"Can I please have some quiet in this house!" my dad would occasionally shout when his three shrieking daughters got the best of him. Since he was usually mild mannered, my sisters and I would take pity. We'd close our bedroom door or race to the backyard to continue our hot, gossipy conversation, allowing poor dad to have the quiet he desired.
When I reflect on those times, what strikes me most is the opportunity my sisters and I could have had to use dad's admonitions to enjoy our own peaceful silence. It is an experience I did not want lost on my own kids when they were younger, so my husband and I would at least occasionally use someone's plea for quiet as a family reminder that silence is more than golden -- it is a priceless path to fulfillment and joy.
Silence is the language of our soul. While we can connect to our higher self in spoken tongues -- most notably via singing, chanting, prayer, and loving speech -- the fastest route to inner peace is outer stillness. That's because God/Source/Spirit is always whispering to us, but we must quiet our minds to hear. "Being" quiet (not "doing" quiet) allows us to hear the hum of the universe that we too often drown out with the louder -- and harsher -- thoughts in our head.
Many of us are uncomfortable around silence, as if it's an enemy to be conquered with sound. If a room is quiet when we enter, we may reflexively turn on music or the TV, pick up the phone, or even talk to ourselves to fill the void. When we are with others, more than a few moments without conversation makes us squirm.
But your family can transform silence into the most freeing experience of the day. It helps everyone settle into a peaceful state. And it deepens interpersonal connections: Family members observing silence pay closer attention to one another's needs, use touch as a form of communication, and can ponder situations rather than blurting the first mindless response that strikes us. (I remember the first time I asked a swami a question, and he paused for several minutes before answering. I was floored with how he gave himself those moments to be insightful before speaking.)
Before you mumble about how you're never going to get your kids to be quiet, know that resistance to silence is easily overcome once people experience its power. Get together with your family and agree on the best day and time to try it -- preferably one that is free of too many commitments or interruptions. A good way to start is during a meal. Mindfully eaten food tastes extra delicious, your tongue ruminating over each exquisite bite. That's why many ashrams and spiritual retreat centers make meals a time of enforced silence.
You may want to start with an initial period of just 15 minutes to an hour (depending on the ages of your kids), to give everyone the opportunity to succeed. As your family comes to appreciate the practice, try building up to several hours, and, eventually, a half- or even an entire day. Longer sessions are tougher to hold together but are unbelievably meaningful. Everyone may come to love the practice so much that you'll want to schedule it regularly. One family I knew observed a weekly Saturday Morning Silence from wakeup until noon.
Other types of non-spoken communication -- writing, signaling, sign-language -- should be discouraged during silent sessions. Eliminating such idle "prattle" may be tough or impossible at first. A family in a spiritual discussion group I once facilitated found that giving everyone small note pads to jot down "important" thoughts they were dying to share helped the transition. However, the notes were not passed around until the silent period was over.
The first time I observed a period of silence I was shocked: not by the quiet, but by the noise. My mind rushed to fill the stillness with its own jabbering, which rebounded around my brain as loudly as if the words had been uttered. In conferring with others since then, I have found this to be common. We are so used to noise that our brain goes into overdrive to keep the peace away. After a while, though, the noises lessen (although they never stop) and the beauty of the silence blossoms.
Luxuriate in it. Listen to the sounds around you, from your child's sweet breathing to that always ticking clock you never observed. Look closely at the auburn streaks in your daughter's black hair, the green in your son's finger-painting, your almond appliances -- they're not really the color of an almond, are they? Pay attention to how your own face feels to your fingertips. Your world will seem more vibrant than before, because when you shut down the avenue where so much energy usually escapes, it is rechanneled to the other senses.
Like so many spiritual practices, keeping silent for even the shortest time will feel weird at first, especially to your kids. I promise it gets easier with practice. And the rewards -- in terms of increased serenity and your family's more intimate ways of being with one other -- are well worth the work.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the upcoming book of essays on spiritual parenting, "Enlightened Parenting," where this essay will appear. She also wrote the spiritual women's novel "Downward Dog, Upward Fog," which Foreword Reviews calls "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Her articles have been published in Parenting, Parents, Glamour, Whole Living, Reader's Digest, and other national magazines.