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Spiritual But Secular

For the non-religious, silence is still golden

By Anne Bokma

When her 20-year marriage ended suddenly, Meghan Davis, a 52-year-old Hamilton family physician and mother of two, looked for solace anywhere she could, including taking up running and keeping a journal. She also gathered with others, closed her eyes, bowed her head and entered into deep contemplation to find some measure of peace. No, she didn’t start going to church — the avowed agnostic went on a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

“If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it,” says Davis, explaining why she opted for silence. The experience had a powerful effect. “I hadn’t felt joy in a year and a half, and I wasn’t sure I ever would again. At the end of the retreat, I went to a nearby vineyard and saw all these wildflowers. It sounds hokey, but I gathered some of them up and put them in my car. And I felt joy.”

Similarly, Jill Davey, a Vipassana meditation teacher in Fergus, Ont., says the 10-day silent meditation retreat she went on eight years ago was one of the best — and hardest — experiences of her life. “It’s right up there with giving birth.” But the pangs were worth it: “I’m basically nicer, wiser and more patient.” The practice made Davey — the daughter of a United Church minister who is now a Buddhist — a convert. Today, she regularly leads silent meditation retreats herself.

Almost every religion incorporates some aspect of quiet time — from the monastic silence of the Trappists and the Hindu practice of mauna, to the wordless worship of Quaker meetings and the moment of prayerful silence of many United churches.

Those who identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) are also finding a sense of meaning in keeping mum, whether it’s with a silent meditation retreat or the increasingly popular unplugged holidays, such as that offered by the luxurious Little Palm Island Resort in the Florida Keys, where you pay a premium (in this case, $1,000 a night), to be untethered by technology. Popular books, such as travel writer Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, and a new documentary, In Pursuit of Silence, also extol the spiritual and physical benefits of wordless introspection.

Carl McColman, a lay Cistercian (an order of monks and nuns) and author of Befriending Silence, says while there are many like him who use silence to “access the presence of God,” the practice is also popular among the SBNR and can be just as meaningful for them. Regularly sitting in silence, he says, can make anyone a better person. “The people I’ve encountered who are immersed in the practice of cultivating inner silence typically espouse values of compassion, kindness, active listening, mercy and collaboration rather than competition.” If silence is golden, it appears those who practice it are rich indeed.

But sometimes silence can be anything but peaceful, he warns. “Most of us have chaotic inner lives. A practice of silence usually leads to awareness as to how unpeaceful we really are. Then the question becomes, what do we do about it?”

Sitting in silence is a habit one needs to develop much like working out, says McColman, who begins each day with a 20- to 60-minute silent meditation at a Shambhala meditation centre near his home in Atlanta, and then heads across the street to a fitness centre to lift weights. “When you work out, you don’t just pick up a dumbbell and do one curl. It’s the same with silent meditation — instead of curls, you are breathing, and each breath is an opportunity to release anxieties and return to the purity of silence. You just keep doing it from one breath to the next.”

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once urged, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” Even for those who aren’t believers, it seems there’s a still small voice inside worth heeding.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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