Alison Woolley: Beyond the Silence of the Forest

Catherine Coldstream talks to Alison Woolley about the mystery of silence and its power in evolving our consciousness to ultimate nature

TISHINA. IT IS the silence of the forest, the rustle and shimmer of a vast, life-rich space untouched by human intervention. Tishina – a Russian word Alison slips into the conversation early on, like a lucky charm. Pressed into my palm, it feels mute yet urgent, a pass to another world. Tishina, she repeats. To my un-adapted ear it already sounds like whispering, and I stop and savour the hum of it – rustle, silence, silence, silence. And yet, of course, the forest is anything but quiet. The crackle of twigs underfoot, the snap of a bough, the rush of great – and lesser – wings, the calling of a Howler Monkey to its mate.

The other Russian word that translates as ‘silence’ is molchanie, heavier syllables faintly reminiscent of a book by Catherine de Hueck Doherty I once picked up while on retreat at Madonna House, back in the days when I regularly did such things. I was young, and grieving, and the possibility of poustinia – a cell or hermitage – was calling to me. I spent a week sleeping on boards, read de Hueck Doherty’s words about the solitary contemplative life, and heard the Hound of Heaven at my back, pacing, pounding, closer, closer, closer. It is astonishing how much you can hear when you stop talking.

Alison Woolley, who has recently published her first full-length book, Women Choosing Silence, and is familiar with the many nuances of quiet, describes some of the differences to me. Molchanie refers particularly to the cessation of human speech, a space in which feelings and perceptions other than the auditory may arise. It has no rustling forest overtones, but, like the numinous acuity of those tishina woodland spaces, it facilitates sharper and more profound levels of awareness. In neither case is silence really emptiness or absence, even though verbally void, conceptually subtle. The quiet these Russian words point to is not hollow, but pregnant with possibility.

After studying musicology at Goldsmiths in the early 1990s, Alison trained as a music therapist and worked with children who had limited or no powers of speech. It was here that her engagement with silence took off.

 ‘As I couldn’t rely on words to communicate with them, I learned how to be comfortable sitting in silence with another person, just being and expecting whatever unfolded,’ she says. ‘That was a great lesson. The children taught me a lot about listening, and I am very grateful to them for that.’

Even before her immersion in the world of wordless therapy, as a young musician she had realised there was no such thing as silence. It was hearing John Cage’s 4’33” in her teens that unlocked those portals. What was that breeze outside the window? That passing aeroplane? The teacher had left the class to their own reactions, and Alison entered a state that she still refers to as a defining moment. The power of listening – real listening, as Cage invites attention and then steps back – became compelling for her.

It was said that the 
Reverend Mother used to send all her nuns into Grand Central Station to practise silence

‘Do you think musicians, or people with heightened sonic or musical sensitivity are also more sensitive to silence?’ I ask her, hoping I am not eliciting the obvious. As a music-mad person I have always been hyper-sensitive to both sound and its cessation. Or perhaps it’s just me. Her reply is anything but obvious, however, and takes our conversation into the realms of the poetic:

‘That may or may not be true. But an astute therapist friend of mine once said that “words articulate silence the way branches articulate the sky”, and that’s a very strong image for me. I think it’s one that can also be applied to the way music articulates silence for us. It can be an attempt to utter something of the mystery and wonder that we experience in great quiet.’

‘Absolutely, and yet it’s ironic isn’t it?’ I say. ‘The silences music creates feel more absolute than the ambient silence of the everyday. Silence that is not contrasted with music, facilitated even by the energy of very loud and foursquare sound (I am thinking Bruckner here), seems somehow less real, less pronounced.’

Alison adds, ‘Music comes from silence and returns to silence.’

‘Certainly, music can convey a lot more, at a deep level, than words,’ I say. ‘But perhaps even this is only halfway to the hub of our experience. Do you think our most authentic experience is incommunicable, but that silence is the most direct mode of apprehension?’

