Encountering Silence: 10 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness as a Habit (Part 2 of 2)

In the (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) MBSR courses I have been a part of there is always a point in the eight weeks of 3-hour long classes that students are asked to pick a part of their daily life to practice mindfulness. Within the course students have been asked to practice mindful meditation for 20-30 minutes at a time every day. Introducing mindfulness into a daily task is suggested because - and I hope you’re ready for this harsh reality - but if you can only be mindful when you’re perched on your meditation cushion in a cloud of sage, you haven’t quite reached the heart of what has made a mindfulness practice really powerful.

As a reminder, being mindful is not a mysterious nirvanic achievement. It is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” (Jon Kabat Zinn). The present moment is just that: wherever you are, whenever you are - fleeting by nature. Your quietest times of meditation are always worthwhile as a practice, but if we cannot bring this spirit of paying attention into our sleepy mornings, rainy Mondays, and hurried conversations, we’re missing out.

Some of the suggestions below may seem crazy to some of you who haven’t even touched a mindfulness practice and some of you may already be on your 300th day of one hour a day mindful meditation (seriously, you guys are mystifying to me). These ideas come from people I have studied under, students I learned alongside, and my own need to create space when life starts to feel a bit too tight. Whoever and wherever you are, I hope these ideas inspire and sustain your moment-to-moment practice.

  1. Meditate while moving. The first is for those of you who are horrified at the idea of meditating in silence. In one of my first courses, a fellow student was struggling (as I still do!) with the body scan variation of meditation. This meditation is often recommended for people who struggle with falling asleep - so that should tell you why it can be problematic. My classmate said she had started using the body scan meditation when running. This practice changed both her outlook on the length of her run and the content of her meditation. Another person in this same class said they had started doing it on their commute - you know, without closing your eyes. Imagine how different traffic might feel?

  2. Listen while you walk. The second practice comes from my mindfulness mentor, Aleezé Moss. There is a meditation called loving kindness or metta meditation that is often practiced in the final sessions of MBSR courses. One of my favorite samples of it can be found here. She mentioned in one class that she sometimes uses this (by memory) when she is walking from place to place in the city. Imagine your walk with the following phrases rumbling about in your head: “May you be peaceful. May you be happy. May you be as strong as you are able. May you live with ease of well-being.”

  3. Lose the headphones. I can remember a time when I always had headphones in my pockets because I could never go from place to place without listening to music along the way. I’m not here to condemn or judge those of you who, like me, just enjoy when life looks like a musical. I have totally done that thing you do when you’re having a dead-in-the-eyes day and you put on your favorite beats to psych you up for a gym session that you don’t really want to go to. But really, I am here to question our habits and to tell you that I haven’t the faintest idea where my headphones are right now. It can be healthy to take a break from the norm of blocking out the outside and instead, letting sound (and maybe even thoughts?) in. I’ve been heckled too (seriously - even while very noticeably pregnant). I know these can sometimes be a protective measure. But I don’t want to reduce music to a defense mechanism anymore than I want to miss out on the birds that sometimes sing behind the hecklers.

  4. Notice your transitions. This comes from a mentee within my mindfulness program at Jefferson. This one is pretty simple: when you get somewhere new in your day, take 1-minute to “check-in”. Checking in can be as simple as taking a few mindful breaths or seeing what’s in your mind (Anxiety? Excitement? Nothing much?) or even simply listening and looking with the intent to really see where you are.  This practice could have a huge effect on how you meet your day, your meetings, or your family. In my own past life as a business owner, I would often schedule my times of formal practice for mindfulness around transitions - before or after often stressful meetings or conversations. This checking-in doesn’t need to be formal though, it can happen in a breath; it’s the pause that makes the biggest difference.

  5. Eat mindfully. It’s not the first time you’ve ever heard it, I’m sure, but eating mindfully cannot only “make” your food taste better, ease your digestion, and automatically reinforce better nutrition choices - it can also give you an opportunity to be present in your normal everyday life. I love this short pithy video from Thich Naht Hanh on mindful eating: “Breakfast is an opportunity to practice.” This means you have to be doing just what you’re doing - eating. I, like the rest of 21st century humanity, often “unwind” by eating with technology, a book, a friend, etc. If the idea of going without these mechanisms for an entire meal sounds crazy to you, I might recommend beginning with a mindful cup of tea or coffee. Abstain from obvious distractions for a full cup, and watch the never-before-released present unravel before you.

