Mindfulness: solitude, spending time with ourself

Sandy SB, Vajra Blue: In the modern world with its lifestyle of continuous connection and instant availability, it is not surprising that we seem to have become afraid of being alone.

As a social species, human survival has depended on being part of a group. The greater the crowd, the smaller the chance of any one person being eaten.

There is safety in numbers.

The accompanying fear of silence, presumably related to the silence that falls when a predator is close at hand, seems to go beyond a …

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“The Christmas Quiet Book” by Deborah Underwood & Renata Liwska

The Christmas Quiet Book is available from Amazon and

The Christmas Quiet Book is available from Amazon and

Shhhhh!! Let’s be very quiet while we review author Deborah Underwood and illustrator Renata Liwska’s The Christmas Quiet Book.

Are you sitting comfortably? Have you silenced all the alarms on your computer and phone? Have you closed all other windows or switched your browser to full screen mode? Have you taken three full breaths, closed your eyes, and spent a few minutes quietly listening to the world around you? No? OK, go do that now…

I adore Ms. Underwood’s books. So does my six-year-old daughter and, to a lesser extent, my four-year-old son. My wife’s a big fan, too. Underwood writes a lot of different kinds of children’s book, but those that I suspect are most popular are those she’s least known for: The Sugar Plum Ballerinas books, which are nominally by Whoopi Goldberg, but which in fact are written by Deborah Underwood. These books are so well-written that dad is always pushing the kids so that he can go back and catch up on the two chapters he missed when it was mom’s turn to put them to bed.

This isn’t a review of the Sugar Plum Ballerinas books, but I’d just like to note that I found myself wondering if Underwood was a meditator, given how good she is at describing the physical sensations of emotion (and if you don’t get the connection, read this article). The reflective nature of The Christmas Quiet book, and its predecessor, The Quiet Book, reinforces Underwood’s meditative aura (actually, she is not only a meditator, but is a fan of Wilmdind — I asked her).

As I wrote of her earlier “Quiet” children’s book, Underwood “creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.” That’s true of the new book as well, especially given the snowy Christmas settings of many of the vignettes that illustrate the many kinds of quiet that normally slip by us unnoticed. There’s an old Buddhist saying that what we repeatedly turn our attention to becomes the inclination of the mind, and by focusing children’s attention on quiet, they will learn to appreciate silence and stillness. This is a kind of contemplative children’s picture book.

Thus we have Searching for Presents Quiet, Getting Caught Quiet, Hoping for a Snow Day Quiet, and Bundled Up Quiet — in all, 29 forms of quiet. As you’ll have picked up from the few examples given, there are storylines connecting some of the vignettes, and the illustrations reinforce those storylines, helping us to see how one kind of quiet can flow into another.

The illustrations themselves are charming, with a dramatis personae of various fluffy and not so fluffy animals, from bunnies to iguanas (but even the iguana seems cuddly, somehow). The drawings are varied, evocative, and emotionally expressive. The crouching bunny in “Shattered Ornament Quiet” is a study in shame and anxiety, while the skating owl in “Skating Quiet” exudes quiet confidence. The varying emotional tone of the images will surely help children to slow down and empathetically enter the world of the characters.

This is an adorable book. If you have children up to the age of six, and you’d like to encourage them to pause more, be more introspective, to empathize more, and to be quiet, I’d highly recommend The Christmas Quiet Book.

PS. The Sugar Plum Ballerinas rock!

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Four days of silence

Beverly Willett, Salon: Still grieving my divorce, I went to a Buddhist retreat and discovered the challenge — and joy — of not speaking.

“A retreat is a good idea,” my meditation teacher, trained in the U.K. by a Tibetan monk, said when I consulted him about my persistent urge to get away. “And I recommend a silent one.”

My husband had left me for another woman. I was juggling two kids, in and out of divorce court, and felt my lid about to blow.

As luck would have it, I’d just turned 50, too. Even I knew I needed time for introspection, but why the …

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Academic claims silence key to good behaviour in schools

Sam Whyte, Deadline News: The sound of silence is key to better behaviour and exam results in Scottish schools, an academic claimed today.

Dr Helen Lees, an education researcher at Stirling University, said silence techniques including quiet spaces, silent reading and even meditation could work wonders.

