My Advice On...SILENCE.
Sometimes even the simplest piece of advice can unlock an area of life that once felt completely closed off to us.
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Sometimes even the simplest piece of advice can unlock an area of life that once felt completely closed off to us. I’ll tell you a story of my own experience of this being true recently. A little over a month ago I started skateboarding with my son, Ryder. I grew up on and off skateboards, but we never lived anywhere that I had access to skateparks and I was far more consumed by team sports. As a result, it was an occasional hobby, but not a regular part of my life. So it’s been great fun (especially getting to share it with my son) and a very painful new hobby.
Now most people who have ever skateboarded will attest that the ollie is one of the most significant first obstacles to overcome. If you aren’t familiar with the sport, the ollie is the foundation of virtually every trick that comes after. On paper, it sounds simple enough. You snap the tail of your board with your back foot and as it strikes the ground you slide the front foot up and forward and it propels the board into the air. This trick is the way you get over a curb, onto a rail and into virtually every other trick. Despite how simple it is to write about, performing it feel almost miraculous. I’ve attempted it countless times throughout life and hundreds of times the past month, all to no avail.
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Recently I was watching yet another YouTube video about this maddening trick and the person demonstrating gave a simple piece of advice. He said, “Bend as low as you can for the jump and be mindful to lift your legs as you slide that front foot forward.” Now, when I heard the advice I thought, “I’ll give that a try, but my assumption is, there is little but disappointment on the other end of this advice.” The next morning at the skatepark, I tried an ollie and experienced the same results. I snapped the tail, tried to slide my front food forward, and…nothing. Just more disappointment and frustration.
After that first failure I remembered the video I watched the day prior. Since my pathetic attempt at this trick literally couldn’t get any worse, I decided to give it a try. I bent my knees, snapped the tail, shifted my front foot forward and lifted my legs. To my amazement, my board actually left the ground. My first ollie. I know what you’re thinking. “Great, now Ryan’s going to be a pro skateboarder and we won’t get these helpful articles anymore.” Let me put your mind at ease. I slipped on the second attempt, so I think middle-age dad skating in full pads like a bubble boy a few times a week with his son is as close to pro as I’ll get. Regardless, that simple piece of advice helped unlock an area I once felt was completely closed off to me. That’s how I’d like to end this series on the spiritual practice of silence. I want to give you my advice on actually cultivating a practice of silence in your own life. I pray that even one of these will unlock this notoriously challenging, but exceedingly beneficial practice. So here are my seven best pieces of advice:
1. Take digestible bites.
If I’ve made one thing clear these last few weeks, I hope it’s the reality that silence is challenging, but endlessly beneficial. Because it’s challenging, I want to encourage you not to “bite of more than you can chew” as they say. To start with an hour is probably going to do little but fuel more discouragement in you. So you want to be mindful to take digestible bites with this practice.
That being said, you may also want to consider that too little time designated to silence can be a problem as well. As we all know, our mind wanders when we get still. That’s nothing to be discouraged about. Our minds simply wander. That is how God designed them. I bring this up again because I’ve noticed that if I sit for 20 minutes in silence (which is a longer stretch for me), my mind tends to spin for the first 15 minutes and then is quiet and calm the back five. It often takes time for our hearts, minds and bodies to settle. So you have to find your sweet spot here. Experiment. Try things. Figure out what works for you. Find that “goldilocks” amount of time. Not too much and not too little. Find the time that’s “just right” for you.
2. Use a timer.
One little thing that I’ve found unhelpful is sitting down for a time of silence, looking at the clock, determining how long I’m going to sit and then opening my eyes every thirty seconds to see how much time I have left. Trying to keep track of the time forces my mind to the time, rather than what I want to actually do with that time - which is simply be with Jesus. So I started using a timer. That way I can set it and forget it. When it chimes, I’m done. Until then, I can focus on being present. Almost every meditation app has an adjustable timer feature. The two I have used the most are The Centering Prayer app and the Healthy Minds app. Both are free and both will get the job done. I will say, the Healthy Minds app was developed by a neuroscientist and has some very helpful instruction on the importance of learning to live more mindful of the present moment, so it may be worth checking out. Regardless, find a timer that will free you to focus on simply being, rather than watching the clock.
3. Practice daily.
Have you ever started exercising again, but you’re so sore after that first workout that you decide to take a “rest day” the next day so your soreness goes away? If you have, then you know that the “rest day” actually makes the soreness worse. The best thing to do, is jump back into another workout that helps loosen the muscles, so you can have a good stretch afterwards. Within a few days of work, the soreness dissipates…at least enough so you can walk without looking like a baby giraffe using it’s legs for the first time.
Silence is similar. Because it can be challenging, sometimes we think, “I’m only going to do this once in a while so I can get used to it.” But the only thing that makes silence more comfortable is doing it over and over until it feels normative. So no “rest days.” The more we practice, the more comfortable we will become.
4. Drop your expectations.
Sometimes we expect something from spiritual practices that God has not promised. God nowhere promises to make every time of prayer, worship, or silence a euphoric one. Euphoria isn’t even the goal. The goal is to create space to be with Jesus. The goal is to simply be still, to listen, and resist the constant hurry that haunts so much of our existence. You may not get the “warm and fuzzies” that we for some reason equate with experiencing God. You may not hear some profound word that changes the way you see Him, yourself, or the world. Your face may not shine like Moses’s did when we came down off the mountain.
