Silence in Mindfulness

While the breath might be considered the most simple and direct pathway to mindfulness, silence is equally as basic and inherent. Silence, like the breath, is free, natural, and something we can all have access to. Whether we are sitting in formal meditation practice or taking a walk in nature, we can choose to eliminate not only the distractions of external noise – phones, talking, television – but also that of our internal worlds – worries, desires, and ruminations to name a few. We can silence our verbal interactions with other, silence our digital devices, and silence our quick habit of judging ourselves and others, Tuning into our silence connects us to a more mindful presence of being, not doing. With intentional silence, we can connection back into our present moment.

One of the basic components of a mindfulness practice is this creation of space for silence. Meditation practice is sitting in silence, spending time focusing on the breath, and allowing our thoughts to stream along without our constant interaction, interpretation, and judgment. Silence is an important aspect that allows an individual to find time to pause. The pause is there between the in and out breath of silent meditation, the pause is there when we choose to respond to situations and not just react, and the pause is there when we acknowledge that our society moves at an extreme pace and we can choose a slower, more intentional version. 

Mindfulness is a contemplative endeavor, and silence has often be the topic of contemplative discussions including current mindfulness programs. The silence found in contemplation, prayer, and meditation is included in many pathways of religion and spirituality regardless of dogma or affiliation.  From the book The Mind's Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation, Matthieu Ricard speaks of the power of silence in meditation:

Silencing this rumination and mental construction can be a meditative state. Somehow we find an enhanced awareness of clarity and stability behind the stream or veil of thoughts and their content. This is by no means silence in the sense of dullness, drowsiness, darkness or obscurity. It’s a very vivid, aware state of mind. You could call it silence of the mental constructions, but it is in no way a silence of awareness” (2013, p. 60).

Catholic priest Father Keating also added to the discourse with his perspectives on silence and Christian meditation, which he says is also referred to as contemplation:

We emphasize the intentionality of silence. That is to say, silence as an intention has a significant effect on the process of meditation, whether you’re experience thoughts, feelings, external sounds, or whatever. Getting used to disregarding the flow of thought leads into deeper levels of interior silence and peace (2013, p.63).  

Here the idea of using silence in an intentional way sheds light on how it can be part of a mindfulness practice. He goes to further illuminate his feelings that at the silence at the heart of Christian meditation is not emptiness, but a listening at a deeper level to that energy out of which everything emerges, which is both energy and no energy (2013, p. 198).

Jon Kabat-Zinn adds that in his MBSR program the orientation is that silence is awareness itself and is available in every moment and shares that “even the briefest moment of silence is both a way of coming into the present and way of moving on” (2005, p.575). He even suggests “silence is the ultimate prayer” (2005, p.574). Thich Nhat Hanh has written on the topic often, including his 2016 book titled, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise. Hanh shares “What you need, what we all need, is silence. Stop the noise in your mind in order for the wondrous sounds of life to be heard. Then you can begin to live your life authentically and deeply” (2016, p.___). In this book he suggests that silence has the ability to learn more about ourselves, assist in our practice of mindfulness, help us listen to others with compassion, manifest our true nature, address our suffering instead of hide from it, and offer us healing (2016).

Silence for Children

When we begin looking at adding mindfulness practice to childhood in today’s culture, an important aspect of mindfulness seems to become simple and important – the silence that it allows. Good and intentional silence, cultivated in the home space, can provide a natural antidote to the speed and stress of life. It can be practiced by spending more time in nature, where the silence allows for a deeper connection with the natural world. And silence can also provided soothing relief to the distractions of always-on digital devices.

Silence might be a missing component of modern childhood that would provide youth the space to meet their inner experience in a very natural way. Mindfulness is the practice of being and not doing, of sitting in the present moment, in silence. This can be hard won in our “media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age,” where we, “have lost the art of doing nothing, shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts” (Honore, 2004, p. 11). Introducing children to the idea of silence as a good thing to be added to the day, can balance out some of the noise of life.

As Dr. Helen E. Lees notes in her book, Silence in Schools “Silence brings peace, healing, joy, simplicity and truth. It brings about the layering of foundations of understanding” (2012, p. vii). There are many who believe that silence is a powerful tool or commodity in today’s hyper-speed culture. Some pursue areas of the world, or of their own hearts and minds that provide this sort of space for silence. Some consider the lack of silence troubling, especially for our youth:

I am increasingly persuaded that both the worrying increase in mental health problems and the demonstrations of antisocial, even violent behavior in younger people in the West at present must be related to a lack of silence and a lack of training in how to use silence (Maitland, 2009, p. 250).

Sara Maitland dedicated years of her life exploring the different nuances of silence and when and where they were beneficial in her own life. Her worry about mental health problems with youth came about because as she was cultivating silence in her life, she was also raising a family.