Alison Woolley in conversation with Catherine Coldstream

‘If, instead of talking about experiences of silence, we consider that silence is the place where our encounters have the potential to be most truthful, I think we are getting close. Not all silence is like that, of course. Silence itself is so full of possibility, so varied and so variable, and can contain or hold so many different things.’

Tishina, molchanie, tishina, molchanie, I am mulling, and then there’s the intentional prayer of quiet, of hesychia – an ancient Greek word for stillness, rest, and receptivity. The desert fathers and mothers knew all about that. In the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, the collection of writings known as the Philokalia is treasured as a source of wisdom on the subject. Its alluring title is almost synonymous with receptive silence.

‘You grew up a Methodist, then became involved with a large Charismatic church before moving to the Church of England. Both can be quite noisy, ebullient expressions of faith. Did you not consider Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy, as expressions of Christianity that have more explicitly developed apophatic traditions?’

‘Not as such,’ she tells me. In fact, she discovered the anonymous Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim in her twenties, and adopted the Jesus Prayer as a mantra-like refrain. 

‘I was living at Lee Abbey at the time, and that whole summer I prayed the Jesus Prayer while I was working in the kitchen. I was amazed by how helpful I found it. But I afterwards didn’t stay with that, and I don’t know why. Sometimes things just evolve and you don’t need answers to what’s going on.’

We talk about how prayer, as a path, is like a stream running through the psyche, watering the garden of the whole personality, and that its denominational framework is far less important than its reality as something inward and transformative. Yes, the visible frameworks do make a difference, and can channel us in fruitful and properly disciplined directions. There is a time and a place for structure and definition. But these things are not there to hold or bind us, and some people may have to move through a number of iterations of conceptualised belief in order to develop in a healthy way. 

…women have a particularly hard time accessing any kind of quality of silence because they still take on the majority of the caring responsibilities in most families…

‘It was about three years later,’ Alison says, ‘that I discovered the riches of the Christian meditation tradition. Later still, I developed a regular practice of Centering Prayer, specifically, as taught by Thomas Keating, the Cistercian monk. That’s been the context of my discipline of silence for over a decade now, although I’ve supplemented it with insights from John Main, of The World Community for Christian Meditation and Cynthia Bourgeault, who really supplied the missing piece of the puzzle for me.’

CC: So, you have proceeded very eclectically, in fact. Things both new and old, familiar and strange. What was it about Cynthia Bourgeault that resonated, or fulfilled what was missing?

AW: I think it was her central teaching about surrender and letting go. I found the ongoing repetition of a mantra, in certain forms of meditation, a bit of a stumbling block, and then she helped me see that when you have a mantra there is the temptation to cling on to it, or to the concept it suggests. With Centering Prayer you don’t think in terms of mantras, but simply have a ‘sacred word’ that you only say internally, when you realise you have got distracted, to help you return to your intention of letting go of conscious thought. It’s not something indispensable, but something to be used as needed. The two ways work differently for different people, and I do appreciate that some people really do benefit from a repetitive mantra, but I don’t find that helpful.

CC: Your book is not only about silence; it is about women, and women’s choosing and adoption of silence as a powerful medium of spiritual growth. Was there a starting point for this?

AW: I was involved with the Overseas Book Service, way back, and my role was cataloguing all the donated second-hand theology books. It was while doing so that I encountered feminist theology for the first time. I found myself drawn to some amazing writers – Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Rüther, and Nicola Slee. The book that spoke most powerfully to me was Nicola Slee’s Praying Like a Woman. When I read another of her books, Women’s Faith Development: Patterns and Processes, what really jumped out at me was her mention of “texts to accompany women in their silence”. Reading those words, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. I realised I wanted to write a book to accompany women who are developing a practice of silence, to try to help explore what is going on for them in that uncharted space. 

Although Nicola Slee was actually referring to the silencing of women, largely by our patriarchal society and its male-led institutions, I felt the accompaniment idea could also be applied to the positive choosing of silence by women, for themselves. It was while doing my research there that it just became really clear that women do have a particularly hard time accessing any kind of quality of silence because they still take on the majority of the caring responsibilities in most families, and the demands and expectations placed on women are still so very hard that they really struggle to take time out, or to go away on retreat. Many women do not have the time or money.

