The theme of one of our priest’s homily was the need to pause, collect your thoughts, silence your attention to the rest of the world and seek a deeper understanding of yourself and God. He used the phrase “Spaces of Silence”. The phrase caught my attention immediately. It is so simple, concise and yet powerful. It is very appropriate for the subject of his homily and the more I thought about the phrase the more I thought of extensions of its usage.
Silence of Learning
One such extension is in learning. How can we use silence to learn? Most likely the first thought for parents is to tell their children to turn off the music or television. This can be good advice for many children, but spaces of silence means much more and it does not always mean a reduction in sound. The phrase is two words – spaces and silence. They are a team and have more meaning and power when used together. Michael Michalko has identified four steps in the learning process:
Incubation and Illumination are key steps in the learning, problem solving or creative process in which spaces of silence play a major role. Let’s first look at what may appear to be unrelated examples but from which we may gain a better understanding of spaces of silence.
Spaces of Silence – Timeout
First let’s consider a sporting event which is also a learning event. Most team sports are divided into quarters, periods, halves, etc. and also allow teams to request a defined number of short time out periods. What is the purpose of this down time? Part of the purpose is rest for the players, but a good coach use this time for themselves and the players to reflect on what they have learned about themselves and the other team that can be used to make adjustments and improve their performance. The space of silence is from the event and not a period of absence of sound.
I enjoy reading but have a pet peeve about the way some authors organize their books. Some authors go on and on with long paragraphs and even longer chapters. Ever notice how much easier it is to read an article or section of a book if it has some white space to help you break up the reading and thoughts? The section or chapter breaks give you a chance to stop for a moment, think about what you have read, reflect on how ideas in the book are developing and then move on. A skillful author provides well timed breaks (spaces of silence) to increase the enjoyment and understand of their writing.
A Pregnant Pause
Do you remember your formal days of education where you sat through lectures trying to take copious notes while still listening to the teacher and other student’s questions? With some teachers this task went very well, with others it was almost impossible and you missed important topics or explanations. A good teacher or speaker is going to provide appropriate pauses for their audience to reflect, collect and organize the ideas which have been presented. Another phrase, very similar to spaces of silence comes to mind with this example. It is a pregnant pause. The original meaning of pregnant was full of significance. A good teacher uses a pregnant pause to alert the learner something of significance is coming or now is the time to collect what has been said and link it together two ideas from a previous learning experience.
A correctly placed space of silence from a speaker can make the difference between just a lot of talk or an enlightening experience for the audience.
Arthur Schnabel made this point well with this comment:
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists; but the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”
Types of Spaces of Silence
At this point let’s take our own pause and identify the different types of Spaces of Silence.
- Regroup A pause from activities, stepping back and review where you are, reassess and adjust (feedback process). This is what we are doing at this time, a team does during the half time of a game or a good speaker practices.
- Shield Creating a protective shield about yourself to shut out disturbances and silence the surroundings to allow you complete focus. An attribute my oldest son seemed to master.
- Disengage Putting the current activity on hold and move on to another unrelated activity. Many times this will lead to an illuminating idea related to a previously shelved activity.
- Cleansing This is similar to #3 but instead of pursuing an alternative activity you clean the mind of current thoughts using day dreaming, meditation, etc.
Put up a Shield or Disengage
My oldest son has the ability to completely tune out everything around him when he becomes absorbed in something. It took us a few times but we eventually learned we had to get his attention first, and then talk to him. He was able to create a space of silence for himself, where space is not temporal but a zone around him with his own form of a force field to keep the rest of the world out of his thought process. Silence does not mean there is absolute quiet, but the ability to use the sounds around him to create a silence of interruption of thought.
At times he would assist himself with a background of music which in reality was one of the components of his space of silence force shield. Not many people have the ability to focus so intently to create their own zone and each may have different methods. Most people struggle greatly to create a small and short lived space and others are more in tune with the distractions and appear to be looking for interruption. If you can create this space of silence, you will find the effort to be worthwhile. This is a form of meditation which is defined as: “a state that is experienced when the mind dissolves and is free of all thoughts or focused on a single object [Wikipedia Encyclopedia]”.
Cleansing and Inspiration
For the incubation-illumination process to fully develop we sometimes need to silence the current thinking process, at least consciously.
