Many people are uncomfortable with silence, and solitude, and yet, these are essential skills for aging well and living life fully. Silence can be restorative, and can build resilience in the face of crises, illness, loss and other life transitions. Learning to welcome silence and cultivate its gifts of inner peace and creativity are worthy goals.
Many of you know that I lived and worked in Japan for four years, but you might not know that, in my third year, I joined a weekly Zen meditation group that met outside of Osaka at a Buddhist temple on Friday evenings. The silent sessions were 90 minutes long and based on “sitting Zazen” (literally “seated meditation”), the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition.
The goal was to learn to suspend all judgmental thinking, and to allow ideas, internal dialogue, images, and thoughts to simply pass by without getting involved in them. And to do it while sitting on a special pillow, or on your own knees, with your spine straight. The quiet inside the old temple was deep, and I can still vividly recall the smell of incense and dustiness.
My fellow attendees were retired elderly Japanese; I was the only foreigner, and the youngest member of the group. They had learned to appreciate what I was there to discover: that there is a direct connection between the inner peace and well-being found in meditation and the quality and success of our worldly efforts. They knew to stick with the practice, and their delight in my joining them was a form of encouragement for me to stick with it, too.
What did silence teach me? I learned that time is fluid; some nights 90 minutes seemed to fly by, and other nights it was agonizingly slow. Sometimes my mind was easily distracted by memories, future plans, or a sore back, and it was hard to stay focused. I learned that my mind was like a wild horse that required taming in order to be able to sit still in silence.
I understood that silent meditation was not an escape from other responsibilities, but a life-enhancing experience that reduced stress, calmed my mind, and helped me tap into my energy reserves, creativity, and resilience. Over time, I could see the positive impact it was having on my life, and this encouraged me to continue.
Silence has proven to be a good companion and a doorway to higher consciousness; it often reveals spiritual insights that appear spontaneously, as if coming to me from a higher knowledge beyond my own awareness. I have learned to trust this source, and to be receptive to it. As the Persian poet and mystic, Rumi, advised, “Listen to silence. It has so much to say. “