As a social psychologist and extrovert, I both study and thrive on human connection. But from time to time, I need a recharge, so I frequent extended silent retreats when I can.
This February, I had my first invitation to practice a day of silence in a social setting; others were talking, while I abstained from verbal and non-verbal communication. This “social silence” was less about looking inward, and more about witnessing my deeply ingrained reactions to social situations. I was stunned to observe the many ways that I look outside of myself for validation.
My silent day was at the Esalen Institute, a breathtaking retreat center nestled in California’s rugged Big Sur coast. I spent that morning soaking in hot tubs. A young man spoke to me as soon as I entered the tub: “Isn’t the view lovely.” He sat there anxiously awaiting a response and then tried again. “Hi, my name is David.” I signaled that I’m not speaking, intending to justify my seeming rudeness, but he remained uncomfortable. I experienced a man sheepishly requesting some validation of his existence. I felt awful – was it my moral obligation to talk to him, to make him feel good about himself? I had been in his position many times before, seeking human connection as a short-term fix for my own deeper loneliness. I know the pain in being ignored.
I couldn’t stand the tension and left for another tub. After a few minutes of soaking, a woman asked, “Do you know if they have shampoo in the showers here?” As it turns out, they don’t, but I had brought shampoo with me. I desperately wanted to run out of the tubs, get my shampoo, and offer it to her. But to me, silence is more than not speaking; it means wholly drawing inward. Her hair would survive a day without shampoo, and I would survive without gaining heroic validation from sharing my shampoo. I reluctantly signaled my silence and stared back out at the ocean.
My final test came in the showers. The person across from me left the water running, a cardinal sin in drought-ridden California. My impulse was to race over and turn off the water. But I paused. Silence here meant accepting the world as it was, without my well-intended meddling. And so I let the water run. Non-action proved surprisingly liberating. [And someone else shut off the water within a minute.]
These strangers became a window into my own nature. I realized that part of the benefit I get connecting with others is receiving their steady steam of validation. And every time I get to “solve” someone else’s problem – providing shampoo, turning off the running water – I get a rush, a feeling of worthiness. In other words, I rely on the outside world to affirm my own existence.
But the truth is, my existence doesn’t need outside validation. And it’s not my place to validate others. I can’t solve the world’s problems. Inaction, and walking the world as a silence observer, proved paradoxically empowering.
When the silence ended, friends came up to me and noted: “You looked so sad.” But I wasn’t sad. Nor was I happy. I was deeply content, and I was at peace – with myself, and with the world around me, precisely as it was.
Are you ready for your own day of silence?