Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Practice of Silence ...

At the beginning of what would become the last year of my husband's life, I realized that I could no longer continue the marathon of caregiving without some respite.

While the thought of making and coordinating all the necessary arrangements was overwhelming, with the encouragement of family and friends I used my last ounces of strength to plan four nights at a small retreat centre on the Sunshine Coast.

When I finally arrived at the old log house among the trees, the retreat director asked if I would be making a silent retreat (so she could inform the other guests). A little nonplused - I hadn't thought beyond getting myself safely to the door - I answered, "Yes." And thus made one of the most healing choices in seven years of caregiving.

I don't remember much about the ensuing days, and I had little energy for journalling so there remain few written descriptions, but my body remembers being flooded with gratitude for the depth of that silence.

Each morning I woke early and lay in bed soaking in the absence of sound until the dawn chorus began. After a silent breakfast in the cozy, sun-filled dining room, I went outside, wrapped myself in a warm quilt and lay on a lounge chair near the top of a long, gently rolling expanse of lawn. Protected by cool, dark woods on three sides and the house on the other, I lay there in the quiet for hours.

With the silent warmth of the sun seeping through layers of quilting, came a thawing of my tears. I cried for five days. Not the hot, heaving tears of anguish but the quiet, steady flow of years of chronic sorrow.

Later, as I returned home, I reflected upon the gift of silence. It had opened a space for grief, rest, healing and peace. My thinking was clearer, my body was stronger and I believed, once again, that I would have the ability to see the journey to its end.

The gift of silence has been written about by many but by few as eloquently or practically as journalist and author, Anne LeClaire, in her book, Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence (2009). In a style reminiscent of Anne Lindburgh's "Gift From the Sea", Anne LeClaire describes her almost twenty-year experience of practicing silence, all day, on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of each month.

In this beautifully written little book, part memoir and part philosophical inquiry, she explores how silence can make space for us to expand our awareness and achieve inner peace. She describes the joy and difficulties of adjusting to this practice - both her own and that of her family and friends - and she shows how, through silence, we can:

- slow the pace of life,

- learn how to listen,

- become more compassionate,

- ignite and nurture creativity,

- uncover our inner yearnings,

- and, ultimately, find peace and improved well being.

In LeClaire's personal practice, silence means the absence of speech, not being still or without sound. She describes how, relieved from the stress of conversation or being physically or electronically available, her focus became more mindful and her creativity soared. Her body relaxed and her attention turned inward:

This is the first gift.

As I stepped into the shower, the upstairs phone rang
and I jumped reflexively. And then, immediately, I remembered
I was not talking and had no obligation to answer it. My shoulders
dropped and my body released a tension I had not even been
aware of holding. Only minutes from sleep and already my muscles
had been primed to meet the day's demands. I thought of the sign
at a local breakfast spot that reads:

Good morning. Let the stress begin.

I realized that we live our days with ears turned outward,
ready to respond, always on the alert, almost as if we walked
around holding huge ear trumpets to our heads, like figures in
an old cartoon. But for this one day both my ears would be turned
inward. I had only to listen to myself. Within the shower walls, it
felt as if my world had grown smaller and smaller until
all that was left was me.

For those who find the notion of 10 minutes silence terrifying, let alone a whole day, Anne provides a long list of options for beginning a practice of silence slowly and easily. Here are just a few:

1. Turn off the car radio on the commute to work or while running errands.

2. When performing a routine chore - folding laundry, washing dishes, straightening a room, weeding the garden - make it a habit to do the task in silence.

3. When a task is completed, sit in restful awareness for several minutes before running to the next chore on the list.

4. After finishing a telephone conversation, sit quietly for a minute or two. Breathe.

5. Have a meal alone. Without distractions. Without a book or magazine.

6. Set aside a formal silence time for your family.

7. Wake an hour early and spend that hour in deliberate silence.

8. Take the TV out of your bedroom.

However you decide to begin, a regular practice of silence can change the quality of your life and that of those you love. Why not give it a try?

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