My taijiquan teacher used to tell us, “Before you start your practice, imagine putting on a robe that’s covered with 10,000 silver bells. The goal is to complete your practice without making a sound.”
I loved that exercise. It taught me to slow down, to relax and be still, to wait for each moment to unfold. And most importantly, it taught me to listen.
But for the longest time, I thought that listening was paying attention to what I could hear. I have come to understand that a deeper listening—to the silence surrounding, enfolding, and permeating us—can open us to even more, to the breathtaking beauty and restorative power of life. In the process, it can give us the perspective and leverage to transform our living.
Traditionally, taiji is practiced in the early morning. This is, in part, because the quiet is still palpable. There are wider spaces of silence between sounds, giving the player ample room to dance in that silence, to let it penetrate muscle and bone, blood and breath. To learn to listen, not just with the ears, but with each turn of the hand, placement of the foot, shift of the weight.
My wife and I live on the edge of a forest. When I step outside in the morning to practice taiji, only a few sounds of nature float in the air and fade—a bird calling, a light rain pattering in the forest’s upper canopy, a breeze stirring the leaves, sometimes the distant burbling of the creek in the canyon below us.
Framed by the overriding silence, these sounds take on a lyrical, magical quality, their music more like an expression of the surrounding silence than an interruption or counterpoint to it. The beauty of this sonata of sound and silence brings tears to my eyes and turns a simple taiji exercise into a moving recognition of being blessed.
These may seem like strange times to be speaking of dancing in the silence. Quiet is not a word that comes to mind in describing the days we are living. Systemic racism. Social injustice. Economic imbalance. Global pandemic. But however noisy, it is without question a time that calls us to listen. To the cries of pain and outrage, of fear and anger, of ignorance and wisdom.
The sheer number and volume and importance of all those voices also makes this a critical time to listen for and dance in the silence. Because silence is still here—within, throughout, and all about us. And if we can learn to steep ourselves in it even as we wade through the roar of the moment, we may actually hear with greater understanding the messages in the roar.
When the Black Lives Matter movement first emerged after the killing of Trayvon Martin, my first thought was, “Well, yes, but the point is that all lives matter.”
But I was wrong. Of course, “all lives matter” is true in the sense that “all men are created equal.” But in order for us to bring those words from the realm of philosophical ideas and cultural ideals into living reality, we have to actually live them. And in order to do that we have to start where we are.
We live in a country and culture with a history of racial discrimination older than our Union. Slavery is a wound that we have left unhealed for more than 400 years. The lives of slaves literally didn’t matter (other than to the extent their loss was an economic hardship to their owner). Until we name that fact and live the truth that Black Lives Matter, we turn “all men are created equal” into a living lie. When we no longer have to say “Black Lives Matter” because it is self-evident by how we live, then we can speak of “all lives matter.”
Dancing in the silence does not mean remaining silent. It means filtering what we hear and what we say through the silence and stillness at the heart of life. That silence is part of the intricate web that connects all living things. It is a subtle tuning fork that can call the fragmented and discordant voices toward harmony. It can refresh and renew us, help us breathe more easily, and live more hopefully.
But it doesn’t mute our voice. It calls us to speak. Clearly. Authentically. Authoritatively.
Silence is not a skill our time has cultivated, and we are living with the consequences. To explore some of the possibilities, consider this simple exercise:
Before you start an activity of your choice, imagine putting on a robe that’s covered with 10,000 silver bells. The goal is to complete the activity without making a sound.