We can learn a lot about group silence from Quakers, whose traditional meetings for worship have little or no ritual, leadership, or conversation. Rather, they sit in a silence which they perceive as being filled with Spirit. From time to time a member who feels "called" (moved from within by Spirit, by their "inner light") rises and speaks. When finished, they simply sit down. No one responds. The pregnant silence settles once more among and within the congregation.
Silence in such a gathering is the norm. Too much speaking can undermine the spiritual intensity of the silence, which can often become quite palpable if left to ripen. So it is important to grasp this idea of being "called" or "moved" to speak. Often it involves sitting and staying silent even though one really wants to say something. During this time that desire may subside, making way for new thoughts. Or it may intensify to a point where one can no longer stay seated; the message must be said. There is something about one's communication at those times that carries a spiritual sensibility that is quite consistent with the silence and, paradoxically, does not break it. The voice of Spirit is speaking into the silence of Spirit.
Silence is emptiness. It draws things into itself, and gives birth to new things out of itself. Things that have been held back -- both the beautiful and the painful -- push to emerge into awareness when silence gives them the space. Whenever we are uncomfortable with silence -- by ourselves or as a group -- that is a sign that something needs to come forth. Silence can begin a process of healing; and sometimes that is difficult. But an individual or a group that has the courage to work through what comes up will be deeper and richer for it. And a group that practices silence together regularly -- even five or ten minutes before and/or after each meeting, will be deeper and richer for it.
From the novel "The Man Who Killed the Deer" by Frank Waters (1941) about a young Pueblo Indian man who is struggling between the indigenous and modern ways. Much of the Pueblo Indian Way is vividly portrayed, including their relationship to silence and words. This excerpt on silence is from Waters' description of the Pueblo Council in the first chapter:
"They sat faces bowed, eyes downward, wrapped in blankets, swathed in silence. But this silence was pregnant with the ever-living mystery; and the tentacles of mind and heart groped through it to feel its shape and form and substance....When the guttural Indian voice finally stops there is silence. A silence so heavy and profound that it squashes the kernel of truth out of his words, and leaves the meaningless husks mercilessly exposed. ... And the silence grows round the walls, handed from one to another, until all the silence is one silence, and that silence is the meaning of all. So the individuals vanish. It is all one heart. It is the soul of the tribe. A soul that is linked by that other silence with all the souls of all the tribal councils which have sat here in the memory of man. A council meeting is one-half talk and one-half silence. The silence has more weight, more meanings, more intonations than the talk. It is angry, impatient, cheerful, but masked by calmness, patience, dignity. Thus the members move evenly together. Now it suddenly thickened. It boiled. It was the taut silence of a hunter the moment before striking...."