It may be that nothing happens other than you sat silently and safely with the Creator, Savior, and Sustainer of the universe. Isn’t that enough? Can’t we trust that any amount of time we invest in simply being with Jesus will in fact be a formative one, even if we can’t pin point the way in which it is forming us? When it comes to sitting with God in general and sitting with Him in silence in particular, let’s drop the expectations. Let’s pursue contentment in simply being with Jesus. Let’s trust that it will be whatever He wants it to be.
5. Employ a centering prayer.
A centering prayer is a simple, short, one sentence prayer that can be employed to express our deepest desire, or something that is fundamentally true. When we connect these centering prayers to our breath, they have a calming, focusing effect on us and can help keep us aware of God’s presence with us in the silence. For years I’ve borrowed Brennan Manning’s favorite centering praying. On my inhale I pray, “Abba.” On my exhale I pray, “I belong to you.” I’ve also prayed, “Holy Spirit, fill me more.” Other ideas would be…
“The LORD is my shepherd…I have what I need.”
“Lord Jesus, Son of God…have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“Speak Lord…Your servant is listening.”
“This is the day you’ve made…I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
I’d highly recommend you write your own centering prayer. The easiest way is to simply contemplate what you need, or long for most right now. It may be comfort, healing, insight, wisdom, peace, or clarity. It could be a particular verse of Scripture that is resonating with you at the moment. You could write a centering prayer that is focused on some attribute of Jesus like His compassion, love, or goodness. To be honest, it’s pretty tough to do this wrong. Sit with Holy Spirit for a moment and ask Him what you need most right now. Then craft that into a centering prayer.
A centering prayer can serve as an anchor in times of silence. As we’ve discussed, silence can be unsettling when our thoughts race and our emotions overwhelm us. It can feel like you’re a sailboat caught in a storm. We need that anchor to keep us from being blown over. When we become aware that our minds are wandering, or maybe even racing in a million different directions, we can simply come back to that centering prayer. (For more help, here’s a great article by Sarah Bessey on breath prayer.)
6. Craft your environment.
This week on Facebook I asked people to share what they’ve found most helpful when it comes to practicing silence. One of my friends said she likes to light a candle in the dark of the early morning. I love this idea and it reminded me how much environment informs experience. If you’ve ever walked into an old cathedral, you can’t help but feel that you’re in a sacred space. Of course, there is no where we go that God is not, but how we craft our environment has a way of informing our awareness of His presence with us.
You don’t have to build a cathedral in your back yard, but if you find it comforting and meaningful to light a candle in a dark room, do it! What matters most is a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, or uncomfortable. You don’t need a big space, just a quiet one. So ask yourself, “What will make this space feel sacred to me?” Maybe something as simple as a candle can turn your closet into a cathedral for those few minutes you sit silently with God.
7. Welcome what arrises.
I end with this point because it is the most difficult for us to actually employ. What do you do when you’re sitting in silence and all the sudden feel like you’re being assaulted by uncomfortable emotions? Maybe you sense anger, or resentment rising up. Maybe a point of grief, or deep sadness over some loss. Maybe the fear and anxiety born out of lingering doubts with which you’re wrestling, catch you off guard. What do we do when these things inevitably arise? As I see it, you have three options: You can whack-a-mole them, you can walk away from them, or you can welcome them.
Whack-a-mole is the image that always comes to mind when I think of the way so many of us respond to uncomfortable emotions. Each time sadness, anger, confusion, or fear rise up, we quickly whack them back down into the dark recesses of our soul where they lurk just outside our purview. Many of us walk through life playing whack-a-mole with our uncomfortable emotions. Another response is to simply walk away. End the silence early and then avoid it like the plague. If we avoid the practice, we avoid that experience. After all, there are plenty of other ways to relate with God. If silence surfaces the uncomfortable, it’s easier to simply avoid it.
Now the problem with both emotional whack-a-mole and walking away, is that neither actually solve whatever is beneath those emotions. It closes them off from the healing hand of Jesus. It also cuts Jesus out of what is often our deepest felt experience in life. As a result, I’d recommend a third response. Consider welcoming whatever arrises. Imagine those uncomfortable emotions are like a toddler clamoring for the attention of a caregiver. They need something and they may not even know what it is. Even if they do know, until they develop language skills, they can’t express that need in words. Think of your uncomfortable emotions like that. They need your attention. They need God’s attention. So welcome them. You don’t have judge them, or even try to fix them. Step back and look at them for what they are. If you’re sad, welcome the sadness. Jesus does. If you’re angry, welcome the anger. Jesus does. If you’re afraid, welcome the fear. Jesus does. It’s only when we welcome these things that Jesus can really do His healing, helping, and comforting work. So as scary and uncomfortable as it may be, try welcoming whatever arrises.
Just Do It.
We’ve covered a lot of ground the last few weeks. We talked about the invitation to silence in general, as well as the benefits, obstacles and now the practicality of it. Beneath all of this information is big question:
Will we actually do it?
Will we embrace this as a core spiritual practice and means of experiencing Jesus? In John 13:17 Jesus said, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” There is far too much understanding and far too little application in so many facets of our faith. Understanding this practice, with all its benefits and obstacles, is of no value if we don’t actually do it. So the question is simple: Will you actually carve the time, create the space and embrace the invitation to sit with God in silence today?
If you’re willing, I’d love to hear what other spiritual practices you’d like to read more about.
Drop a comment below and help shape future articles.
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