  6. When you walk your dog, walk your dog. This one’s obviously going to play to a more specific audience but it’s been mentioned so much in my classes that I’ve got to include it.  In the first mindfulness class of the 8-week course we are asked to place stickers (STICKERS!!!) in individual places where we might find it useful to pause for a moment of mindfulness.  One of the first places that came to mind for me was our dog leash. Maddox is a gem (as most of you know) but walking him can still feel like a chore sometimes as he likes to exert his maleness over every single solitary tree in Philadelphia. It’s amazing how different a walk feels when I try to walk like he does versus the other way around. I like him so much more! Mable on the other hand is a bit of a trigger for my stress-levels as of late as she can be a little leash-aggressive and tends to walk more like a sidewinder than a dog. At the end of the day though, she walks with slight paranoia paired with a slight amount of joy. I try to let myself enter into the joy bit to actually appreciate walks with her. She notices everything. I notice nothing. Isn’t it the ideal mindfulness habit to take walks with your dog where you try to actually walk like your dog does anyway - in the present? Something tells me having a kid is going to double my need for this type of practice.

  7. Brush your teeth mindfully. You need to brush your teeth for at least two minutes anyway. Why not really embrace those two minutes in silence?

  8. Do your best noticing in the shower. You know those times when you’re in the shower and you suddenly realize that you can’t remember if you’ve conditioned your hair yet? This is for you guys. And for me. Full disclosure: I shower only every three days or so (long story for another time) so this habit does retain a bit of its novelty when I give it a go. I find it best to ask myself some questions: What do I feel like? What is the feeling of water on my skin? What are the smells I am smelling? What is the sound of water falling like? There’s even a whole New York Times article about this one!

  9. Laundry. This one has become all the more real to me as my pregnancy-related insomnia has increased. I wake up around 4am and since I can’t sleep, I fold laundry quietly in our bathroom. Usually this is about the same time that the baby decides to let me know it’s awake too so I enjoy sitting there with nothing to do but fold and feel. It’s kind of precious. I don’t know that I get to this moment in the same way when it’s Sunday night and I’m hurrying through a load that’s been chucked on our bed before it’s time to change the sheets and hop in them before the week begins. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Fold in the quiet and see how different it feels.

  10. Dishes. Every now and then when I wash the dishes, a quote from Thich Naht Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness pops into my head: “If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” You guys, it is SO hard to just wash dishes! From the other end of the spectrum, I love the writing of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk on this topic:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,

Since I have no time to be

a great saint by doing lovely things,

or watching late with Thee,

or dreaming in the dawnlight,

or storming Heaven’s gates,

Make me a saint by getting meals,

and washing up the plates.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,

and light it with Thy peace;

Forgive me all my worrying,

and make my grumbling cease.

Thou who didst love to give men food

in room, or by the sea,

Accept the service that I do-

I do it unto Thee.

I think it’s important not to forget the whole point of my practice of mindfulness and silence in the first place: I want to be alive to my life. I want to show up. This picture for this post was taken directly after my week of silence in Taizé. Look how not silent my mouth looks! After spending a week without speaking to anyone I ran into a boisterous college student from Chicago named Isaac while waiting for the bus in the midday sun for a serendipitous two hour stint. Isaac had been at Taizé on the speaking side of the fence. I hadn’t met an American in a long time. It was refreshing and weird to hear my meandering sounds make their best efforts at answering his many questions. What was silence like? Did I want to speak? Was it hard? What did I learn?

I’m still learning, Isaac. I love silence… most of the time; much more than I thought I would as someone who loves talking and words. But sometimes silence is hard, empty, dull, or frustrating. I want to speak first. I want to listen to music. I want to distract myself. All of these times will still happen, and do. But intentionally placing times of silence and mindfulness in my life keeps me aware of how much I’m coping with versus how much I’m choosing the texture of my attention. When I want to break silence, I want to know it’s worth it.

If you made it all the way to the end and you’ve still not been struck by any of these practices as resonating with you, I’d encourage you to check out David Geller’s fantastic series of articles on Meditation for Real Life.  And of course, if I can be clearer or helpful to you anyway, please feel free to reach out!  Thank you for reading!