Better said by Grant Wood: “All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow”.
Hard work and more hard work sometimes just do not get the results and you reach a point where your effort has diminishing returns and may even eventually slow down or prevent you from solving the problem. Just as Grant Wood experienced, after an intense effort which seems to leave you at a roadblock, the best thing is to completely put the current problem out of mind.
Some people go to work on a completely different problem, some change to a different subject, some go the physical route and others may use a form of meditation. The objective is to silence the conscious mind from the current problem for a period of time. Your mind will unconsciously not forget about the problem and miraculously help you to make the unexpected connection (creative touch) needed to solve the problem. When you may least expect it, an inspiration presents you the answer you were working so hard to obtain.
Inspiration is critical to creative thought. Without sudden flashes of inspiration, we might never arrive at creative solutions to difficult problems. Without the fresh insight that intuition grants us, we might never see the forest through the trees. Flashes of inspirational thought can be stimulated in various ways.
The Enchanted Mind
Enchanted Mind web site has some good ideas regarding the process of inspiration. For those who have experienced it they have found it to be a very satisfying experience. The moment of illumination occurs, it engages the emotions in such a way that it’s impossible to remain passive or indifferent.
On those rare occasions when I’ve actually experienced it, I couldn’t keep tears from coming to my eyes – The Music of Primes by Marcus du Sautoy.
Ever forget something? I mean something you just thought of a few moments ago. This experience is many times referred to as a senior moment, but anyone can experience it. One example is with people’s names. You see someone and know you know them and definitely know their name and while it is on the tip of our tongue, you just cannot remember it. You move on and then some time later it comes to you as clear as it can be and you wonder how it could have been forgotten. Many times at that moment you will also recall many other pieces of information about the person.
Otto Loewi, a scientist and Nobel prize winner, shared an experience of this type in his autobiography (here with additional comments from his nephew, Renate G Justin).
The night before Easter Sunday of that year  I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl.
He would pause at this point and tell me how he had tried all day, unsuccessfully, to remember his dream and to interpret the scribbled note. He said that he went to bed early Sunday night and read for a while before turning out the light. Then, Onkel Otto continued, in an animated tone, he woke up at two or three in the morning, most unusual for him, and, yes, he knew what his dream had been about the previous night. He got up immediately and went to the laboratory.
Dr. Justin includes a very appropriate poem, The Dream Notebook, from Agi Mishol:
for a thousandth of a second I knew for certain the secret of life even if forgetting descended on me and I forgot the moment I remembered and not a word remained except the taste of knowledge
Creativity and Spaces of Silence
Creating a space of silence for the mind to fertilize the mind for illumination is akin to creative thinking. Kathleen Fackelmann, in an USA Today article (August 28, 2006), interviewed Nancy Andreasen who gave advice on How to Give Your Mind A Workout. She advocates spending 30 minutes a day on creative work. Why wait for a difficult problem? Maybe an exercise regime for the mind will be as beneficial as physical exercise is for the body by reducing the number of times or the duration of spaces of silences.
Ms. Andreasen suggests: Explore an unfamiliar area of knowledge. For example, people who use a lot of math on the job should sign up for a painting class. Spend time each day thinking. Don’t censor your thoughts, but allow your mind to go freely to a problem and see what kinds of solutions or ideas surface.
Practice the art of paying attention. Look for and really observe a person, an object or something in your daily commute that you hadn’t really noticed before. Try describing or drawing that object in a journal or sketchbook.
Use your imagination. Spend time each day imagining a different world. What would it look like? What would you do there?
To nurture creativity in children
- Read with your child every day. Make sure reading becomes an active experience in which you ask questions and point out new concepts to your child.
- Emphasize diverse topics of study. Make sure your child is exposed to both the arts and sciences.
Encourage curiosity. Ask children interesting questions and get them to look around and think about the world in novel ways.
- Get children interested in music. Studies have shown that musicians have more gray matter than non-musicians. Children can listen to music while doing another activity, such as playing.
Imagination is a shaping power that dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create, extending our consciousness by providing a new unity to our perceptions; it is an echo.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this about the imagination of God himself in his eternal creation. For me it is also a beautiful way to describe the power and benefits when we utilize spaces of silence.
Listen to the silence; it may be the most important thing you hear.