Power of Silence
By Dr. Jeremy Fyke, Diederich College of Communication assistant professor
Earlier this summer, Dr. Jeremy Fyke went on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. He reflects on his experience of quiet with Marquette Magazine.
Be quiet. No, really, try it. For the next minute, sit quietly with your eyes open or closed, and say nothing, think about nothing. Perhaps one minute really isn't that difficult. OK, now try it for 10 minutes, then an hour and so on. Sound difficult? If you're by yourself it's probably not that difficult to be silent. But, really, the key is not just to be quiet, but to experience quiet. Now, imagine being around people, say 40 of them, walking down a hallway together, waiting in a cafeteria line for dinner and sitting in a large dining room for 30 minutes. And no one says a word.
Recently, this was my reality, as I had the opportunity to truly experience quiet. During the week of June 10, I spent three days at a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a wonderful place of solitude and reflection that houses a group of Trappist monks. Leading up to and following my retreat, I received numerous questions from friends and family. So, in this reflection I provide answers to some of those questions (chances are you have them too), then I'll close with some of my key takeaways from my time at the monastery.
Was it weird to just sit there and not talk?
Yes and no. Like most people, I keep a pretty busy schedule. As a communication professor, I spend lots of time, well, talking. I talk to students about how they can contribute positively to the culture of their organization and how they can make the case for the merits of communication as it contributes to a company's strategy, mission and goals. But I also try to keep a meditative practice as a routine. Practicing centering prayer allows me to carve out space for silence, opportunity to "just sit there" and do nothing. (For a great resource, see centeringprayer.com and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault.)
What did you do while you were there?
Short answer — not much — at least by society's standards. First and foremost, the monastery provides a break from the norm because it's a place where the loudness of the world is tuned out, by default. It's a place where retreatants can "let the noise settle out," as Brother Christian put it the night we arrived. Whereas in our daily lives we seek spaces for quiet and solitude (or at least we should; more on that later), it's built into the culture of the monastery. With this as a backdrop, I spent lots of time in silence: as I sipped coffee at the breakfast table looking out into the beautifully landscaped garden; as I settled into my favorite chair beneath the tree near a trickling creek; as I strolled through the abbey's nearly 2,000 acres of Kentucky hillside; as I watched the sunset each night from my favorite spot atop the hill. And I read a lot — Leading with Soul, Quiet and A Monk in the World.
What do you hope to get out of it?
This question came in various forms leading up to the trip. When people asked, I struggled to provide an answer. Surely I had a goal, a reason, right? I realized that in our culture we are obsessed with instrumentality, with outcome over process. Truth is, I was looking for a place to empty. To be alone. To open myself to God. In this, my solitude and reflection resembled a form of apophatic prayer (as opposed to kataphatic), which involves a posture of emptiness and opening (to the world, "doing nothing"). In doing so, I embraced the paradox that fulfillment requires emptiness.
In closing, we all need time to empty, to reflect and maybe ask ourselves questions. Students — spend time reflecting on what you're learning in classes and through internships and how those things relate. Faculty and staff — in what ways are we developing each year, honing our craft? How are we using our talents to best serve the people around us, including our families? As we're reminded in Leading with Soul, experience without reflection isn't development. It's not as if we need to completely withdraw like a hermit. But we should all locate what Susan Cain in Quiet calls our "sweet spot" — that space in life where we strike the delicate balance between time spent to ourselves and in meaningful interaction with others. In the busyness of everyday life, although we cannot all live in the cloister of rural Kentucky, we can all find our place for solitude, as Teasdale recommends in A Monk in the World.
So, where is your favorite spot? Find it. In the morning, in the evening; before a job interview, before a date, before a class, before a test. Tune out the loud. Be still.
Embrace the quiet.