 CC: It’s hard that something we feel to be a basic human need is seen as a luxury in today’s world. Often it is only the financially privileged who can escape the noise to find space and solitude and silence.

 AW: It’s that freely chosen silence that makes all the difference. 

Here Alison references Sara Maitland, whose Book of Silence also offered her helpful insights. 

AW: Imposed solitude or silence can be felt as really damaging. What I am interested in is the path of choice, of putting a value on something that can occur naturally in all our lives, as a wellspring of healthy spiritual growth.

I’ve had a daily practice of silence for thirteen years now, and earlier on I would have said I found silence far easier on my own. Now I’d go so far as to say that some of the most connected silences I’ve ever experienced have been on Zoom

Like Alison, Sara has made space for silence in her life, in her case choosing not only molchanie but also physical solitude, by living as a hermit in a remote area of Scotland. Both women have made wise contributions to public discussions around Christianity and feminism, although they come from different starting places and are from different generations. Sara, a doyenne of the ‘desert’, has written not only about the contemplative tradition, but also about the vibrancy, mystery, and menace of the forest. Those wooded places are not all comfortable tishina but a hideout for ghouls and goblins, the dark side of human nature. Her stories, with their echoes of fairy tales, steeped in a vivid sense of place, are bristling with latent violence, particularly in Gossip from the Forest, an unusual book which channels the buzz of ‘unquiet’ silence in thought-provoking ways.

Both women know that integration of the shadow side of the psyche is a precondition of spiritual growth to maturity. Finding physical spaces that help us listen, or allow an inner truthfulness, is only a first step. Alison recounts a story she once heard about a convent, somewhere in New York.

AW: It was said that the Reverend Mother used to send all her nuns into Grand Central Station to practise silence. Because it’s not necessarily about an external condition, it’s about what’s inside, and it’s about what’s going on in your head and heart. Learning to be internally still is a far more demanding practice than many people realise.

CC: You set up your initiative Seeds of Silence to support and encourage both Christians and non-Christians in developing a practice of silence. Do you feel there’s any irony in the fact that this takes place through online meetings of people, instead of in solitude?

AW: An online meeting is not necessarily going to be noisy. Perhaps in this specific case it just gives the structure and the support some people need.

CC: Very much as a monastic cloister or choir can function, for a group?

AW: Yes, I think so. It offers an intentional space for people to be with others, rather than just sitting on their own. It’s also true that people’s needs are different here, as in everything, and I don’t think it’s simply that it divides into introvert/extrovert. People are just different. Some people find being in silence on their own far easier than being in silence with other people, while for others the opposite may be true. It seems many people are helped by that sense of gathering together, with the responsibility to others that it entails. At home on their own many people can more easily get distracted. I’ve had a daily practice of silence for thirteen years now, and earlier on I would have said I found silence far easier on my own. Now I’d go so far as to say that some of the most connected silences I’ve ever experienced have been on Zoom – which seems completely bonkers!

CC: How does this approach to collective silence compare with silence in a Quaker meeting? 

AW: I think the intention in a Quaker meeting is usually more to do with listening, which naturally brings with it an expectation of ‘hearing’ from God. In my own practice, Centering Prayer, there is no expectation of hearing anything. The simple act of being in the silence, of letting go of self and of beholding the Divine is an end in itself. There is a significant difference there. In surrendering self-consciousness, which is something the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross has written about, there is a letting go of all verbal concepts, whether as thoughts, feelings, or interior words. It’s not necessarily a matter of ‘emptying the mind’, either, because a really connected silence can feel very full and intimate. As one woman I interviewed for my research said: “Silence is the fullest presence I know.”

CC: Given the interiority of what you are engaged in, would you ever seek out a certain kind of place, or space, to pray in? Is there a pilgrimage aspect at all, or a sense of place and atmosphere that might affect you? You mentioned Grand Central Station almost as a counter-space, the antithesis of a serene, resonant abbey. Would you ever seek out a ‘thin place’ or somewhere with a particular kind of energy?

