Spinning thoughts felt like a whirlpool crashing in my mind, threatening to pull me under. I fidgeted and ached for the relief of the alarm signaling 20 minutes had finally passed. For years, this has been what my sporadic attempts at contemplative prayer have felt like—total failure.
I started dipping my toes in the water of contemplative practice years ago. My introduction to ancient spiritual practices like lectio divina and the examen started at a retreat I attended at a Trappist monastery. The silence I experienced in the hushed abbey felt like an impossible challenge while simultaneously feeling like coming home.
I had a suspicion my mostly evangelical spiritual practices had left me missing something vital that my soul desperately needed. The feeling increased as I sat through loud songs and wordy sermons. I felt entertained but I didn’t feel the presence of God. I craved a place to “be still and know” but I couldn’t find it.
In the years since, I’ve read book after book on contemplation, trying to wrangle the silence into a workable place for my soul to reside. Only recently have I tried, in earnest, to practice daily stillness—and feel all the slow, painful results of trying to slow down an over-entertained, over-stimulated mind.
Driven By Results Versus Trusting the Process
In the process I have found that I am obsessed with outcomes. I think this drive is engrained in those who live in fast-paced western cultures. We talk a lot about the struggle of the journey, but we don’t often want to endure those wilderness places if they don’t produce good results.
I’ve recently started seeing this in different areas of my life. I have practiced yoga in varying regularity for 20 years since it was introduced to me as a modern dancer in college. It is called “practice” for a reason. Growth in yoga, like dance, music, or any endeavor that takes commitment, is a process. But the stretches of time in which I don’t practice come because I am not seeing results quickly. My aching hips don’t heal fast enough. My energy isn’t as high as I’d like, so I just give up.
I recommitted this year to a daily practice, even if it was just a few minutes a day. It has taken four months of (mostly) consistent practice for even a pound to drop off the scale. But there are little hints of growth that I am starting to catch. When my knee starts its usual ache, I know my body well enough after daily exploration to adjust my gait. When my back aches after being hunched over my computer for hours, I know how to realign my spine in the proper way. I have to remind myself of this incremental growth when the bed looks more appealing than the mat.
Faster and Bigger Versus Slower and Deeper
This is, of course, the nature of humanity—to want it all and want it quickly. Whether it be on the scale or in our budgets, in climbing the corporate ladder or in the ways we unwind in our free time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to settle for the slow and quiet. We are losing the ability to see the journey as worthwhile. As essayist and author of The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer says: “We’ve lost the ability to live at the speed of life.”
Emily Freeman tells us in her recent book on decision fatigue, The Next Right Thing, that we are so worn out because the modern person makes 35,000 decisions a day. A recent study by researchers at the University of California under Roger Bon shows that people are “every day inundated with the equivalent amount of 34 gigabytes of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week.” Through various forms of media we are taking in about 23 words per second.
Our entertainment and our work all move at faster speeds and demand quicker and bigger results than before. When the newest of the rapid succession of Marvel movies came out, my kids and I thought we’d be ahead of the game going to the one theatre in our area of Dhaka to get advance tickets. We went home when we saw the crowd pouring out of the hot and crowded theatre. A friend later told us he waited in line for eight hours to get a ticket to see what ended up being the biggest opening day in movie history bringing in $1.2 billion dollars the first weekend globally.
Contemplation Versus Information Overload
As we find this urgency for more, faster, better tumbling into every area of our lives, it is ever harder to disconnect. “In our digital age, contemplative practice is not only wildly subversive but wildly life-giving—a counter to the noise and frenzy that dominate our lives,” says Christopher L. Heuertz in The Sacred Enneagram.
In an attempt to counter that decision fatigue Freeman talks about in her book, she also suggests looking to contemplation: “Silence and stillness are how I sift through the day’s input. The silence serves as a colander, helping me discern what I need to hold onto and allowing what I don’t need to fall away gently, making space to access courage and creativity, quieting to hear the voice of God.”
I’ve been on this journey toward silence (and thus, away from the noise of constant entertainment and information overload) for years. It’s been a slow, meandering journey. As I sat down at the end of the year to evaluate and look ahead, silence was the one thing I realized I still hadn’t let myself fully embrace. I wrote:
The more I tried to move forward, the more God said, “stop.” Finally, this year I didn’t have a choice but to listen. When I was forced to my knees by anxiety and depression, I was finally still long enough to hear it.
“The deepest communion with God is beyond words, on the other side of silence,” said Madeleine L’Engle. Yes, this is what I long for, I cried. Where can I find it?
The answer was always there but I couldn’t let myself see it—on the other side of silence. Silence isn’t the answer; it is the beginning. One I kept trying to bypass.
I wanted movement, progress, results. God said, be silent. Be still. Be.
I started the year with Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms and breezed through it as I do with most books, looking for the answers and missing the ones right in front of me. Speaking of the other spiritual disciplines she suggests later in the book, Barton says, “We really can’t engage any of them until solitude becomes a place of rest for us rather than another place for human striving and hard work.”
I didn’t listen to the small urges to first find a place of peace in solitude and silence, to stop trying to manufacture God’s presence but be comfortable just acknowledging it. Finally, after a whirlwind few weeks in the United States with very little time for solitude, I came back home to South Asia, to my quiet little corner room overlooking the most densely populated city in the world.
Literally above all the hustling, I took what felt like my first deep breath in three weeks. Okay, Lord. Okay. I took another deep breath and closed the kindle app on my phone and set a timer for ten minutes. I sat alone in silence. I didn’t worry about my thoughts wandering and try to wrangle them to the ground. I just sat in silence before the Lord.
I’m still more comfortable reading about silence than actually practicing it. Many days I bombard my mind with noise instead of taking the time to be still. On a good day, I take 20 minutes to fight through the noise and practice silent prayer called Centering Prayer by Father Thomas Keating who helped develop the practice.
I know that whether I have a still or busy mind, a quiet or worry-filled soul—God is still there waiting for me to approach in prayer. Stillness isn’t some new-age prayer technique (it actually has its roots in early Christian monasticism) and it isn’t a quick way to spiritual growth. But for me, I am finding it a worthwhile discipline that doesn’t produce quick results but produces fertile ground for God’s presence to grow in my life.
So, I return to those spinning thoughts and remind myself time spent in silence isn’t a failure or a waste; it’s a process like all growth. I cling to the words of Saint Benedict, reminding me we are forever on a journey of learning and growing: “Always we begin again.” It’s a battle worth waging.
I shut off the flow of entertainment and information for half an hour. I set another timer. I take a deep breath. I don’t measure my progress. I just stop…and then I begin.