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The Sound of Silence

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Nigel Heywood.

Many around the world practice a daily ‘information space’, or ‘quiet time’, to gain ‘immediate and intuitive access’ to the well-springs of spiritual and ethical insight. By taking time in silence we can log on to this spiritual information at any time of day or night, to collect our personal and unique e-mails from our ISP— the infinite spiritual provider.

Once we have created our daily information space, what should we expect to happen? Perhaps nothing dramatic at first. Maybe a deeper sense of repose. A sense of being grounded in a greater peace, a heightened awareness of reality. Some may receive very specific thoughts: a task to undertake; an apology to make; a person to care for; a relationship to repair; or a dishonesty to confess. For some it may lead to profound changes of direction.

For believers, these thoughts are the whispers of God, prompting change in us, giving us instruction, touching our souls, rearranging the furniture of our minds, liberating us from past wrongs and setting before us new goals in life. Above all, whatever our religious belief, spiritual information and insight reveal a purpose in life for each of us which, if pursued, might turn out to be beyond our wildest dreams. I never imagined, for instance, that I would become an editor of an international magazine, and spend several years serving in India.

Erik Andren, who ran training programmes in values for democracy in Eastern European countries, used a different analogy. He spoke of R&D time—a time of research and development, reflection and decision, for each individual.


Firstly, silence. We need to make silence our friend. ‘Silence,’ writes the Italian poet Rosa Bellino, ‘allows the muddy waters of our minds to clear. Silence is the womb, the space that allows one to hear “a harmony and a rhythm”. Silence is the inner shaft that lets us go deep within ourselves to the place of stillness where, having forgotten ourselves, we become “like children” and enter the kingdom of God.’

Silence is the sister of the divine, writes John O’Donohue, in his best-selling book Anam Cara—spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world. ‘Silence is the great friend of the soul.... You must make space for it so that it may begin to work for you…. If you have a trust in and expectation of your own solitude, everything that you need to know will be revealed to you.’

Creators of Peace candleMahatma Gandhi wrote that silence was ‘both a physical and spiritual necessity for me… In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.’

‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given,’ run the words of a popular carol. ‘So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.’ In the age of information we find that real inspiration comes in times of silent reflection.

When is the best time for silent reflection? Any time, of course. Some do so at the end of the day, as a means of stocktaking. In some spiritual traditions, such as the Quakers, people meet together for times of meditation. Others advocate taking time alone. Many have found it especially helpful to take unhurried time first thing in the morning. Musicians tune their instruments before the concert begins rather than when it is over. So we too can tune our minds and hearts to the Author of mind before the rush of the day presses on us. For myself, this has been a daily discipline for over 40 years.

This early morning ‘space for grace’, as it has been called, can help us to set priorities, to gain perspective, to increase our productivity. At its most mundane, it is a way of getting on top of the day before the day gets on top of us.

But it can also lead to moments of real insight and wisdom—shafts of inspiration—for ourselves, for others, for the situations we face, for the world we are in. It can be a time to let go of the endless list of things that have to be done, or to focus on a difficult decision that needs to be made. Reading a spiritual book from our various faith traditions can especially help.

For some, the whole notion of silence may be totally alien. It may seem easier to drown out difficulties with loud music or constant activity. Taking time in inward reflection, however, can be a route to true healing and forgiveness, hope and reassurance.

There is nothing mechanistic about times of silence, though it may need enough time to allow the unexpected thought to drop into one’s mind and heart. I find I need at least half an hour, sometimes longer.

There is another great advantage in silent listening. It increases our emotional intelligence—our empathy for others and what they are truly saying to us. Not just their words, but their inner words, their body language, their hopes and fears, pain, disappointments and longings, the look in their eyes. We can begin to perceive their real needs and care for them.

A second condition for receiving spiritual information is to run our personal virus checker. We need to be sure that the information we receive from the still, small voice within is not corrupted by our own suspect motives and delusions. Moral values help in this: honesty, purity of heart and motive, unselfishness, love for people and forgiveness. They act like a computer’s firewall which filters on-line messages, allowing through only those that come from trusted sources.

Such values will never wholly shield us from temptations—to hatred, greed or vice, for instance—but they can prevent us from succumbing. They can help us to transcend the dark side of our nature. They prevent us from doing wrong and liberate us to do right. Paradoxically, personal discipline is the route to personal freedom.

These values are also great levellers. We are all in the same boat: we all fall short of the ideal. Many have likened moral standards to the North Star—a fixed point in the universe by which mariners through centuries have steered their ships. The absolute is untouchable but provides us with a star to steer by.

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