AW: No, I really don’t think that is a defining factor. It’s true that up to a point we can learn to find the quiet place within by being in external silence, but after a while, once you’ve found it, you rely on something else for encountering presence in silence. You could say that once you know the way to a place you dispense with the map. When you know how to let go, and make yourself avail-able, when you know how to “dispose yourself as best you can,” then actually having auditory silence doesn’t matter anymore.

CC: There are rare places, of course, that do offer us an almost tangible sense of quiet, and sometimes that quiet is perceived as something sacred. You’ve already mentioned the forest, and to that one could perhaps add the wilderness, or desert. Today, one is almost more likely to find deep stillness in an art gallery than in a church. In an art gallery people are confronted with images, and respect that, and are receptive. Does that sound familiar at all? 

AW: My initial response is that what you find in a gallery is auditory silence, but there might be an awful lot going on inside the mind, in terms of structured thoughts and reflections. The viewer’s intention is to be very present to the images in front of them. Perhaps to ‘work out’ what the artist is saying to them. Although the two things look the same from the outside, the difference is in the intention.

CC: And yet, in terms of public perception, there does seem a reverence nowadays accorded to the arts that once was accorded to religion. It seems the arts can help people stand outside themselves, or at least outside their ordinary experience.

AW: Yes, I think the arts is the place where that happens, and some artists are very clear about that. Say, Rothko. And if the gallery is a very large space, it can simply function as somewhere that removes the hyper-stimulation and bombardment of daily life. That naturally makes an impact, and enables people to stop and be more present to what is in front of them, in this case the art. The similarity lies in the ‘being present’.

Alison is very clear that her project, Seeds of Silence, is not there to pacify or lull with outer quiet, but to lead people closer to some sort of inner change, and to enable healing change, as does all therapy. Letting go, being present, surrendering the self (as in the ego) – these are her aims and themes.

…silence is the place where our encounters have the potential to be most truthful…

CC: You are not only a facilitator of silence, you are a trained music therapist. What would you say about the importance of attentive silence in the therapist’s role?

AW: Offering silence is an act of recognition of the other, and of generosity, and it’s one that people need. As a therapist, not putting words into the spaces that, in any ordinary social interaction, would be pretty quickly filled by a response or reaction of some sort, is not always easy. But you find that making space allows both of you to drop to a deeper level of thinking, of articulating, and of reflecting that’s facilitated by the quality of your being together. And that kind of space is not something that most people are offered very often in their lives. I think it’s really important.

CC: Would you ever accord a privileged place to auditory silence, or see it as sacred, as do many traditions? Do you think it makes it easier to be receptive to inspiration? Or helps foster creativity?

AW: I am no longer occupied in promoting merely auditory silence as a desired end, per se. And I really can’t speak for artists, because I am not one. I can imagine that in the creative process there is a real letting go that may be in some way analogous to what I mean by meditation. But I suspect the self-emptying thing that occurs in meditation as I understand it is rather different from the energy-channelling, dynamic practice of externalised creativity. Ultimately, of course, I don’t know.

A car whines past outside my city centre window. The woman present to me through the magic of the screen smiles on. It is time to allow molchanie to take over, to interpose itself as both feast and fast between us. In the letting go I smile back, and we thank each other for our time of interaction. Perhaps we are both eager to get back to our ordinary habitats, to the familiar spaces of domestic quiet. I put away my laptop, go over to the sink, and pour myself a glass of water. But even as I do so, and hear with new acuity the filling of the glass, I cannot quite forget the rustle of the forest. Tishina, a word so alive with the buzz of the great unknown. Tishina, an invitation to be still and wonder. Tishina, a rustle that is only the beginning. 

Seeds of Silence:

Alison Woolley, Women Choosing Silence, Routledge, 2019:

APRIL 2022  Catherine Coldstream MONK

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