A Field Guide to Life – The Practice of Silence

by Brad on January 22, 2013

This installment of A Field Guide to Life outlines the first of many personal practices you can adopt that can open your life to big, new possibility. The Practice of Silence invites you to challenge prevailing wisdom and stop – just stop, and allow your mind to calm.


The Practice of Silence 

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Perhaps no more powerful in the journey to transformation, yet no more misunderstood, is the practice of personal silence. Call it self-reflection, meditation, time-out, prayer, quiet time, or doing nothing, a regular practice of calming the mind is the entrée into a world of personal change. It’s a way to connect with your deepest beliefs and how they impact your presence. It creates space that opens you to life’s opportunities, which, although always present, go unnoticed against the backdrop of noise and overwhelm of ordinary life. Insights and answers about life’s mystery show up in gaps between thoughts. If there are no gaps, you may miss this amazing source of wisdom altogether, or ignore its messages whenever they manifest. 

17150038We have a very strange relationship with silence. We say we want it, yet we experience little of it. When we finally experience a glimpse of it, we revert quickly, probably unconsciously, to the everyday background noise we’ve become so used to. It seems we fill our lives with noise to avoid the discomfort of being with ourselves. To the detriment of our souls and spirits, noise is epidemic: TV, iPods, cars, cell phones, appliances, kids, adults, music while on hold with phone calls, TV at restaurants and gas stations. Examples are so pervasive that we think they’re proof of being alive instead not being alive.

By contrast, nature exists against a backdrop of silence. Trees make little noise as they grow, or as they shed their leaves. Despite the noise a crow can make, it’s silent most of the time. If a bobcat made noise, it would fail as a hunter. Although opposite the model we’re used to, nature displays much of what we’d love – resilience, productivity, balance, oneness, integrity.

The awareness your mind fights is the awareness your inner self longs for. There’s no one right way to be silent. The “way” is to show up each day with an intention to be silent. The following practice is the core of all transformative possibility. I invite you to adopt this as one of your new life-long friends. 

  • Create daily space for personal silence: either one 30-minute period, or if you prefer, two 20-minute periods. More is better. Sit alone in a place you love, in nature if possible, but a place without distraction. Ideally, it’s a place you can return each day, a place you call your own. Relax your body, then take three deep breaths. Close your eyes if you like, or focus on a simple object in your view. There’s no right or wrong; just be present for the time you choose. Breathe purposefully, and just listen to your breathing. That’s it. Just listen. Invariably, perhaps even for the entire time you’re here, thoughts will come up, often in the form of inner voices (things to do, fears). Sometimes you’ll realize you’ve been lost in a single thought the whole time and haven’t quieted the mind at all. Resist any judgment; everything “just is.” Instead, use your awareness to acknowledge the thought, let it go, and return to your breathing. “Success” comes from being here, not where thoughts take you. Gradually, this practice serves to calm the mind. You’ll soon notice that your thoughts have been thinking you, rather than you thinking them. If you don’t believe this, stop thinking right now. If you’re the one thinking, why can’t you stop? Silence focuses awareness on the present moment. That’s the moment you miss as you put energy into worry about the next moment instead. As you become intrigued by the practice of silence, up the ante: how about no radio, TV, news or malls – for a week? If you feel better (you will), go for another week; then another.
  • Observing the spaces between: After you gain comfort with your own silence using the practice above, (the process differs for everyone), you may notice you’ve avoided silence because it brings you face-to-face with the fact that life is uncertain. Despite futile attempts to know the unknowable, predict the unpredictable, control the uncontrollable, and convert all chaos to order, we truly don’t know what comes next, and we simply can’t control it. A great way to better accept life’s inherent uncertainty is to notice your experience of spaces between the things of life, not just the things themselves. I’ve had clients respond by saying, “nothing comes between; that’s what ‘between’ means.” I invite deeper exploration. The space between is home to uncertainty, the potential of the next moment. Here are three different levels for exploration; each allows you the experience of discovery from a different viewpoint:
    • “Big” spaces – how have you responded to major life transitions – new job, losing a relationship, between homes or even seasons. What feelings did the transition evoke? fear, anxiety, relief, denial, acceptance, joy, anger? How did you respond to the space created? Did you rush to fill the void, with a new job, home or relationship? Did you slow down so as to learn and grow, and to accept the natural ebb and flow of life? Absorb your discoveries.
    • “Medium” spaces – several times a day, stop and consider how you moved from one activity to another, perhaps from a task to a phone call, from work to home, from one thought to another. Were you annoyed, relieved, upset?
    • “Small” spaces – in your quiet time each day, consider consciously your experience of the space between your breaths, even between thoughts. Might the spaces in your life, even the smallest ones, be openings to new possibility or insight? Is this not, for example, the home of your intuition?

Last, a suggestion. For all your personal practices, adopt a ritual of journaling. After each session, no matter its intent or focus, write about your experiences. Just note things that came up for you. Apply no judgment to what you see; no need to make anything/anyone right or wrong, or to change anything, or to write “perfect” sentences. It’s an opportunity to learn. Writing what you experience captures your learning; it also shifts thoughts and feelings from inside you to outside you, where you can better observe them, so you get to know them more objectively. That’s why you don’t have to “have something to say.” Write anyway. Whatever shows up teaches you.


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