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Rediscovering Sacred Silence

My daughter is a kinetic being. With every breath she explodes outward, demanding intense interaction with the world.

Before becoming a mother, I had not realized how even tiny intervals of silence during the day sustained me. Without those pauses, I find myself frayed, forgetful, and uneasy. I fantasize about silent retreats. Exploring my relationship with my daughter has also become about exploring my relationship with silence.

I was raised a Quaker, or Friend, so I grew up surrounded by the intentional silence of a Friends Meeting. Quakers worship in silence; we start and end committee meetings in silence. Whenever a difficult moment arises, a “weighty” or experienced Friend is likely to suggest, “Let’s have a moment of silence.” I never fully appreciated that option until I was faced with a little being who would not grant me a moment of silence no matter how nicely I asked.

At 38, I returned to my hometown with a six-month-old baby and began attending the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting. The return to communal silence was a great gift. It was like rediscovering and finally understanding words of advice offered in your youth.

Friends don’t generally call what we do in the silence “meditating.” I learned later in life about meditation practices like focusing on the breath or repeating a mantra. As a child in Meeting, I understood that we would sit together in silence and wait. We wait for a sense of the spirit that unites us. Some of us wait for more direct messages from God, while others simply wait for calm.

After studying meditation techniques, I worried I wasn’t doing the right thing as I sat in Meeting. Yoga teachers and meditation workshop leaders urged me to let go of my thoughts, frequently invoking the meteorological metaphor, “let them pass by like clouds.” My thoughts usually do not attain that airy status. I examine certain ideas, worries, or questions. I organize and prioritize, attending to my thoughts, from the lofty to the mundane. As a parent, the rare moments I have to spend with my thoughts have become precious. I don’t resent the busyness of my mind but rather find peace in noticing that all those thoughts are still there.

Image by Amanda Tipton/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

But a silence where you interact with your thoughts is also a sacred act, a way of owning your interior being. Sometimes you need to wade through your thoughts in order to let them settle. My presence to myself, in all its detail, gives me a platform to recognize a unifying divinity, sometimes contained in mundane messages from other people.

During a Meeting for Worship, we sit for an hour in silence, unless anyone present is “moved to speak.” When I was about ten, I was moved to speak about a bird that had hit our kitchen window and died. I knew I wanted to speak because I felt a trembling in my belly and my hands. I could say I experienced a hint of the “quaking” that gave Quakers their name in the 1600s, when they were heretical dissenters from mainstream Christianity in England. That quaking, to my Quaker forebears, was an experience of being moved by God.

I am one of those Quakers who is noncommittal about God. While we are part of a Christian sect, many of us aren’t that comfortable with the biblical God. Does the quaking come from an internal conviction or from some outside force? Is this the work of God, or is this the manifestation of a human being finding true expression? I am not sure it matters. In silence, either answer can be true.

The group silence is a type of communion, using both the religious and secular meaning of the word. We are taking sustenance and solace from each other, receiving a blessing of the spirit. We are also communing together, experiencing community, in silence with each other. We are all focused on becoming present to ourselves so that we can become present to others.

Perhaps when the frenzied period of parenting is over for me, I will be able to return to the quest for cumulus thoughts and the ability to watch them drift by. Till then, I will hold on to my mental checklists and let their solidity comfort me. I will acknowledge them as anchors in parenting chaos. They are my weighty Friends, reminding me of my own being.

My daughter is five years old now and has just started to be able to spend 20 minutes in the Meeting, the period of time the children stay with the adults. She still squirms, but she is attentive now, not always attempting to escape or interrupt. She has slowly grown accustomed to the silence of others, even if stillness is still incomprehensible to her. I try to explain to her, “We sit in silence to listen, to hear what is inside.”

An experience of intentional silence is one of the greatest gifts I can share with my daughter. May she find amazement in the sacred space of her own thoughts, be they cumulus, cirrus, or filled with the heavy nitty gritty of building a life.

Image by Amanda Tipton/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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