UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Faith

The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image

Observations

Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Two nurses tackle Vancouver's opioid crisis

Richard Moore is a resident of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In this poignant interview, he explains the important work of nurses Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles.

Promotional Image

Faith

July 2018

250 United Church leaders have a message for Doug Ford

by Emma Prestwich

They're urging the new Ontario premier to remember those in need as he carries out promised economic reform.

Culture

July 2018

Tracing Nelson Mandela’s path a century after his birth

by Tim Johnson

A travel writer visits some of the places that shaped the anti-apartheid icon’s life.

Interviews

July 2018

Jamil Jivani sheds light on why young men radicalize

by Suzanne Bowness

In his book 'Why Young Men,' Jamil Jivani talks about his own experience as a troubled youth.

Promotional Image