The Value of Silence

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, January 2004

In my mind, I visualize Advent time to be like a huge balloon, building, building, building, getting bigger and then POP! Christmas Day, which in my family is also filled with activity, tradition, busyness and fun.

To regain some balance, my husband and I try to find some time for peaceful contemplation during the Twelve Days of Christmas. As mentioned in the last newsletter, we try to find the time to walk on our patch of God’s earth and to hear what it needs. Hear what it needs? The trees and mud and snow are going to say what they need? No. Not in the usual terms, not in spoken-out-loud language. Rather, through silence one can attempt to ‘hear into’ what is expressed by the land.

Cultivating silence – stilling the chatter of the mind – takes practice. As someone with an almost pathological need to make lists and plan ahead, I for one, find this very hard to do. But certainly, whether we are ‘hearing into’ the needs of the land or into the needs of our children and family, this ability to patiently  clear the mind’s clutter – chatter, lists, plans, doubts, worries –  is necessary. Answers come in silence, and the quiet words which help us find direction need the peace of a quiet mind to be heard.

I believe that one big step toward the ability to make peace with the silence within, and to not fear it as a void, is to create times of silence without, in our everyday lives. I am not advocating that we make our homes to be like monasteries! Certainly not! The healthy laughing and shouting of children and adults is part of a happy home. Rather, it is balance that is needed: balance between noisy times and quiet times, out-breath and in-breath.

One way of achieving this is to avoid background noise, to not just mindlessly let the TV, radio, CD player or whatever, be a backdrop for other activity. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that, for instance, listening to music should only ever be an activity unto itself – sometimes background music is desirable – I think it should be done mindfully, with purpose: as I cook this Italian meal, I’m going to listen to an Italian opera; as we clean the house, we are going to listen to Mama’s old Bruce Springsteen tape; as I drive alone in the car, I ‘m going to listen to the radio and sing loudly… I can’t see any problem with this sort of thing. But I think that the automatic turning on of the radio or TV as soon as one enters the house is not healthy. Doing things automatically is symptomatic of a lack of freedom, something none of us would wish for if we were conscious of it.

We can help our children learn to be at ease with silence by requiring silence when they are working in their Main Lesson books, workbooks or on artistic projects. It is a beautiful thing to watch children working in silence, to see their absolute and utter absorption in what they are doing. Anyone who has ever seen a class of 20 or 25 children in a Waldorf school painting in silence, knows that such an atmosphere comes not from oppressive restrictions but arises out of the joy of children finding fulfillment in their work. Again, I am reminded of the words of a very wise and old kindergarten teacher that I met in England who claimed that the best kindergarten teachers hardly speak to their children at all. What a challenging assertion in our day of  “Do you want to do this? What shall we do now?” or even, “Now we’re going to do this” – talk, talk, talk. Instead, with the strength and courage reminiscent of Ma Ingalls in the Little House books, the ideal kindergarten teacher simply is. She does her work and moves through the day, forming, changing and creating as necessary. And the children follow along, soaking up her strength, imitating her actions, basking in her good example. Again, this is not done in oppressive silence – and of course humming and singing would be quite in order – but rather in the comfortable silence demanded by concentration, peacefulness and contentedness.

At home we can be inspired by the role of the kindergarten teacher (even if we have older children) by appreciating how much the parent-teacher’s way of being influences the children. Is Mom quiet and peaceful as she directs the children’s work, focused on the task at hand? Or is she frazzled, thinking about things she needs to do and bringing tension to the morning’s work? It’s not a question of standing over the children, willing them to be silent! It’s the quiet presence, doing the dishes, fixing the lunch, while the children work at the dining room table, that’s so important.

We can reinforce this peacefulness in our children by insisting that they do one thing at a time: when they are looking at a book, they are not also listening to a tape. Clearly a benefit from this approach is enhanced concentration as well as purposefulness. As always, Waldorf education is concerned with what is healthy for the growing child: could it be that the epidemic of attention disorders is at least in part the outcome of  environments that are over-stimulating and ‘multi-tasking’?  By providing a peaceful counterpoint to our busy and productive lives, by allowing our children to benefit from silence, we can make our family lives truly healthy.

Posted on July 3, 2005 in General Homeschooling

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