On Silence & Suffering

As a “spiritual” person, if I can be so cliche, I have experienced the power of silence to calm, to heal, to usher in new perspectives, and to listen for a still small voice of wisdom and grace. But as a survivor of sexual violence, I have also known the violence of silence that shames, disconnects, isolates, and oppresses.

So, when #MeToo began to fill my Facebook feed and “The Silence Breakers” became Time Magazine’s People of the Year, I wanted to look deeper into the meaning of our silences as survivors. I wanted to understand and get to the root of how we are silenced. And personally, I was desperate to figure out what was different about silence that heals and silence that oppresses.  

So, I launched an initiative to collect essays that explored these questions. The book, which I’m proud to say includes essays by my two Still Harbor co-conspirators (Monique and Lauren) among many others, makes meaning of silence through the voices of many survivors of sexual violence and our allies and supporters.  

 Click this image to read more about the book project.

Click this image to read more about the book project.

In this blog post, however, I am most intrigued at sharing an insight that I’ve gleaned about silence and suffering. It is an insight that the book project brought into focus for me. 

The first part of the insight is this: 

When we are silenced by others—either by their willful denial of our voice or by their direct requests that we not speak—and when we are silenced by ourselves—either by our fear of the consequences of speaking or by our shame surrounding our feelings or voice—the thing that needs to be accepted, acknowledged, spoken, and understood does not go away. It lives in—some might say it infects—our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

In the spiritual realm—across many traditions—there are rituals and practices for healing, confession, cleansing, petition, and more that involve working with the things we hold within. Some such practices have been institutionally misused in ways that work against their potential, but the intent of them is to teach us ways of bringing ourselves and our stories fully into sacred silence in order to be held by a higher power and by human witnesses who are present not to judge but to listen and to support healing. To suggest that because these practices exist, it should be easy to bring what is living unacknowledged and unspoken in our body, mind, and spirit to be heard and witnessed is wrong. We’re never sure how we or others will react to our inner most turmoil and suffering. Society has often taught us that people won’t react well or that our suffering is best dealt with on our own. And perhaps this is why spiritual teachings also offer us deeper understandings of what it means to be with suffering: how to sit with it even when it cannot be fixed; how to have faith even when everything appears to be going wrong.  

For me, I have tried to learn and practice such spiritual teachings through meditation. And yet, despite my greatest intentions, I still find that it is hardest to meditate—to sit in silence with myself—when I am stressed and ruminating, especially when my experiences or feelings have been silenced by others or by myself. It is hard in such moments because I am forced to confront the power and pain of those silenced experiences and feelings. And so often, in such moments, I just don’t meditate. I carry on and I look away. It is too hard to be with the suffering, so I avoid it. In this way I replace sacred meditative silence that invites me to be fully with myself and all that I’m carrying with an avoidant self-protective silence that tries to push parts of me away. 

I believe there is a metaphor here for society. I think this is quite similar to what happens in our world with injustice, violence, and so much more, which brings me to the second part of my insight:

We cannot ignore or avoid suffering people (or pawn them off as someone else’s problem) and expect the causes and impact of their suffering will disappear. It lives on—some might say it infects—our relationships, communities, workplaces, cultures, and societies. And therefore it is up to us to find ways to promote healing and liberation in our relationships, communities, workplaces, cultures, and societies.

So, this begs the question of what promotes healing and liberation. And I’m going to be bold enough to say there are a few core things that help:

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  1. RADICAL PRESENCE: Compassionately listening to, acknowledging, accepting, and speaking about the suffering and pain that we know of and see (ours and others’).

  2. SACRED SILENCE: Sticking with contemplative practices that invite us to learn how to be with our suffering such that we may discern wisdom, truth, or right action. Note that to do this in this way, we need to move beyond the “transaction" or the “fix” of our contemplative practices and into deeper vulnerability with them.

  3. PRAXIS: Taking what we discern, putting it into action, and embracing that, once we’ve acted, we will need to begin the process of radical presence, sacred silence, and praxis once again… and on and on it goes. 

Whether it is sexual violence, racism, transphobia or any other form of oppression, our culture seems to want quick fixes. Yet we will not solve these social ills without examining ourselves, listening to others, and making our own changes. If you’re like me, such practices that ask us to confront the suffering within us and hack through it for deeper understanding often are the hardest to do, especially at times of great stress—times like these.

My invitation to you is to find a time or a group to practice sacred silence so that you may listen better and discern your role in undoing the silences all around us that oppress.