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The Practice of Conscious Silence

Writer: Erin Lee

The Practice of Conscious Silence

I was first introduced to the practice of conscious silence (also known as "noble silence") at my first mindfulness meditation retreat.

There were about 100 of us at the retreat centre, and we were all asked to observe silence throughout the ten days of the course.

This meant that we had to refrain from all forms of communication with one another, including talking, whispering, gesturing, and making any kind of physical or eye contact.

Of course, we also surrendered our phones and devices, to ensure we had no contact with the outside world.

Every moment of every day involved learning to be by ourselves, whether we were meditating, or eating, or resting, or doing nothing.

It felt a little daunting at first. Even though I loved my solitude and wasn't a chatty person in general, I wasn't sure if I could manage not having any contact with others for ten days straight.

But as I eased myself into the retreat, and when I emerged from the "cave" ten days later, I realised just now deep the practice of observing silence was.

Conscious silence isn't just about keeping quiet. It is not about shutting out the world. It is about cultivating a better relationship with ourselves and the world.

Can you stay completely silent for ten days straight?

You might be wondering how keeping quiet for ten days could have led to such a realisation.

After all, humans are social beings, with the innate capacity and need to form connections and live communally.

There is a reason why some practitioners go away for weeks, months, and even years to be in solitude and silence.

This way of being paves the way for them to go much deeper into their practice - something that might take them longer to accomplish in a noisier, more chaotic environment.

Based on my experience and learning, there are three key outcomes to supporting my own practice with conscious silence:

1. Self-Regulation

At the retreat, I learned to not see conscious silence as an imposed rule to be obeyed, but as a voluntary self-restraint that facilitates the mastery of discipline and mindfulness.

Since humans have a penchant for idle chatter, refraining from speaking at the retreat helps us focus on our practice, since we are not likely to be distracted by irrelevant conversation.

Maintaining non-communication also lowers the probability of anyone making unhelpful or unnecessary remarks that may hurt others or cause conflict.

The fact that our devices are locked away also means that we are not able to check our email nor indulge in mindless entertainment, thus awarding ourselves more time for practice.

In the end, we are likely to come to the realisation that we need not be as attached to our devices as we usually are.

We also practice being more "silent" in our behaviours - from washing the dishes gently to pulling out a chair lightly, to slowing down our pace of walking and moving.

This intentional quietness of the body teaches the mind to be comfortable with silence too.

2. Looking Inward

When we observe silence, we are not engaging as much with the noises of the external world.

We learn that the sounds we hear are just sounds and nothing more. We train our attention to stay grounded and not get pulled away so easily by activity around us.

As a result, our mind usually feels calmer and more at ease.

This creates space between ourselves and our external environment, so that we have the freedom to decide how we want to respond to what comes our way.

We are still aware of everything that is happening around us, but we can choose to not engage with what's not necessary or helpful for us at the moment.

This develops our capacity to turn our attention inward, so that we can start seeing ourselves a lot more clearly.

3. Seeing Clearly

With the capacity to look inward comes important insights into our habitual tendencies and the interconnections in our internal landscape.

We discover how busy and chaotic the mind can get, even when we are just sitting quietly.

We recognise unhelpful cognitive patterns and biases we have unknowingly internalised over the years, that have impacted our ability to listen deeply and non-judgementally.

We come to see that how what we think leads to how we act and what we say.

We observe how thoughts of self-doubt lead to words of self-deprecation; how thoughts of resentment lead to words of blame; how thoughts of consideration lead to words of compassion; and how thoughts of gratitude lead to words of joy.

Finally, we understand through this silent observation how to communicate and interact with one another more thoughtfully and skillfully.

Over time, we witness ourselves becoming less reactive under provocation, and being able to stay present and calm in even the most turbulent situations.

Bringing Conscious Silence into the Modern World

Now what if we don't have the opportunity to go into retreats and practice ten days of conscious silence?

The environment in which we spend our day-to-day life can be vastly different from that of a retreat centre. So how do we observe silence in a world that is filled with noise and constantly competing for our attention?

A good approach is to first understand that we don't have to only observe silence in a peaceful environment.

We can practice being consciously quiet in chaos.

In fact, a chaotic environment can offer much for us to practice to - the ongoing construction noise from the apartment above that gets on our nerves, an unreasonable client we would like to yell at, that voice in our head we would prefer to mute...

And as we discover how being consciously silent helps us navigate the messiness that is the reality of life, we can identify moments of the day where we set everything aside, and simply cease all communication with the external world for a while.

We can turn our phones to DND mode, request your loved ones for some solitude, and then simply sit and look inward.

Even an hour of conscious silence a day will prove to be precious.


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