Monday, October 08, 2012

Silence, Lots and Lots of Silence

How long can you be silent by choice? A week? A day? An hour? A minute?

Last Saturday was a day of practice with Sharon Salzberg here in Albany. The time spent together with this amazing teacher was filled with silence, lots and lots of silence. The silence a firm underpinning for exploring meditation – sitting, walking, breathing. Always amazing is just how much I can learn by simply being quiet and listening. And for the most part , just listening to yourself – sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts…the endless parade of thoughts demanding all sort of attention and signifying very little.

It’s important to look on silence as a practice in and of itself as well. Going into silence is making a choice to be in life and the world in a different kind of way.

Swami Kripalu, known affectionately as Bapuji, maintained silence for a dozen years, limiting his communication to what could be written on a small chalk board. He was fond of saying:”Before you speak consider; Is it true? is it kind? Is it an improvement over silence?”

The more years that pass for me, the more I seem to crave times of silence, and when I don’t get my periodic “quiet fix” things just don’t seem to go as well. I get crabby,edgy, distracted – generally not real nice to be around. Although talking is very much a part of my work, and life, too much leaves me drained and unbalanced.

Making time for silence is lots easier in the right environment.

At Kripalu you can choose to wear a simple tag that reads “In loving silence.” Translated of course to read :”I’m not being rude, disrespectful, or snobby. It’s not about you at all…I just don’t want to talk now.” People you pass in the hall read the tag, perhaps nod or smile gently, and leave you to it. No questions asked. No searching for underlying motives.
There’s levels of silence too.

There’s the basic social silence which limits conversation to important issues only. Practicing this lets me speak to you if you are about to be attacked by a grizzly bear or your hair is on fire, but not if I want to discuss the score of yesterday’s hockey game.

A few years ago I had the experience of what’s grandly referred to as “noble silence” – basically social silence on steroids. Not only was there no talking, but we were also directed to abstain from reading, writing, anything that would essentially be a distraction from the practice of being silent.  This was really a challenge!  Toward the end of the period of practice I found myself so “hungry” for input that my eyes would linger over anything – the menu for the day, a cereal box, messages on a bulletin board, even the labels on the inside of my clothes.

Now I don’t think that’s it’s necessary to go to this extreme to experience just how restorative, how healing period of silence can be.  It seems that by periodically dialing down the level of sensory input (and energy outgo) that talking demands I feel more in touch, more sensitive to the subtleties of life all around me.

Just the other night I was talking with a very caring guy who’s a coach, and health educator for high school students. Kind of removed from that population, since I work mainly with adults, and my own children now have children of their own, I asked what he saw as their major health problem. He was quick to respond that he’s concerned by the intense level of stimulation needed to get and hold their attention in the classroom.  So beset are they with texts, and iPads, and iPhones and virtual life that “real life” seems bland and uninteresting by comparison.  His perception was that teachers need to stage a full-blown dramatic production to hold interest in traditional learning.

Listening to him I was reminded of an article from the New York Times by Diane Ackerman entitled “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” The short and powerful piece bemoans the down side of technology which allows us to be “spending less and less time experiencing the world firsthand.”  “Strip the brain of too much feedback from the senses “, she cautions,”and life  not only feels poorer, but learning grows less reliable. Subtract the subtle physical sensations, and you lose a wealth of problem-solving and lifesaving details.”

If you’ve never formally experimented with keeping silence, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.  Author Anne D. LeClaire has a marvelous little book* detailing her experiences over 17 years of maintaining the practice of silence for two days each month. It’s all there: how and why she began, the reactions of people around her, and the gifts the practice brought to her life.
In the final chapter she offers a list of suggestions you might try for yourself.  Here are just a few:
  • After finishing a telephone conversation, sit quietly for a minute or two. Breathe.
  • Take a long walk without earbuds pouring noise into your head.
  • Take the television out of your bedroom
  • When you are part of a group, experiment with just listening to the others converse, staying silent yourself.  Observe your own inner dialogue.
  • Have a meal alone. Without distractions. Without a book or magazine.
  • For one day, do things manually. Rake leaves instead of using the blower.  Wash dishes by hand. Hang clothes rather than use the dryer.
Here’s a final word of praise about what silence can bring to our lives in the words of poet May Sarton.
The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.
Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.
Let silence in.
She will rarely mew,
She will sleep on my bed
And all I have ever been
Either false or true
Will live again in my head.
For it is now or not
As old age silts the stream,
To shove away the clutter,
To untie every knot,
To take the time to dream,
To come back to still water.
from “The Silence Now – New and Uncollected Earlier Poems”
Peace – Judi England, RN, LMT, Kripalu Yoga Instructor – – 10/8/2012
*Anne D. LeClaire’s book is “Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence”.  If you’d like you can check out the blog I wrote a while back about it, and a cool video of LeClaire talking about the value of silence
Judith England writes the Holistic Health blog for the Albany Times Union. This piece first appeared on that site.

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