Dr Lees said she had been “knocked back” by the sheer amount of noise in schools.

But rather than advocating old-fashioned teacher-enforced silence as an extension of discipline, Dr Lees says modern youngsters should aim for a “silent state of mind”.

She said: “I was a trainee teacher at the school I was at ten years previously …

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Silence is golden: how keeping quiet in the classroom can boost results

Encouraging pupils to keep noise to a minimum has substantial benefits and should become a valuable component of all children’s education, it is claimed.

Dr Helen Lees, from Stirling University’s school of education, said that “enforced silence” was seen as a punishment and often acted to suppress children’s natural ability.

But she said that teaching children about the benefits of “strong silence” – deliberate stillness that gives them the opportunity to focus and reflect in a stress-free environment – can have a significant effect on pupils’ concentration and behaviour.

The conclusions are made in a new book – Silence in Schools – to …

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Five ways to do nothing and bring stillness to your life

Two young girls seen from behind, resting together in a hammock.

We live in a world filled with input from television, radios, the Internet, social networks, email, news broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, white papers, books, Kindles, movies and more.

Our society is fast paced and we are proud of our ability to multitask. We begin our days by listening to the news as we get dressed in the morning. On the way to work or school, we listen to the radio in the car and use ear phones to listen to music or talk on our cell phones.

Our days are filled with talking, doing, accomplishing, gathering, spending, earning, and accumulating facts, relationships and material things. We are fast becoming human doings rather than human beings. All this doing is exhausting and it depletes us of our energy and leaves no time for wonder.

It is possible, however, to find stillness, no matter how busy our schedules are. By taking time for reflection, by being silent, we can find the stillness of inner peace.

Take a moment to recall what it is like waking up on a winter morning after a night of snow falling on the earth. Without even looking outside, there is a palpable stillness – it is so delicious, so full of wonder.

If you have ever been in a kayak or canoe when the water is smooth, the air is fresh and the sun is warm,  or skiing along a snow covered path in the woods, you know about stillness.

We can bring that same stillness to our lives by taking time to meditate and reflect, to quiet the mind and listen to the language of the heart.

Pablo Neruda says: “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death.  Perhaps the world can teach us as when everything seems dead but later proves to be alive.”

Here are five ways to “do nothing” as we “prove to be alive”:

1. Before getting out of bed in the morning, take a moment to listen to what surrounds you. Perhaps it is very early and the only sound you hear is the ticking of the clock.

2. While eating breakfast, do not talk, but enjoy the taste and texture of your food.

3. While on your way to work, do not put on the radio or listen to a CD.

4. Take a day to do only one thing at a time, silently, a “no multitasking day”.

5. Before you enter your house after a long day, pause in silence to leave the work day behind and bring an open heart to your family.

Try bringing stillness to your life and experience its benefits.

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Try something quietly profound

There is nothing noisier than silence, if your head is full of words. Escape the clamour of the city and at once an excited voice enthuses about the quiet. “How wonderful,” you tell yourself getting out of the car, “to have made it up to the Highlands, to have fled the traffic and the TV and the strident voices round the dinner table. Fantastic!” You strike off along a path through pine trees – isn’t the hush extraordinary! – and before you know it yesterday’s argument with your wife is playing out in your head. How could she have said that! “You’re lucky you still have someone to insult.” That would have been the smart answer. Why didn’t I think of it? Wait a minute, is my phone getting a signal? Damn.

When my father died I discovered, sorting out his papers, that he donated to the Noise Abatement Society. Dad was always hyper-sensitive to sound. Me too. I’m the kind of guy who keeps fresh earplugs in every coat pocket, to cut out the phone babble on the train, the buzz of announcements at the airport, or the beating music from an adjacent room. So when I hear about the Facebook campaign to make John Cage’s 4’33” Christmas No 1, I’m immediately on board. When I see titles such as Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, or George Foy’s Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, I order them at once. The hunger for silence is growing, I tell myself. Great! Just that the quieter it is outside, the more noise there seems to be inside my head.

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Living the Dharma

As many of you know, I was away on a month-long meditation retreat during July. I have to say it was the most valuable thing I’ve done in years. It will take me a long time to digest and write about it, but here’s my first stab.

