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Noisy Silence

This past weekend I attended my wife’s Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) meeting for worship. For those unfamiliar with this tradition, their services are unique in that the majority of the meeting is held in silence, broken only occasionally by someone who feels moved to speak. My wife, Allison, and I attended with my sixteen-month-old daughter, who was the only child in the room. In my opinion, a silent gathering is not a great place to bring a noisy toddler, but many members have assured Allison that they enjoy having my daughter present in the meetings – noise and all.

I did my best to participate in the meeting. Although I am not a Quaker, I respect the tradition and have found silence to be an incredibly difficult and powerful discipline in my own life. But I found myself distracted by my daughter. I wanted to watch her constantly. I wanted to make sure she was okay, staying relatively quiet, and I honestly just enjoy watching her play. In the middle of all of this, I found myself thinking about silence and how I might practice silence while being a stay-at-home dad to a busy, noisy little girl.

The purpose of practicing silence is often to calm our minds and identify both what we are thinking and feeling most prominently. In the midst of the chaos of life it is easy to miss what we are thinking about and what we are feeling. Silence helps us to remove distractions and focus on our inner world. The inner often mirrors the outer; both are noisy, chaotic, rife with mixed messages and conflicting thoughts or feelings. My practice of silence in the past has helped me to calm myself on the inside so that I am better prepared to deal with the noisiness of life around me. I found myself longing to practice silence once again. The only problem is that my life is a lot more busy and a lot more noisy than it was in the past.

The spiritual masters often spend hours per day practicing silence. This practice helps them to achieve a sense of peace and an awareness of themselves and the world which they would otherwise miss. We long for the same insights and peace that these spiritual masters have achieved, but we cannot afford the luxury of spending that much time staring at a wall every day! Instead, we have to learn to find silence even when there is so much commotion all around us. It won’t be easy, but if we want to practice silence we will have to learn to do it while the jackhammers are still going outside our window (as one is right now as I write this!) and the baby is crying and the phone is ringing and the dog just won’t stop barking at the squirrel outside. We can find a deeper practice of silence which is not based on the absence of noise around us, but on the quietness of our own minds in the midst of everything going on. We can practice a noisy silence.

The world is noisy. Our minds are noisy. We cannot stop the noise around us, but we can calm all of the different noises from within. We can sit regularly for even five minutes while we wait for our coffee to brew and practice introspection. What thoughts and feelings are emerging as I sit here doing nothing? What anxiety do I feel about this present moment? What excites me about today? It’s a good idea to have a pen and paper by us when we practice silence. Any pause in the day is likely to spark our memory of all the things we need to do and sometimes writing them down is the only way that our minds will let us acknowledge them and then move on from them. Even with all of this noise around us, we can focus inward and forget the outside world if only for a few minutes.

As we continue this practice of occasionally looking within, we come to find that it spills over into the rest of our lives. We start to notice things about ourselves in the midst of the chaos. We are learning to look within all the time rather than at specific, predetermined moments. This is the goal of silence – to achieve peace within by modeling calmness with our outer actions. Pausing to reflect and focusing inward do not seem to come naturally to us, but we can learn to do this with the practice of silence even in a noisy world.