Others remind us of the deep reservoir of wisdom that is available in silence. Charlotte Kasl states it so simply and deeply in her book, If the Buddha Had Kids, “Silence and knowing flow together” (2012, p. 124). Dr. Kasl also points to the specific kinds of noises that are allotted to children when they are afforded good and intentional silence:

What do we want our children to hear? Think of the song of a bird, the crunch of fallen leaves under foot, the purring of a kitten, the silence of clouds moving across the sky. Think of the subtle qualities of art, music, writing, and sports that elicit feelings of motion, space, awe, and wonder. The more we feel stillness in the midst of motion, the more we experience bring connected, engaged” (2012, p. 124).

Here, Kasl reminds us, that the more natural noises that children are exposed to don’t need to be eliminated entirely, but rather, given their own space to be heard.

The adapted MBSR program that Dr. Amy Saltzman created is aptly titled, “A Still Quiet Place,” and encourages children to pay close attention to the brief pause that exists between each in-breath and out-breath. She explains that the children experience a natural and reliable stillness and quietness within them that they always have access to (2014, p 1).

Silence is also an important theme that arises in conversations about children finding time and space to interact with their natural world. Silence can offer children a nurturing solitude and there are examples in studies where students went into nature after upsetting events to relax, clear their minds, and gain perspective (Louv, 2005). The natural silence away from modern day distraction and noise offers a connection that benefits human emotion and processing.

For older children, the silence of unplugging also comes from eliminating the stream of peer review and comments that come with social media sites and “offers a way for children to appreciate their own natural inner resources in a world of mainly media-driven externalizing tendencies of the self” (Lees, 2012, xiii). When children and adolescents are taught to be mindful in their family home of the present moment they are being instructed on the intrinsic value of their inner worlds. The silence that is afforded with meditation practice allows these children to connect to this inner world. Children are taught that this time of silence is valuable and important. In addition, research shows just how important daydreaming is for our brains as it

replenishes stores of attention and motivation. It also encourages productivity and creativity, and becomes indispensable to achieving high levels of performance and memory acquisition (Jabr, 2013).

Other ways, in which silence becomes a commodity in the family home, is when parents make decisions to slow down the pace of extra-curricular activities and the level to which children engage in those activities. Children learn the value of spending time connecting with parents, siblings and other family members when decisions are made to refocus on quiet times at home:

The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with the surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still; with rare exceptions, the pursuit of silence seems initially to involved a step backward form the tussle of life. The different stories that first drove home to me what the engagement with silence could bring were centered on a kind of listening that only occurs after a break in the circuit of busyness. (Prochnik, 2010, p. 12)

American families are no doubt filled with pressures, activities, expectations, and societal demands. While these are not all negative and harmful, bringing a mindful awareness into finding balance can be essential to maintaining health emotional and physical well being.

            Negative associations with silence and childhood. It is important to point out, that in any conversation regarding silence, especially as it relates to childhood, that there do exist many examples of unskilled and even harmful examples of how silence is experienced. Research on the subject of silence for children can bring up a myriad of these examples that include:  being silent about sexual abuse, language restrictions, silence from older generations regarding holocaust survival, adult supervisor silence, exposing culture of silence in abuse examples, speech issues, late language acquisition, silence and memory in trauma narratives, childhood displacement, selective mutism, silence as an absence of something, post-traumatic stress mothers incarcerated, mothers international silence, silence on issues of race, results of deaf parents, stigma and silence, and there are more. For the purposes of this review these examples are not included and the focus will be on the intentional cultivation of “good” and “strong” silence that is meant to act as a mindful space of nourishment, and not associated with being silenced in a negative way.

Silence for the Family. Parents are the contemplative leaders in the lives of their children, and their influence can provide children with much needed direction in valuing slower and quieter times in the home. With all that parents strive to give their children in terms of health, education, benefit, and well-being, the inclusion of mindfulness practice, which is starting to be firmly based in evidence-based research, makes enormous sense in today’s world, “…to leave children and grandchildren a legacy of wisdom and compassion embodied in the way we live, in our institutions, and in our honoring of interconnectedness, at home and around the world” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p. 16). Bringing the idea of good and intentional silence into the busy and stressful homes of the modern family can be a simple first step in understanding and practicing mindfulness.

Parents can bring good and intentional silence into the home by actively decreasing the level of extra-curricular activities kids participate in, encouraging time for the family to unplug from digital devices, and creating a physical space in the home dedicated to quiet. The silence that might be strongly and intentionally established in the household, in age appropriate ways might contribute a great deal to a healthy childhood. When this silence includes unplugging from digital devices, making strong connections with family relationships away from the always-on social media, and time away from unstructured activities and sports, childhood regains some space for natural brain and emotional development. Studies show that unstructured time for play helps children not only with their ability to learn and develop their social and language skills, but also increases their creative ability. This idea of unstructured play is the not “quality time,” which suggests a level of planning and scheduling for a desired purpose. It is more about exploration of the world the child lives in and how they interact with it, according to their unique mind and experience (Honore, p. 266).

When family life begins to include an understanding of how each member can be mindful of the present moment and our reaction to it, cultivated with the inclusion of intentional silence, all of the rich benefits that researchers and scientists point to in mindfulness practice, begin to permeate the foundation of all other relationships, interactions, and future journey’s.