“Everything is woven in blossoms. Why speak?” —Zen
By Cat Saunders
Sometime in 1984, I started doing weekly “Silent Days.” This doesn’t mean I sit in my room and meditate on my navel. Rather, I simply don’t talk during those 24-hour periods. This means no phones, no appointments with counseling clients, and no conversations with anyone. I still do whatever else I need to do, as long as it doesn’t involve talking.
In addition to my weekly Silent Days, I also do longer silent retreats regularly, usually between five and ten days at a time. I’ve noticed that it generally takes about three days for my mental “yap yap” (as I affectionately call brain chatter) to dissipate, after which deeper levels of direct relationship to myself and the world become more accessible.
Recently I got out my calculator to estimate how many days I’ve spent in silence during the last two decades. Putting my weekly Silent Days together with occasional silent retreats, I figure I’ve been silent more than four of the last twenty years. I have a dream of being silent for at least 365 days in a row. But since that’s not possible due to my present-day work life, I’m just enjoying the fantasy for now.
I don’t know exactly how I became so enamored with not talking. I know that my father would sometimes go for long periods without talking much. And when my brother, Scott, and I were kids, I remember one of my father’s favorite games was to ask Scott and me to “play dead.”
“Playing dead” entailed Scott and me lying on the floor without moving, talking, or giggling (not giggling was the hardest). The winner was the one who stayed motionless and totally quiet for the longest time. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the true purpose of my father’s game was to win himself some silence. Clever man!
When I was a teenager, I retreated into silence—at least at home—because I feared my parents’ criticism of the way I expressed myself. I was criticized for what I said, and even for the way I formed words with my mouth. By the time I was 18 and away at college, someone asked me if I knew how to speak, because I was so shy. It took many years after leaving home for me to come out of my shell.
Apart from familial influences, I’ve always felt as if I’m a monk at heart. I know that mystics the world over have long extolled the value of silence. After many years of practicing Silent Days, I’ve noticed that the spiritual benefits are reinforced by the physical benefits of silence. Not talking conserves energy and allows a more inward focus. This nicely compensates for all the energy I expend caring for others in my roles as a counselor, family member, and friend.
By the way, I definitely laugh on Silent Days. Laughing and talking are as different as night and day. Laughing gets me out of my head and into my body, which enhances the experience of being silent.
As for the secret value of Silent Days, I’m not telling! But there is one way you can find out….
This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (July 2004) and updated in November 2016.