To read about my experience at Taizé, check Part 1 of this post out.


Encountering Silence: Away from Home, Part 1 of 2

If you are reading this now, and you have the opportunity to take pause, simply listen. Wherever you are - it’s clear that what you are hearing is not the lack of sound, or presence. Silence is loud. There is always something living in it. It is the way we begin to really hear what is happening in the world around us, in the movements of those near us, and in ourselves. A week in silence is more about fullness than absence.


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a week in silence in Taizé. Taizé is a community in Southern France run by an order of monks who choose to devote their lives to creating a space for young people to encounter silence, song, and the sacred. On any given day in the summer, the small town is overrun by five thousand young people and a small assortment of people older than “young”.

Taizé was originally created by Brother Roger in the aftermath of World War II. Prejudice abounded in France towards Germans, and Brother Roger chose to set up in a part of France specifically designed to encounter “the enemy”. This spirit of reaching out to the stranger and the outcast has continued to this day. The week prior to my arrival Taizé had bravely hosted a series of workshops on encountering refugees in Europe. 

A week of silence for most meditation instructors is a bit of a rite of passage. Up until this, I had done retreats with evenings of “companionable silence” (i.e. nod hello, say please and thank you, but don’t speak until after breakfast). I have also done days of silence through Jefferson’s Mindfulness Program. I wanted my first experience with prolonged silence to be in the contemplative Christian setting. I hope to do another week soon in a more ecumenical setting. 

For those not familiar, although most conventional American church services today will bear no more than thirty seconds of silence before feeling pretty squirmy, the Christian tradition as a whole has a contemplative meditation practice going as far back as the first century - only roughly forty years after the writing of the latest composed Gospel. Taizé provided me with a chance to see what one interpretation of meditative silence could look like. 

Every morning I wake in a tent on a French countryside. Most mornings it has just rained. About fifty visitors are sequestered in a corner of Taizé’s property specifically designated for silence. Morning prayer takes place seated in a large, modern auditorium at 0815. There is singing in more than four languages, yawning, and communion. The first food you have every day is the sacrament - that is - if you want to receive it. After morning prayer, I wordlessly meander through a crowd of young people to find my fellow silent sojourners under a tent. We eat a piece of bread, butter, jam, and powdered hot drinks looking out over the countryside. 

Once the dishes have been stacked and sent away, we stare out at the field in front of us until Sister Croix arrives. The sister rides in on a bicycle. Her hair is cropped. She has glasses. She usually wears an orange sweater which she inevitably removes about twenty minutes into meeting. She smiles as she speaks. And she speaks at least three languages: German, English, French. Sister Croix arranges for translators and within no time, her words are - sentence, by sentence - being transformed into Korean, Polish, German, and French. She explains that silence is more about learning to listen than it is about learning to cease talking. She says we will be silent unless we need to speak, or unless we would like to sing. She gives us a few passages to study, some suggestions about a style of reading scripture called lectio divina but she doesn’t call it this - she simply tells us to read, to listen, to write down what we think, pray the ‘Our Father’ “and then Basta”. 

We mosey away from this meeting a bit stupefied. When she says, go be quiet and pray, we think, ‘But how?’ When she explains these passages of the Bible that we have heard a thousand times, they sound different: new. She says of the paralytic brought to Jesus, ‘We are all paralyzed sometimes. But healing does not happen because we ask for forgiveness, it happens before forgiveness occurs, and then we - in response - wake up, and carry our stories home with us’. 

In front of my tent, I have set up a hammock. I sit in the hammock occasionally waving away the bees, reading, writing, listening - still stupefied. I am surprised what comes from nothing. 

Midday prayer is at 1220. The bells ring again and the whole of humanity in this small place is drawn in our hungry stupor to the chapel again. Midday prayer is songs, kneeling, the reading of the Bible in six different languages. Then lunch happens. Lunch is bigger; mostly vegetarian. There is always a way to squirrel away a bit of extra cheese or fruit. There’s also time to indulge in that most revered of silences: the post-lunch afternoon nap. This is good because it’s a long time until dinner. This is also glorious because silence is sometimes sleep.

