Practicing stillness and silence
Sitting in a wooden rocking chair, looking out over the Frio River Canyon, I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. The only sounds were those of the birds singing and the breeze moving through the trees. An occasional pick-up truck rumbled by in the distance. The water below me sparkled a deep green-blue, and I could see large catfish moving slowly beneath the surface. I closed my eyes and willed my mind to stop moving.
My assignment was to sit and be quiet. I was attending a three-day retreat on the contemplative life, and after our morning session that day, we were told to split up, go off on our own, find a quiet spot, and just sit. Just be. For 45 minutes, don’t do anything except acknowledge the thoughts that come into your mind, and then let them go.
But my mind was going crazy, working on overtime. It’s so rare that I simply sit in stillness and silence that apparently my brain no longer knows how to do it. I couldn’t seem to get it to quiet down. Everything may have looked serene on the outside, but on the inside, instead of clearing my mind, I kept thinking first of my to-do lists waiting at home, and then my daughter’s problems at school, and then my other daughter’s current health struggles, and then my attempts to get into grad school, and then and then and then…
I persevered. Doing my best to follow the instructions we were given, I began to try and acknowledge my thoughts and then let them go. At first they kept returning, as if to say, “Hello?! What about me?” But as I set them aside once more, and then again, they gradually became less persistent.
Eventually, after what felt like forever, I found myself in a place of mental stillness and peace — right around the time they finally rang the bell to signal that we should head into the dining room for lunch.
The next day, we received the same assignment after the morning session, except this time we were given an hour.
I settled into the same wooden rocking chair and stared out over the same gorgeous canyon. But this time, it took much less time for my brain to quiet down. After the same initial internal chaos, it only took about 10 or 15 minutes before I realized I had slipped into that deep space of mental quiet once again. It was lovely — and so, so good for this brain of mine. For me.
Returning home a few days later, re-entry was more than slightly jarring.
There is no “easing back in” when you have children waiting for you, along with all the other demands of life that have piled up in your absence. And family life is ever-shifting; just when you think you’ve settled into certain routines or figured out a few things, something changes.
One of those little changes for us right now is that my older daughter no longer needs as much sleep as my younger daughter, but they share a room, and my younger daughter can’t fall asleep when she’s alone. (We’ve shared her story here before – she lived in an orphanage the first two years of her life and she’s never gone to sleep alone.)
What this means is that when we’re finished with her bedtime routine, I usually end up staying in the room with her, sitting in the dark, leaning back against the wall and waiting to hear those shallow, rhythmic little breaths that tell me she has finally drifted off to sleep, so I can sneak out of the room and return to my evening tasks.
At first, this drove me crazy. It felt we had taken one step forward, two steps back — or like I had a newborn again. I would sit there and watch the minutes tick by on the clock, thinking of all the things I still needed to do that evening, and trying not to get frustrated.
But on my first night back after the contemplative retreat, after I tucked her in and kissed and hugged and prayed and sang and finally leaned back wearily to wait for her to succumb to sleep, I became aware of the penetrating silence all around me, with only the whir of the white noise machine for company. No, I wasn’t overlooking a deep green-blue river running through limestone canyon walls, feeling the breeze on my face. But I was in a place of silence and stillness. Maybe I could find some mental quiet right here.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath. I observed the thoughts that came into my mind, and then I tried to let them go. Sitting there in the darkness, I could feel that I was slowly slipping into that place of rest again. And when my daughter finally fell asleep, I sat there a bit longer, just to prolong that place of mental peace and quiet.
Making space in our lives for mental rest is a challenge for everyone today, but it’s crucial for our well-being. You might think you don’t have time for it, but are there moments that you can harness? Perhaps when you’re sitting in the carpool pick-up line after school or nursing your newborn baby, instead of reaching for your phone or mentally ticking off your to-do list, you can find a quiet place in your brain, and just be.
Photo by Bob Johnson
I’m not perfect at it, by any means — last night, in fact, I ended up sending emails in the dark on my daughter’s floor — but this is one of those practices where something is better than nothing. A little can mean a lot. And remember that it may not come easily at first – there is a reason that it’s called a practice.
Being at a retreat sometimes feels like being in a fantasy-land, disconnected from the rest of my life, but the gift of those three days is in finding a way to integrate the things I learn with the reality of my everyday life. The practice of stillness and silence is one of those gifts for me — and I didn’t even know I needed it.
May you experience mental stillness, silence, and rest this week.
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