On Silence (or How to Stay Still when the World is Out of Control)

In the work that I do with nonprofit organizations and social enterprises, I often encounter people who are “burnt out”.

I used to see burnout in the corporate sector – the kind of burnout that came from too many long days at the office, followed by nights churning out deliverables and carrying into weekends fielding emails and documents. Or the burnout caused by bosses and colleagues and meetings followed by meetings about meetings.

But the burnout that I see among my nonprofit and social enterprise colleagues – or any colleague working to deliver social services for that matter – is a different type. (And by talking about a different type of burnout, I promise I’m not belittling the corporate burnout – because that is both serious and soul-sapping as well.)

This other type of burnout is caused by seeing unmet need over and over again, and feeling helpless to make a difference. This burnout is when the heart and the soul have been stretched to a breaking point, and the natural healing process has been stymied yet again. This burnout is caused by the constant refrain echoing in one’s head, saying, “It’s no use. I can’t do enough. This need goes on forever, and I will never see the end of it.”

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I often hear from these amazing individuals who are in the business of making the world a better place that they are not able to talk about the burnout that I describe above. Typically, these ambassadors for the needy are full of stories and data and accolades about the work that is being done, or the work that needs doing. But very rarely are these “do-gooders” allowed to speak up for themselves and talk about the sheer exhaustion that comes from staring need in the face over and over again.

So where does the resilience come from? To keep going, to see the sheer magnitude of society’s inequalities, and to say, let’s keep forging ahead?

For them, there is rarely release. These are not easy topics to bring up at dinner tables or at social functions. Funny enough, the world does not easily reward these types of raw conversations. Mostly, and I know this to be true, these social warriors keep silent and keep the day-to-day misgivings and fears to themselves. They stick to big numbers that open pocketbooks, and positive, heartwarming stories that make us all feel good.

Very rarely do they open up and tell it like it is.

And so instead of release, it all stays inside.  It festers and it poisons. And, all too often, it causes the flame of passion to die out.

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This month we focus on Pratyahara, the movement of the mind toward silence rather than toward things. As the fourth limb of yoga, Pratyahara is more than just a suggestion – it is a yogic principle.

When I thought about Pratyahara, I immediately thought about these friends of mine, on the front lines of poverty, education, health and more.  I thought about how much their minds must be churning, day in and day out, with the needs and unrealized opportunities that they witness on countless occasions throughout the day.

But the principle of Pratyahara gives an alternative route. Maybe the key to resilience in the face of overwhelming chaos is not a lot of talking, or a lot of noise.  Maybe the answer is not found in release, but in silence.

I like this description from Catherine Madsen at Austin Yoga Tree: “Our senses are powerful masters. They are good at distracting us from what is important. They demand our attention and give us no other choice but to listen. When the senses take over, we jump from one impulsive action to another, never stopping along the way for a rest. Add to this the continuous barrage of information we are subjected to from technology, media, people, etc. and it’s easy to see how our lives pass us by…withdrawal from the senses and from the external world allows us to be capable of two things: detaching and re-evaluating.”

For those who are on the front lines of the world’s greatest struggles, maybe the best thing is to take time for silence and reflection – to move the mind away from those things, and take it to a place of detachment. Perhaps in this detachment, we will all find the peace we are seeking, and the answers to some of our greatest challenges.

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Are you with me in believing that this principle has uncanny relevance for this time? My mind feels anything but silent – it feels positively chaotic…and angry..and sad. And yet: what better time for reflection and quiet than when the world seems to be hell-bent on chaos.

As Paris smolders and Raqqa burns, the world is turned on to what it feels like when sheer magnitude of need is put on global display. The media feeds our frenzy giving us up-to-the-minute news and commentary. It is suddenly OK to have difficult conversations, but only within the acceptable frameworks.

But what I think we need most in this time – and what those involved in this work every hour of every day can draw upon as well – is silence.  Full-on, reflective, personal and soul-feeding silence. Only if we take the time for collective silence and pause, will we be able to find the truth.