A while back I took on a practice of sitting in silence for five minutes a day. In fact, I wrote on this blog how revolutionary it was for me, and how incredulous I was that 5 minutes could make any kind of difference. (In my religious tradition, there are people who peddle contemplative prayer to the tune of 20 minutes twice a day. A five-minute practice seems like nothing. But what can I say? It worked.)
Well, at some point, I stopped. I don’t know exactly when, although I do know why. The details aren’t important, but I was OBE: Overtaken By Events. Not only did I stop; I forgot it was something I even did regularly, something that fed and sustained me. How does that happen? How can something go from life-giving, to something you no longer do, to something you don’t even remember enough to miss? I don’t know, but it happens to me frequently. I see it in coaching clients as well. I’ll say, “Is your weekly review still working for you?” and they’ll have this moment of surprise and confusion. Oh yeah, I used to do that.
But I also know, the five minutes became hard. Sitting in silence for that long felt impossible. Granted, I’ve been taught and have taught others that when your thoughts drift, you simply acknowledge them, let them go, and return to your focus: a word, your breath, etc. But my thoughts were loud and insistent against that silence, and I got fidgety.
Some time later, I read a book about spirituality for different personality types. (Note: It was The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher L. Heuertz, but you don’t need to know the Enneagram for the purposes of this post.) Heuertz talks about how the different personality types are oriented toward feeling, thinking, and doing, and each of these orientations needs different things to move into deeper wholeness and awareness.
Feeling types might benefit from solitude—spending time by themselves to get in touch with who they are, independent of their relationships and all of the complicated emotions that go with them.
Thinking types could practice silence, working to quiet the mind of its non-stop thoughts, assessments, and chatter.
And doing types might consider stillness—stopping the constant flow of ceaseless activity and listening to the wisdom of our own bodies. Notice I have shifted to “we” language, because my personality is a doing type.
Thinking about silence, solitude, and stillness as distinct from one another was an aha for me, because I think I’ve always lumped them together in a jumbled, unhelpful, and unconsidered way. Certainly there is overlap between them—contemplative prayer involves silence, but usually stillness too, and also solitude, unless you’re in a prayer group. But I’ve never considered them as truly separate disciplines, each with its own fruit to offer.
Anyway, it finally took a conversation yesterday with a friend to connect these three practices with my abandoned five-minute practice. The stillness was a challenge, but I also relished it—soaked it up, in fact. What was hard was the stillness plus the silence. It was too much graduate-level spirituality for me to try and quiet my body and still my thoughts at the same time. My friend and I wondered, what would it be like to lean into one specific practice and intentionally exclude the others? So, to practice silence, but without the added burden of stillness? (E.g. walking or running, but without headphones or conversation) Or solitude without silence? That would be a fun one—talking to oneself!
In my case, what would stillness look like without silence? Might I lean into stillness and body awareness, but with beloved music playing, or a guided meditation? What if I hummed or sang along? My friend suggested reclining on the floor with legs up the wall, which is a yoga pose. I love it.
No grand conclusion here, just wondering how your world interacts with silence, stillness, and solitude—and where you might lean into just one of them, or more than one.
Note: if you are versed in the Enneagram, the feeling types are 2, 3, and 4; the thinking types are 5, 6, and 7; and the doing/”gut” types are 8. 9, and 1.