A couple of years ago I had a flurry of attending our local Quaker group meetings, and then the pandemic arrived. When I look back at these meetings now, I am struck by the depth of connection I remember feeling with this unfamiliar group of 25 people after just one hour of sitting in silence together.
A few people spoke spontaneously during the hour, as is Quaker practice. Three people shared thoughts and feelings about a friend in common who had died recently, and another person posed a deep question about life and death in the context of recent world news.
Throughout a baby was nursed by her mother in the corner, resulting in a joyous sound of slurps punctuated by little gasps. Two toddlers sat quietly for a while, and then flopped around genially until their fathers took them outside for a bit of air. Afterwards we all had tea and chatted.
I’m idealizing it somewhat through the rosy mists of time, but it got me thinking about the way that the silence of contemplation challenges us, as the busy humans we are, yet has the potential to bring us into such space and peace. Some of us have been experiencing a type of silence more than ever through lockdown, and home-working, both the pleasure of it and the isolation of it, as well as the desire to simply fill it up with activity. Others have been home-working and home-schooling in small spaces; desperate for some peace and quiet.
I can remember silence being enforced at school in the corridors, and in the library. I resented it back then as an instrument of control, but now I love a silent space, in community – where there is room for everyone’s presence to descend at its own speed, no matter how much our inner demons prefer to run around in circles. Over time this all begins to calm like muddy water, and peacefulness descends as the Buddhists know well.
What would it be like to begin any meeting with 5 minutes of silence together? How would it be to bring back a spirit of contemplative calm in families, schools, organisations? The slowing down of everyone’s breath and internal rhythms opens us to a more peaceful, relaxed field. This can work online, or in person in my experience, with the right support.
I understand leadership as a responsive practice, where one of a number of qualities or skills may be brought to a situation. How can we sense what is required without some stillness; without some quiet, some aloneness? Many leaders get tempted to do too much, often in an attempt to be seen to be valuable. Being seen and admired (or feared?) is a temptation for all of us, and these ‘supplies’ are especially problematic surrogate satisfiers for leaders.
What would leadership be like if it came out of the silence, instead of being part of a more or less unconscious or reactive stream? I think about this in the family situation, as well as the organisational. Dealing with teenage kids can push a parent to the limits, as can looking after increasingly frail, confused or anxious parents. A bit of loving silence alongside fellow humans can support just as much, if not more at times, than talking, or even hugging.
In this fragmented, anxious world the more we gather together – online or in person, and the more we give space to our deeper resources and questions, the more we will all be able to be loving, compassionate and truthful when it’s required. Particularly when this needs to be interwoven with courage, power and strength.