The Many Silences of Recovery

Whoever said “Talk is cheap” must not have had a therapist. Therapy works, but it isn’t cheap.

If talk is cheap, does that mean that silence is expensive?

In my practice as an Addiction Therapist, I often tell clients that I get paid per question. Therapy isn’t really talk therapy, it’s more about the questions and the listening. Both the Therapist and the client take turns asking questions and then listening, interspersed with some talking.

How does silence help recovery and when does it get in the way?

It makes me wonder: What is all of our noise doing to our mental health?

You probably don’t know who he was. I certainly didn’t. Paul Goodman is a unknown poet and writer who lived and died long before the internet was born. He is influential because of what he said about the importance of not saying… about the importance of silence. Goodman wrote about the different kinds of silence that people experience. For Goodman, relationships and even life, is marked by silence that both enriches and the silence that rivals our lives.

He reflected that talking is a commitment to life. Speaking is a way that we live out our existence.

Imagine spending a day not talking at all. ALL 24 HOURS?

Not because you are mad at your spouse. And not because you forgot how to speak, or because you have laryngitis. But just… not talking? What would happen to the space in your life that is normally filled by speech?

Joshua Becker did it, not talking for a day, and the experience changed how he views communication. He found that his reasons for speaking were mainly to talk about himself:

  • To control what other people think of us
  • To get other people to do what we want them to
  • To cover up our mistakes or imperfections
  • To try to convince or explain to others what we think

“Refusing to speak forces us to embrace silence. And in a world addicted to noise, idle chatter, and meaningless words, silence can be very uncomfortable. But there is great life to be found in solitude—if only we’d give it opportunity.” Joshua Becker

There is life inside of our silence, but what we find in the silence is too often uncomfortable. When I give clients the opportunity to be silent for a few minutes in a therapy session, often they stare at me like I must be crazy. I am convinced now more than ever that part of what drives my own unhealthiness is not giving myself enough time to be silent. In our silence we often find healing, but getting to the healing we have to walk through the wilderness of our own emotional landscape.

Silence has quietly become extinct. It has been drowned out, overpowered, out gunned by hands full of smart phones, the driving thud of our music, and the subtle whispering of our appliances. Sadly, we won’t even find silence in church anymore. The only places we find silence anymore are in our libraries. Books invite quiet, but even these spaces are threatened.

It makes me wonder: What is all of our noise doing to our mental health?

Right now, I invite you to do an experiment. In fact, I’m doing it right now. Stop reading and use your smart phone timer and set it for 5 minutes. Then put your phone away, don’t read, don’t surf. Just be silent.

• • •

Talk may be cheap but attention is very expensive.

When I did the 5 minute challenge, at about the second minute of silence I realized something. Talk may be cheap but attention is very expensive.

If you tried the 5 minute experiment, or even for just a minute, what happened? I can’t imagine being alive without taking time for silence. At first, silence can feel awkward, but once we give it time, silence becomes an essential part of us like our impulse to breathe, drink water water or seek out human touch.

The many silences of recovery

Paul Goodman wrote that there are at least 9 kinds of silence. I learned about Goodman in the Brain Pickings magazine. If you do not have a subscription, I highly suggest it. Maria Popova writes a free, weekly magazine about books that are often neglected, but truly profound. You can see the Brain Picking magazine by clicking here.

After reading what Goodman’s take on silence, it struck me that there are different kinds of silence in recovery.

The silence of not wanting to feel, not wanting to be aware of our pain, our fear.

The often small, tiny space inside of us that wants life. Even when we are in a full on panic, rage, sadness, craving or drunkenness. It is there, the space inside us that wants more life and less of the things that pull and push.

The silence of hearing our own body. Sometimes for the first time.

The silence of wanting  the struggle to be over, “I’m done” or “This is too hard.”

The numb silence of apathy, “I don’t care anymore.”

The silence of refusal, of unwillingness.

The refreshing silence of admitting that we don’t know, as if we are listening for the first time: To others who may know something. To ourselves.

The silence of noticing, really noticing another person. Seeing them.

The silence of awareness – of our bodies, our breathing, our discomfort, our pains. Of hope. Of willingness.

The silence within the awkward moments. Not knowing what to say. Not knowing how to meet someone. Not sure of where to start talking, where to begin, what is the “right” thing to say… right now.

The silence of being occupied, engrossed in an activity that makes us feel alive, real. This silence may be found while creating art, in hard exercise, practicing a new skill, gardening, while deep in conversation or just being outside.

The noisy silences: anger that stews within us, self judgment, blame and deflection, facing our “demons” – our reality as it is right now, our decisions.

The silent groan within us – the unexpressed or unexpressible. The sense within us that we feel unsettled, different, off, or not like everyone else.

The silence of being dumbfounded, awestruck, or baffled. But then not turning away.

The silence of consideration: art, good music, the sky, another person who truly cares.

• • •

When we make room for silence, it is there that we begin to see ourselves:  Our goodness, our hope, our light and life, along with our all of the “F” words that come to mind: our faultings, our failings, our fears and our frustrations

Seeing it, I notice that my list is not complete. There are probably more silences that can be noticed. Nor is each silence a different “type” of silence. Perhaps they are sides of just one silence. Whatever silence looks like or feels like, when we make room for silence, it is there that we begin to see ourselves:  Our goodness, our hope, our light and life, along with our all of the “F” words that come to mind: our faultings, our failings, our fears and our frustrations.

Rather than fill this page with more words about silence, I will leave you with Paul Goodman’s insightful words on silence. I hope that you are inspired to explore your own silence, and the silence within your silence:

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

• • •

I hope that you enjoyed this post and that perhaps today you will take time away from the noise and listen for the silence. If you want something else to read, check out a few of my other related posts:

How Doing Nothing On Purpose will Help Your Recovery and Mental Health… But at First it Will Drive You CRAZY!

4 Habits that will Make Your Experience More Valuable than College

When Your Mind is a War-Zone, You Become the Casualty

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Keep it Real

Photos by Joe Diaz, Kim Manley Ort, Michelle B, Jason Devaun


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