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Practicing Silence

It happens like clockwork. Thursday rolls around and that checklist in my head starts to flash red. So many tasks to be completed, so many things to write, and read. So many people to visit and call. Class to attend, work to be done. Each week, right about now, I start to breathe a little quicker, my eyes begin to dart and my heart rate kicks up a notch. For some people it’s the start of the week that causes the most stress, for me it’s the end. On Monday, I usually feel organized and prepared. By Thursday, the wheels have come off and I’m playing a dangerous game of organizational triage. It’s so dang predictable.

This is when I need to remind myself that there is a peace to be found in the chaos, and its name is silence. I don’t mean simply turning off Spotify while I write a paper or clean the house. I mean silence inside and out. Silence that fills my entire being, body and soul. This is my antidote.

Silence is part of nearly all spiritual practice, because the ancients and mystics of all faith backgrounds understood that peace is found in the silence. St. Benedict had very strict feelings about silence in the monastery, saying, “Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk” *. Benedict reminds us that a flood of words most often leads to problems. Gossip, slander, complaining. Thus, when we refrain from speaking we build up sturdy walls against such dangerous floods. This is true also for interior silence. When we allow our minds to spin wildly around the business and negativity of our weeks and our days, our work and our relationships, we find that we are unable to know inner peace. We simply spin out of control. This is what happens to me on Thursdays around 10 A.M.

Joan Chittister speaks of silence in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, saying:

“Monastic spirituality says it is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to consciousness. Monastic spirituality says it is the cry of our own passions that mute the cry of others. Monastic spirituality says people who cannot live comfortably with silence can never live comfortably with noise.

But silence is a frightening thing. Silence leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us into depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” (Chittister **)

This is the healing I need, and I am fully aware of the ways in which I hoard and run in my own life. Running for me often looks like procrastination. It offers moments of relief in a world too full of tasks and relationships for me to manage. I feel so overwhelmed that I just turn on Netflix for an episode…or two…or a season. But eventually the world snaps back into focus and I have less time maneuver it than I did before. This is where I start to say “I have no time for silence”, which is a complete cop-out, but an effective one nonetheless. However, all the practitioners of silent or centering prayer that I have read; Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, they suggest something in the area of 40 minutes a day. 20 in the morning, 20 in the evening. If I have time to watch one episode of Ancient Aliens, I can manage 40 minutes of silence a day.

This is not simply a spiritual notion, as the science of silence has started to back up the claims of the desert fathers and mothers, the yogis and mystics. An article on Huffington Post discussed the number of ways that noise and distraction harms our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that noise pollution can raise blood pressure and risk of heart attack, and create a greater sense of stress. A 2013 study, focusing on the effects of noise on mice, found that silence might actually lead to the creation of brain cells in the hippocampus. This Psychology Today article links to a number of studies that illustrate the benefits of silent meditation, with results like decreased pain, decreased anxiety and stress, and an increased sense of compassion and empathy. The mystics have had it right all along.

We live in a world that values production and hard work. We see people who work themselves to death, and we celebrate their dedication and come to believe that this is what success looks like. But this is a dangerous way to live. When we don’t take the time to settle our bodies and minds we soon find that we lose whatever sense of control we were aiming for in the first place.

Ultimately, silence is a settling into the experience of God, into the Ground of All Being. It heals us because this presence is itself healing. Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart, says:

“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer that consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.” (Keating ***)

This freedom to settle into the experience of Mystery and silence is one that offers us peace and healing in a world that demands certainty and offers cacophony. It is a way for us to care for ourselves, and to claim our identity as Beloved, and to extend that love out into the world. Whether we enter silence as a way of being good to our own bodies and minds, or as a way of resting in the presence of the Mysterious God, it is clear that it is a wise thing to do. So, now I’ll shut up, get up from this desk, and start taking my own advice. Peace.

*The Rule of St Benedict

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”

***Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart”

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