What happens when we find silence?

I recently read Silence in the age of noise by Erling Kagge, and a couple of themes came out for me.

One was that while yes, we can find near-absolute silence by heading out into the wilderness, silence is available to us at any time, in any place. The key is to still our mind.

There are many ways to do this, and each of us may have our own method. For me, sometimes it is in getting into a rhythm of doing easy and relatively “mindless” tasks that slow down the mental chatter and create space. I can then often connect in a “flow” and thoughts “join up” for me as if from nowhere if I simply go for a walk, stop and have a cup of tea, or even listen to music.

Silence can open up creativity, innovation, and simply being in the present.

Kagge writes of Marina Abramovic, who in 2010 famously sat for 736 hours in MoMA looking straight into 1545 visitor’s eyes, offering each a moment of silence, in a work of performance art called “The Artist is Present”. Present.

I quote from his book: “according to Abramovic, the opposite of silence is a brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking. Do nothing. Silence is a tool helping us to escape the surrounding world. if you manage it, it becomes like “a waterfall in your brain“, she says.”

This reference reminded me of the stunning reuniting at the opening night of that performance of Abramovic and her past lover and collaborator Ulay. They had not seen each other for over twenty years until he surprised her on opening night. There are many videos of this on YouTube, I choose one hear with no music, no words to adorn the emotionally charged moment between them, a moment of powerful silence.

Now, as one more example of what is possible when we find silence, Kagge also referenced the study made famous by Mandy Catron in the NY Times in 2015 of how asking 36 questions can make two people fall in love. That is not the end of the experiment though. After asking those 36 questions, which open up the two parties to each other, they then both sit and look into each other’s eyes for up to four minutes… in silence.

I wish to quote in-depth what she said about the power of looking into each other’s eyes for four minutes :

“I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.

I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.

So it was with the eye, which is not a window to anything but rather a clump of very useful cells. The sentiment associated with the eye fell away and I was struck by its astounding biological reality: the spherical nature of the eyeball, the visible musculature of the iris and the smooth wet glass of the cornea. It was strange and exquisite.”

I’ve both experienced such things for myself in sitting with another where we both look deeply into each other’s eyes and also run exercises for groups of people along similar lines. It is a truly powerful experience. For me, I have had the experience of seeing myself in the eyes of another, both literally in the reflection and also in seeing them seeing me seeing them ad infinitum. Yes, you can see the universe by looking into another’s eyes, and it is a hugely powerful form of human connection. Watch the video of Marina and Ulay again, please. Feel it for yourself, then, if you wish, try it with someone.

With silence time stops. With silence, new experiences come forth. With silence we have the opportunity to connect to all we have inside us, to flow, to join the dots in powerful ways.

What happens when you find silence?