Three years ago I had the opportunity to go on a 24-hour silent retreat and experience the beauty and calm of prolonged solitude and silence. It was restful, I felt more connected to myself and to God, and returned ready to live every day with more intention. Most notably in the weeks following, I had more energy to be present to the people in my life.
Silence allows us to spend time with ourselves; it allows us space for our thoughts to grow in creativity, and to connect with our emotions. Silence helps us slow down and recognize what is going on internally, rather than continually responding to external stimulation. It gives us a break from the constant input of information that comes with modern life.
The benefits of silence and contemplation
Research shows that contemplative practices have several benefits. One study showed that such practices increase an accurate perception of heartbeat rate, which improved ability to tell one’s own emotional state. When we are able to pause in silence, we can check in with our body and our emotions, which helps us take better care of ourselves, as well as increase awareness of what we are bringing into our relationships.
Another study showed that regular contemplative practice has multiple positive impacts on our brains. It can improve working memory, the function of holding information in the short term, such as remembering instructions, or what you were working on before you were interrupted. It also has been shown to increase your “verbal filter” and your ability to stay on task toward your goals. It also helps emotional regulation, allowing us to feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
Silence: A challenging but valuable discipline
Practicing silence in a noisy world
Many of us would be hard pressed to identify a time in our day where we experience more than a couple of minutes of silence. When we’re not talking with others, we fill our sonic space with different types of media, and with the advent of podcasts, we can always have something to listen to. For some of us, the absence of sound is almost startling, as we feel automatically compelled to turn on the TV or radio.
Others of us long for silence, but it seems elusive. We have packed days, filled with loud children, or chatty co-workers. We have people in our lives that need connection and our presence, and time for oneself doesn’t seem to fit in the mix during this season of life. Even with the time and opportunity, it feels as though there’s another item on the to-do list that needs to be completed before you can rest in stillness.
There are times throughout the day to integrate silence in your day if you keep an eye out for them. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, you can dedicate the first 15 minutes of nap time to a silent house. If you work, consider leaving your phone at your desk and going for a walk on your lunch break, uninterrupted. Take five minutes during the day to stare out the window and be in the present moment.
Silence practices need not always be stationary, either. If you regularly have headphones in at the gym, consider leaving them once a week and pay attention to what’s going on inside of yourself, including thoughts and emotions. Consider walking slowly during transition, such as walking from your car to your office building, taking a moment to notice your own body and your own feelings, before you jump into your day. Or if you’re homebound, find a quiet part of your house that you can sit in for 2 to 10 minutes uninterrupted, and intentionally sit in the quiet.
A simple start to silence is turning off electronics. Once a week, I come home from work and cook dinner while the rest of my family is out. While I usually would listen to a podcast, I’ve made a practice of cooking in silence, allowing the stillness of the house to make space for my own being, thoughts and emotions. At first, the silence was uncomfortable as I felt bored or overwhelmed by my own thoughts. However, one key to silence is to recognize that like most things that are good for us, it’s difficult at first, but gets easier with time. Others have made a practice of driving without the radio on, rather than filling the silent time in your car.
Setting a timer can be a good way to allow yourself to be present without worrying about the time. While spending at least 20 minutes in silence produces many benefits, simply starting between two and five minutes can have a profound impact on your mood and awareness, especially if practiced throughout the day.
Setting an intention
If we think of contemplative practices only in terms of visiting a monastery for a day, we’ll never have time to practice silence. However, even the busiest of us can take small periods of silence, and decide to take short break from the busyness of life. The primary means toward a more contemplative life is not having more time, but more intention. It is taking the time we are already spending — driving, sitting at home, washing the dishes — and deciding to practice silence, turning inward and being quiet.
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