The retreat was at the Jikoji Zen Center ( in Los Gatos California. It’s about an hour south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the middle of acres and acres of nature conservation land ( My favorite spot, pictured, was along a west-facing ridge that overlooked vast tracts of mostly uninhabited mountains. The sunsets were gorgeous. Deer, wild turkey, and all kinds of wildlife roamed in plain sight. To say I fell in love with the place doesn’t go far enough. I know my feelings were influenced by my retreat experience, but I have to say the place inspired me down into my bones.

The memory that stays with me most is of the utterly exquisite silence. I blogged about silence a few months back, but this was of an entirely different magnitude. For an entire month, I was out of contact with the world. No phone, email, radio, etc. No contact with my husband (and he hated that!). All my roles and identities — wife, friend, coach, meditation teacher, etc. — all drop away. I was there as just plain old naked me. We were even asked not to keep track of the days, or the day of the week. We lived in three-day cycles called Buddha Day, Dharma Day, and Sangha Day. So we even dropped our connection with calendar time. In every way we could, we untethered ourselves from the manmade constructs of society and mind.

And of course there was no talking. I also went with the intention to be as fully present as I could for the entire month. I voluntarily refrained from reading or bringing any “projects” to fill up my mind. I didn’t do anything other than the retreat program, daily chores, self-care, and walks in the hills. For four weeks, I was completely with myself — immersed in the moment and flowing with each experience as it arose.

What happens when we do that is all our inner busyness dies down. And when we don’t fill our heads with “rubbish thinking” (as one teacher put it), something magical emerges. Here’s a little piece I wrote somewhere around the second week:

I feel as though my body is opening up and receiving the world. And filling with quiet awareness and spaciousness. Space not in the sense of a void, but an aliveness and sensitivity that fills every one of those spaces. With a real lightness of touch. It’s almost like my body is transparent. My body/awareness seems to extend outward infinitely in all directions. I’m particularly sensitive to sounds. Birds singing, forest sounds all pass right through me, leaving only their echoes and ripples as a sign of their passing. It’s like I’m not there, but I AM still there as awareness. There’s no boundary between me and everything beyond me. And I’m steeped in a groundedness – a feeling that all is right with the world.

The retreat brought home to me – again, I felt it deep in my bones — how alive and real the truth of the dharma is. I lived it for a month. When I let go of all the ways I throw my “self” up against the world, I see that I really am inseparable from that world. And to recognize this brings tremendous relief. The only thing that stands in the way is me. My own resistance, my compulsion to close down and isolate. The more I open up to these forces, the more they take me where I need to go. It’s not always where I WANT to go. But it’s where I NEED to go. I can put my trust in that. It was a real deepening and awakening experience.

Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t exactly floating in bliss for the entire four weeks. Like everyone else, I hit a few brick walls, too. Like excruciating physical pain and periods of complete and utter BOREDOM! But those, too, were gifts of the dharma. Lessons in letting go. But I’m going to leave that for another time and another post.

For now, let me leave it at this. We can read about the dharma, debate the ideas, and use it for personal development. But there’s SO much more to it than that. On this retreat, I felt it as a force of the universe — and a life-giving one at that. To ignore or resist it does nothing but create my own suffering. But if I open up to it, it leads me to places that my blinkered little ego hadn’t even imagined.

This quote came into my email a couple days ago, and I thought it was apt so I’ll close with it.

Many people are doing shamata meditation. This is a kind of resting meditation, also called “calm abiding.” This is good, but in Buddhist training you must go deeper than this. It is important to go deeper into emptiness—not nothingness, but into understanding emptiness as the nature of mind. This is where wisdom and compassion come from. And when you apply the method of this kind of meditation with nonjudgment, then lovingkindness and devotion and faith arise and work together to liberate one from suffering.

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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“The Quiet Book,” by Deborah Underwood

The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)

In a world where children are constantly exposed to stimulation, there is not enough silence. But a new children’s title, The Quiet Book creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.

I have two young children, who are going on two and four. We don’t have a television in the house, and toys that make electronic noises are banned. From time to time we get gifts of toys that beep or (the horror!) play electronic music, but they’re passed swiftly on to our local thrift store or, where the toy has some value, the batteries are removed. In at least one case we’ve explained to a giver, as politely as possible, that certain kinds of noisy toys don’t fit with the atmosphere of our house.