In the afternoon we are encouraged to be active in some way; to wander out into a field, stretch our legs, or in my case, find some movement to be doing. Every day I’m there is an adventure in navigating the humans in Taizé finding my penchant for intensity a bit out of place and trying not to set my workout on top of an anthill. There are horses, sheep, cows, and geese wherever I go. It’s grand, beautiful - about twenty degrees celsius - and sunny. 

After being active, I sit down in my tent with both vents open, eat my squirrel snack, and start reading and listening again. My breathing is elevated and this makes meditation easier in some ways. I am less tempted by the surrender of sleep. Instead, I walk out into the sun, and feel the warmth of the day, the din of the green world around me, and distant voices. 

Then, at 1800, it’s time to wash the bathrooms. With a chorus of Italian, Brazilian, and British women I am staring at my reflection in the mirror, scraping hair from the sinks - for a blissful moment - discussing the correct translation for ‘squeegee’.  I figure out how to refill soap and paper dispensers with humble glee. The work is wonderful. We feel for a moment, I think, that we have an occupation, a service, some great thing such as this - a clean bathroom - to offer our fellow pilgrims. We serve each other without a word. We smile softly and communicate relief and satisfaction when we are done. We take down our makeshift “closed for cleaning” sign with redemptive fervor. 

I walk through the dust to dinner. I sit on the grass and think over, and over, about how the trees really do look like they are clapping their hands. I clap my hands for dinner at 1900 too. Dinner is about as big as lunch - with an occasional surreal piece of fish or sausage. Occasionally, we run out of food. Occasionally, I notice someone chewing. One night, there is only yogurt for dinner and since we are silent - we just sit and eat in spite of ourselves. I think often on these nights that it’s incredible how much of our lives are spent complaining or wishing for things that just won’t come. 

If I have skimpy dinner, though, I lean heavily on the jerky that I have trekked from the U.S. to Switzerland to France. I eat this in the gloaming before evening prayer - my favorite service of the day. At 2030 there is a sense in the chapel that we are dying to the day, that we do not know that we will resurrect to our mornings filled with bees and bread. It is all up to chance. There are candles flickering, and my soul feels peaceful. The light of day leaves the windows and we walk out of the chapel into the great quiet of the night. 

I sit in my tent, nursing a pocketed piece of chocolate reading a novel, or checking on the world outside of this canvas. In the distance, I hear a throng of young voices singing. They are more than a choir; they are insistent. A bit closer, I hear a violin playing out Taizé songs; simple melodies that sound like you know where they are going or where they have been even if you are hearing them for the first time.  I can hear my neighbors rolling over in their beds, rustling in the leaves, the thoughts in my head. 

This is what a day is like. And there’s more than this to say, but I think the silence is meant to be a bit of a secret. You must go there to find what it says to you, what you are always saying to yourself. 

What I have learned about a week in silence is that the first few days are a relief.  By the third day, everyone wants to laugh: about the flimsy benches that we all keep forgetting to measure when we sit down and fall over, about the way the men have decided to clean the bathrooms shirtless because it is insufferably hot, about how we are filled with so much but saying so little. By the fourth and fifth day, we are a bit more somber, with revolving doors for brains, praying without ceasing.

On Saturday - the last day many of us are there - we are bowled over with love. We are the poor in spirit, and we have seen God. We cannot contain ourselves, though we do not know each other’s names. I hug the women I clean with. I smile at the vegan who gave me all her protein all week long.  A man I have never spoken with gives me a card and a candle and blesses me with a saying from Teresa of Avila. Sister Croix says, ‘Maybe tonight, and all nights we can just think of three things we are thankful for, say thank you, the Our Father, and then Basta?’

One man cries out for the rest of us at our last meeting, “What should we do at home? What will we read?”  Another says, “Why does everything you are saying to us sound so different than what is sounds like at home?” Sister Croix grins, and says, “Who said it was supposed to be easy?”  

I sit in the glow of the day waiting for the bus thinking about what I could say about silence (ah, the irony...). The truth is even now, I feel that my words can’t speak for silence. The silence is ineffable - shouting at us that all of the burdens, business, and bullshit that we throw in the way of “what is” chokes what surrounds us. We can love in action more than we think. We can hurt with words more than we would dream. We can hear more in the quiet than we have spoken into it.