Once upon a time I wanted to be a nun – the whole bit – wearing a habit, carrying a rosary, and living in a convent. The “Song of Bernadette” was my favorite movie – the story of a young girl who had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, went to live in a convent, and eventually became a Saint. All of this was quite a stretch for a country girl raised Southern Baptist. Of course, when I discovered boys, I was less enamored of being celibate. Nevertheless, I continued to lean toward sainthood for a while – thinking I might become a foreign missionary in some heathen country. You know those Baptists generally think everyone is a heathen except for them and they love to proselytize. Eventually I became too irreverent for even that way of life. Even so I found Gregorian Chants and Handel’s Messiah as uplifting as an evening of jazz or rock and roll. Throughout the years – whether celebrating a celestial mountain top or recovering from a pitfall – I have always yearned for a truly meaningful spiritual practice. And I have tried on quite a few. What fits me best is meditation.
I have attended classes, workshops, retreats, a Buddhist temple, and read countless books on meditation. I would sit in meditation on a cushion, a bench, on the floor, or in a chair. I would sit daily for a week or two or three and then slide “off the wagon” – or cushion, as it were – of daily ritual when I grew too busy or tired or distracted. Then I’d get back on track practicing mindfulness, sitting in lotus position, lying in Savasana, concentrating on Chakra colors, chanting, drumming, or practicing Reiki. Sometimes it was blissful and sometimes it was boring as hell. I confess that I was hoping for some unearthly experience – perhaps levitation or a Divine vision. Nothing like that has happened to me and yet I have continued on this path for perhaps some thirty years – more or less. My discipline has grown stronger and my practice more steady. And over the past twenty years I have developed a daily practice that is consistent and meaningful. I am grateful for the guides and the experiences I have encountered along the way, for the friends who support me, and for the person who continually unfolds before me every day. I am not a saint and I never will be but I like who I am and what I am discovering about this thing called life.
Most intriguing of all is that the finest part of meditation is not becoming “enlightened” – rather it is dipping into the silence – day after day. And moving into silence is a curious place. What I have found when I sit in silent meditation is that silence is not really silent at all. We imagine that silence is devoid of sound but amazingly it is not. Of course, there are always extraneous noises – sirens, traffic, dogs barking, birds singing, wind, and the like. But even in a quiet cave there is something in the silence. I can’t quite name it but it feels like a substance – something palpable and pulsing. The silence surrounds me physically and seems to be both outside of me and within me as well. The more I allow myself to let go….to let myself gracefully fall into the surrounding silence, the richer and fuller it becomes. The silence is also soft and still and perfectly peaceful. It feels like floating…..and yet not floating…… a sense of space that is indefinable. The feeling of the body in space is lost. Breathing seems unnecessary although it happens – very gently. Serenity abides there. Utter calm.
I invite you to sit silently – if only for a moment. Allow yourself to bask in its fullness as if you were warming yourself in the morning sun. Feel it surrounding you – feel it filling you. Your mind may have thoughts but that is okay. We are humans and that is what our minds do. Just allow thoughts to flow without following them – simply give your complete attention to the soothing sound of silence. Perhaps you will discover your mind being stilled.
I have discovered that silence can save my soul – it rejuvenates me and makes me whole. And that silence can be found sitting on a meditation cushion or sitting in the mall – it doesn’t matter where you are. Once you have found it you know it and its sublime power.
Studies have shown that when mice were exposed to two hours of silence each day, they developed new cells in the hippocampus area of the brain. This region of the brain is linked to memory, emotions and the ability to learn. Another study – this one involving humans – showed that just two minutes of silence can be more calming than listening to relaxing music. Subjects showed changes in blood pressure and blood circulation to the brain. Time in silence allows our brain time to rest and reflect. Quiet time may not only decrease stress but boost creativity as well.
I have a friend who attends a Silent Retreat every year and I must say she is probably the wisest person I know. I also know a man who served as a Buddhist monk and took a vow of silence for eighteen years. Although he is no longer a monk and does not observe silence these days he does not waste words and is very thoughtful when he speaks. Some people find their quiet at a Vipassana meditation retreat, which is ten days of no talking, writing, reading, or social media. They meditate in silence for several hours each day. Buddhists call this practice of no speaking “noble silence”. And I must say I do, indeed, find it noble and it appeals to me although I am a bit intimidated by the thought of such a rigid practice. But who knows what I might yet discover?
This Christmas my best gift has been a reservation to a Silent Retreat for four days. My retreat will be less rigid since it will include reading and journaling but I am looking forward to the experience. I no longer expect a zenith and certainly not sainthood. I am quite satisfied to abide in silence knowing that dipping into it time after time is like dying cloth. With each visit I will absorb more and more and more of its richness – until at last my spirit, like a piece of fabric, will be so deep-dyed that it will be complete and unchangeable. I will be silence itself. At the very least, perhaps I will develop an extra brain cell or two.