You will find your own way to declutter; some ways are to go for a walk, get into nature, listen to music or meditate. Perhaps a shower. Have you noticed how often you’ll get a good idea in the shower? It’s surprisingly common. Whatever you do, you need to give your mind freedom.
2. Ignore what you know. Intuition deals more with feelings, insights and emotions than it does with facts and figures. This does not mean that you reject the facts and figures, just put them aside and ask yourself how you feel about the question, issue or problem? How is your body responding?
3. Get out of your head. Go with your gut. Often we get a “gut feeling” before our brain takes over and becomes the “knower.” Get in tune with your gut. Do your stomach muscles contract and tighten or do they relax? Does your heart and chest feel as if it is expanding?
4. Let go the need to control. Our rational mind tells us that we should be in control at all times. However, when we wish to tap into our inner wisdom we need to surrender this desire, and trust that our intuition will provide us with insights without our need to dictate what those insights might be.
Once we get past these four barriers, then we need to simply sit and simply be silent. Not easy, admittedly, but worth the effort to become practiced with.
Since first being alerted to the anagram of SILENT and LISTEN I have come to appreciate the strong connection between the concepts of each. Silence is a crucial element in true listening, and if we wish to truly listen then we must utilise silence.
The fact that they are anagrams of each other is a reminder of this connection.
1. Louv, Richard: Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder, Workman Publishing Company, New York, 2005.
2. Miyazaki, Yoshifumi: Shinrin Yoku, The Japanese art of forest bathing, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2018.
3. For a full description of dadirri and more information about the work of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann go to her Foundations website – www.miriamrosefoundation.org.au Accessed 23 November 2022.
4. Adapted from, Meder, Bruce: Opportunities Emerging: Social change in a complex world, Rainbow Juice Publishing, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia, 2016.