“Let your beauty manifest itself without talking or calculation.
You are silent.
It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousand fold,
comes at long last over everyone.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Have you ever considered turning off the distractions for ten days? I mean, no talking, no books, no TV or music, no phone or Internet – no outside “noise” whatsoever – instead, committing to silence for ten days. If that sounds too daunting, read on to see why you might want to embrace the power of silence, if even for only a few minutes each day…
Silence has an energy to it like no other source; it is healing, spiritual, and divine.
Making room for silence, we turn our focus inward and cultivate the power we need to refuel our minds. Our ego is temporarily switched off or at least made to be quiet for a bit, and we start to see the real world as it should be. Our thoughts get in the way of our reality sometimes and we don’t see the beauty of the world around us. When there is silence, there is time for introspection and to allow your true self to speak, not the ego, not the conscious mind, but the true self connected to the flow of energy around us.
I have just returned home from a ten-day “silent retreat” that I participate in each year. This year’s retreat was located in the lush farmland of northern Washington state where about 50 of us gathered and ate meals, stayed in shared rooms and walked the pathways in silence…not speaking to one another. The purpose of this silence is to help us to slow down in our lives – to become more aware of what is going on inside of us, without the distraction of everyday conversation. We are encouraged and guided to meet any difficulties we encounter with openness and acceptance. Sometimes this can be challenging, asking of us to remember patience, honesty and compassion. We meditate several times throughout the day and evening, inviting tranquility and reflection and an intention of living mindfully, with tenderness and care for ourselves and others.
And so we, the participants, find ourselves settling in to a journey: reminded to appreciate the rich view and the sometimes wild ride, especially when it doesn’t seem beautiful or smooth. Our meditation practice helps us navigate our pathway and enrich our journey, allowing for thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations to be experienced in the moment, noticing how they shift and change constantly. Over time, we become able to observe what is going on without getting caught up in judgments and opinions – or story – simply being ‘with’ an experience. Slowly the desire to fix and change things in life fades and we find ourselves better able to rest in the experience of just being – in focused awareness. There is a joy and peace in letting go like this – in ceasing to fabricate or construct thoughts or events in our minds, even for a moment. We taste freedom.
I arrived at the retreat overwhelmed with tasks to do professionally and personally, having just spent a week with my ailing mother in another city. I was tense and occupied with thoughts about solution and accomplishment – and, certainly, about getting things done on my list. I wanted relief from this constant bombardment of planning and worrying and I thought perhaps I would find peace, here…NOW. As the days went by and mindfulness meditation being my ally, I began to slow down, pay attention to the moment and follow my breath. I allowed, over and over again, things to be just as they were and I found clarity and openness began to emerge. A subtle and profound transformation was occurring as I allowed myself to be who I am and welcomed whatever was present. I laid down my plans and striving and welcomed spaciousness and ease. Slowly, my pace eased and my thoughts settled, illuminating each moment as it arose, unfettered and uncluttered.
Reflecting back on the retreat now that I’ve returned home, I’m able to identify three practical skills I gained that enrich mindful living and promote peaceful relationships. To gain the most from these skills, a belief in our capacity to understand ourselves more fully and to care deeply for both ourselves and others is required. Then, these skills are able to help us free ourselves from habitual reactions that cause unhappiness such as judgment and selfishness, developing instead wisdom, compassion and love.
Cultivating a focused attention allows us to let go of unhealthy inner distractions such as regrets about the past, worries about the future, addictive patterns – and prevents us from being lured into outer distractions as well. Focusing assists us in developing the art of settling and centering in the midst of scattered and unfocused attention. This is not a forced, difficult task we’re talking about but “allowing” – letting things settle on what is at hand in the moment. Distraction is a waste of precious energy; approaching each moment with a calm, focused attention restores our energy and cultivates wisdom and clarity.
Mindfulness refines our attention so that we can connect with and accept, more fully, what life brings. Mindfulness helps us see through our biases, fears and longings so that we can be more aware of what is actually here, now. Mindfulness invites us to notice how we relate to what is happening rather than to try to change it in any way. As our retreat leader, Dr. Gregory Kramer, says: “It’s just this right now”: nothing but the present moment and our experience. It may be easy to misunderstand mindfulness and think of it as passive – or of “making the mind blank”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The actual experience of mindfulness is vibrant and alive – open – where creative and healthy responses to situations have room to arise. We are less and less influenced by old, outdated and habitual reactions. In mindfulness we don’t abandon discernment and wisdom. In fact, these qualities become more accessible in the absence of automatic and rigid ways of behaving.
Compassion opens our attention and can transform the way we view ourselves, others and the world. Rather than getting caught up in mental constructs of ourselves or others, we become more able to feel our connection to all that is. We begin to treat ourselves and others with more kindness. As we see the world with more truth and tenderness, compassion naturally develops and grows. In terms of meditative understanding, kindness and compassion are skills we are able to develop. As we learn to pay attention in a different and more open way, we see the good within ourselves rather than getting stuck on what we don’t like. We become able to see others with a kind heart and become able to let go of categories and assumptions…opinions and judgments…and create, instead, conditions for kindness and compassion to flourish.
I have realized that I practice mindfulness meditation to have a more meaningful, loving and compassionate life. I have learned to drop meditative goals and allow illusions of being a “good meditator” to dissipate, leaving pure intention in their place. As I continue to deepen my skills of focused attention, mindfulness and compassion, I experience less stress in my life (not the absence of stress, of course, but the ability to respond with calm and steadiness of spirit), more fulfillment, more insight and more joy and happiness. In short, my life is transformed, changed forever.
United States Representative Tim Ryan, an advocate of mindfulness and a practitioner himself, states: “Mindfulness training makes a valuable investment in the most important asset we have – well-functioning human beings. My goal is to be the person who gets it implemented in current programming.” A country of mindful leaders? What a hopeful and beautiful vision.
I invite you to reflect on what silence mean to you and share your thoughts in the comments. And if you’d like to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how to incorporate mindful practices into daily life, I’ve hand-selected some resources to get you started.