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  • Writer's pictureBethany Lynn Alvey

Contemplative Practice I: Silence

This is Part I of a series on Contemplative Practice.

Three Sisters, Glencoe, Scotland

In the trio of solitude, stillness, and silence, silence is most rare to me. Finding silence somewhere in this noise seems impossible. Carving space for it on the edges of my day is a bit more feasible. In the moments I lay awake in bed just before my alarm rings, or when I first get home from work and let the dog outside. Silence is so elusive, and I have no ability to make it stay. Phones ring, doors knock. And of course, I drive it away. I realize the irony of writing a reflection on silence as I'm sitting in a bustling coffee shop: funk music on the radio, animated conversation and the sounds of steaming milk and clinking cups.

Silence can be unsettling, particularly if there is a question hanging in the air. I love to fill up my day with sound (and sometimes nothing puts me to sleep faster than the sound of loved ones having a relaxed conversation). There is a kind of silence that comes with certain experiences - the response ellipsis in a text message "...", the unhurried and confident movement of a hospice worker, the absence of a heartbeat on a fetal monitor.

John Cage's 4'33" is notorious because he highlighted a true thing in an absurd way - we are never truly without sound. A performer walks out on stage, prepares to perform, and starts a timer. An audience member shuffles uncomfortably, waiting for "the music." The expectation is that sound would fill a vacuum of silence. No go. Instead, the sounds in the world are thrown into sharper relief by the frame provided by the performer remaining still. Vehicles driving by the hall, an air conditioner, birdsong, laughter. As the seconds stretch into minutes, other sounds float to the surface: cracking joints, sniffles, even your own pulse waves a tiny but insistent hand. The performer moves imperceptibly and the energy breaks. The "silence" is over, but it may have never really been.

So what are stillness, solitude, and silence? Cells, molecules, breath, blood - they never stop moving - stillness doesn't exist. Even when no one is physically present to me, I find I am not alone - solitude doesn't exist. Even as I remove sounds from my environment, I become aware of dozens more - silence doesn't exist.

Yet these three, stillness, solitude, and silence, do something to my mental and physical health and enrich my spiritual life. They exist in my experience. I can sense when there is too much noise in my day. These three sisters help me see things as they really are. I use movement, company, and noise to cover me, to avoid what I don't want to see.

The Sisters Stillness, Solitude, and Silence bring eight gifts with them.

Calm. Their first gift is a balm.

Curiosity. Their second gift helps me lift up my head.

Clarity. Their third gift blows away the fog.

Compassion. Their fourth gift rises up in me, reminding me of what it feels like to Love.

Connectedness. Their fifth gift binds me to God and to others.

Confidence. Their sixth gift gets me on my feet.

Creativity. Their seventh gift gives me tools and options.

Courage. Their eighth gift gives me power to move forward.

Now if I can remember to turn off my notifications for a minute...

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