Can less be more? The gift of silence and stillness

Dr Bruce Addison, Dean of Curriculum and Scholarship

A few years ago I was very fortunate to visit Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land — both were remarkable places. Arnhem Land proved to be a particularly moving experience — its colours, silence and stillness were so very special. It is little wonder our Indigenous people have such an affinity with their land. This experience left an indelible mark on me. What had I felt that day? For many years I had been involved in musical performance — most of it during a very long association with St John’s Cathedral. I had been in that very special space for happy events, sad events, State events and many ‘ordinary’ events. I thought I knew a concept of stillness, but it was nothing in comparison to Arnhem Land that day.

Since my encounter with this landscape I have read much historical, anthropological and theological literature about ‘silence’ and its accompanying presence, ‘stillness’. A particularly important book was Robert Sardello’s (2006) gem, entitled, quite simply, ‘Silence’. Sardello constructs carefully the meaning of silence to our humanity, something that challenges our contemporary badge of honour: busyness.


I started to think about a few issues. Today we are more ‘connected’ yet we appear to be more anxious. Consumerism tells us that consumption equates to happiness yet we do not seem to be particularly happy or satisfied. We have so much information yet we yearn for wisdom. Words such as wonder, ponder, quiet, stillness and silence are almost counter-cultural to our twenty-first century notion of civility. Perhaps we have much to learn from Australia’s Indigenous people and their link with an expansive silence.

My hope for our students is that somehow we can help them find the presence that comes from states such as wonder, quiet, stillness and silence. In an environment driven by high expectations, this is no mean feat, however, it just might be an invaluable gift for their equilibrium in an ever-changing, demanding and contradictory world.

Recently I wrote a number of reflections based on Sardello’s book, including the one below. I hope it does his work justice.

Calm: Wisdom’s Simplicity

The world says more –
more affirmation
more success
just more!

‘Moreness’ challenges
peace –
it jars the soul
opposing the calm of
our deep and sustaining

Confronting ‘more’
with ‘less’
is housekeeping
for the

To seek ‘less’ is
wisdom’s ultimate
silence –
wisdom saying ‘dig deep’ –
growing in
the essence of life sustaining

Cleansing and letting go
our ultimate treasures –
beyond this world
deep interiors of calm –
embedded wisdom beyond
all understanding.

Wisdom and calm
difficulties dissolve –
embraced knowingly in
an eternal presence –
a presence cradling
our heart’s1

A challenge for our students and indeed everyone lucky enough to belong to this community, is that we not only understand the importance and toil associated with our motto, Nil Sine Labore, but that we also ‘get’ the restorative and calming presence of stillness and reflection. Something tells me that the latter is the much harder skillset to master.


For a very interesting discussion on the concept of ‘heart’ see: Palmer, P. (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy. Josey Banks: San Francisco.


Sardello, R. (2006). Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness. Goldstone Press: North Carolina.

Published 29 March 2014