In our race to keep up with life, silence can be a powerful source of strength and renewal, but for much of my life, I avoided silence. Being a perfectionist, I was very happy running from one thing to next, taking on all sorts of challenges and working at them until all was perfect. Teaching was my passion but so was perfectionism. This concoction was a dangerous brew and came to a head in 1997. Because of the impossible expectations I set for my students and myself, my department head called me out for my perfectionism and suggested I wouldn’t last long in the profession. I wasn’t sure if she was giving me advice or a warning.
That conversation turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I realized I had to do something about my teaching, though I didn’t know what or how to address my perfectionism. By the grace of God, I was given the opportunity to be part of a teaching exchange between my school in Boston and the Dragon School in Oxford for the 1998-99 school year. (My book, Dragons in My Classroom, A Teacher’s Memoir chronicles my experience teaching at the Dragon and learning to deal with my ‘inner’ dragons.) There, I would need to give up everything I knew about teaching in the US and learn how to teach the English way. In short, I had to begin again. The opportunity changed my life forever: it helped me salvage my teaching career and deepen my spiritual life. Before going to England, I’d been a Sunday Christian; I went to church and celebrated Easter and Christmas and that was about it, but my year in Oxford brought me closer to God than anything else I’d experienced. One of the ways this happened was through the practice of silence.
At first my efforts to be silent were only possible when I took long walks in the Oxford neighborhood of Port Meadow, a huge open place with trees, a river and all kinds of wild life. Here I was able to slow down and listen to nature. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I’d been listening to God. Slowly the practice of listening became a form of prayer. Instead of doing all the talking to God, I was able to let God in to my silence whether I was walking in Port Meadow or making supper in my flat.
Silence helped me through many challenging situations in Oxford: feeling homesick for the US, missing my husband, learning how to be a Dragon teacher and adjusting to living in England. It helped me feel I was no longer alone. God wanted a relationship with me, not only to guide and save from myself, but to laugh and cry with me. Upon my return to the US in 1999, my husband and I found a church in Boston where we learned more about silent prayer and have been practicing it ever since.
I encourage everyone, whether you practice a particular faith or no faith, to add some silence to your day. You may experience this as mindfulness, meditation, contemplation, or dedicated time to be by yourself.
Create a special place in your home where you can be alone and away from noise and devices.
Pause for a few minutes after you arrive at your special place and before you begin to be silent: do some simple stretches and take some deep breaths. Perhaps light a candle. Then settle into a chair or on a cushion. Begin by acknowledging your desire and gratitude for this time.
When extraneous or even disturbing thoughts distract us from silence, we need a word or a short phrase to gently push them away. Something such as “Holy One” or “Peace” or “Beloved” repeated quietly two or three times when you feel your attention wandering will help you return to silence. Eventually you may realize these extraneous thoughts are not so bothersome, thus they become part of your silence.
Avoid the temptation to evaluate your experience. It’s not about how good we are in our practice of silence, it’s about our willingness to show up and do it on a regular basis.
Try to maintain the same days and times each week. (Before I check my iphone or turn on my lap top, I start my day with 25 minutes of silence.) Use a timer and start with ten minutes. increase it to fifteen and finally try to be silent for twenty minutes or more. You may reach a point where you don’t need a timer. As you gently increase the time, try to increase the number of days; striving to practice this every day.
Silence is meant to give you a rest from life. What causes you stress and anxiety will always be there, but the practice of silence may give you peace. You might begin to notice a kind of presence, which could help you discover new ways to deal with hybrid work, constant innovations in technology, and the mother of them all, Covid protocols. It doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed with all that distracts us. Practicing stillness and silence makes us lighter and gives us hope for the long haul.
Twenty-four years ago, I went overseas to learn how to be a better a teacher. My year at the Dragon School also taught me how to cultivate a life of prayer and silence and live in the present. Indeed, the present is really all we have. We can worry about our future, we can be anxious about our past, but to live in the present is a gift. We should honor it, for each day is a day that will never come again.
BARBARA KENNARD taught English and performing arts to elementary, middle, and high school students from 1980–2015 and has received two teaching awards: The Christa McAuliffe Award for Teaching Excellence and The Barbara Kennard Sixth Grade English Prize, established in her name at The Fessenden School by a Fessenden family. Formerly of Boston, Barbara now lives in Texas, with her husband, pianist, Brady Millican, and their cat, Piper. Her memoir, DRAGONS IN MY CLASSROOM: A TEACHER’S MEMOIR, will be released by She Writes Press in June 2022. Find her online at barbarakennardauthor.com, facebook.com/barbara.kennard.167, and on twitter @BarbaraKennard7.