Title: The Quiet Book
Author: Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 9780547215679
Available from:

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite. Our children love playing with sand and water and paint, exploring the properties of the natural world around them. They enjoy playing dress-up and playing with dolls and toy cars. They can happily spend hours having books read to them, or listening to stories that their parents make up. They’re naturally imaginative. My daughter can entertain us for ages with stories that she makes up for us. Our children don’t need flashes and beeps and electronic versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in order to become absorbed. On the other hand, children who learn that “fun” involves frantically blinking LEDs and manically chirping music will, I suspect, find it harder to settle down, think creatively, and use their imaginations. I’ve seen children sit in the midst of a seas of such toys, complaining that they’re bored.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite.

It’s not that our house is exactly quiet. We have a toy piano. We listen to music (at the moment my three-year-old daughter insists on Vivaldi). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. And sometimes we’ll let the kids watch some Sesame Street on YouTube or watch a Thomas episode on DVD. And kids like to make noise just for the fun of it. They like to yell and bang things. And there are questions, questions, questions. So there’s plenty of noise But there’s a lot of quiet, too.

The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska, is — surprise, surprise — about quiet. It’s a book that teaches kids about the different varieties of quiet.

“Different varieties of quiet”? I know, gentle reader, I know. Isn’t all quiet the same? Kind of, you know, an absence of sound? Not quite.


  • First one awake quiet,
  • Pretending you’re invisible quiet,
  • Right before you yell “surprise” quiet,
  • Making a wish quiet, and
  • Car ride at night quiet.

All in all there are 29 varieties of quiet in The Quiet Book, my favorite being “Best friends don’t need to talk quiet.”

Renata Liwska’s charming illustrations feature a cast of cute baby animals, but mostly a moose, a bear, a rabbit, a mouse, and a porcupine. They’re funny, and sweet, and they — quietly — dramatize the various kinds of quiet, giving us little vignettes that children and adults can empathize with. There’s the shame on the face of a moose calf being marched out of school by his no-nonsense mother (illustrating “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”) and the agonized wishfulness of a baby mouse pretending to be invisible while waiting to get a shot.

My children love this book. And so do I.

There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes.

The Quiet Book teaches children empathy by presenting them with (mostly) real-life situations that they’re bound to experience at some time. It teaches children to appreciate silence, and the activities that take place in silence. It teaches children the value of focusing on one thing, and the value of paying attention. It teaches them the value of daydreaming, and of letting the mind creatively wander. It teaches them that valuable experiences come not from the Pavlovian rewards of complex flashing and beeping toys, but from the simple absorption of the mind in a simple activity.

In a world where our we simultaneously listen to music, surf the net, text, and do work, both the ability to concentrate undistractedly on one task and the ability to let the mind wander into creative pathways are under threat. The Quiet Book is a useful corrective to those trends. Of course it’s not enough in itself. There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes. Our modern interconnected media are wonderful, but in order that we use those media rather than simply become hopelessly distracted by them, we need to learn discipline, and to teach discipline to our children. We need to learn to unplug — even if it’s just closing Facebook and switching off our phones while we read an article (online or on paper).

We need to learn to appreciate the quiet that allows for deep engagement. If we try to do that, and teach the value of silence to our children, The Quiet Book can help. At the very least, sitting down with your children and reading them this book will helps create a space of stillness in which their imagination and attention can flourish.

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Reconnecting with silence

Morning coffee

Being fresh off a retreat this past weekend, Sunada shares what it’s like to be in silence, and why it’s a good thing. Even if we don’t go on retreats, she thinks there are many reasons why it’s important to bring more silence into our lives.

A lot of the time we chatter just to fill the air. Not that talking is a bad thing. But sometimes we talk just because we’re uncomfortable with silence. We think of silence as the absence of something. It feels, well… empty. Not normal. But silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

Silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

This past weekend, I was on a retreat where we spent several hours each day in silence. So the experience is still fresh in my mind.

Early on in a retreat, there’s always a bit of awkwardness since you’re thrown together with people you don’t know. We wonder what to say, how to start a conversation, how to make a good impression. All that inner fretting.

When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being.

But when we’re in silence, all that becomes moot. In silence, a lot of that pomp and posturing drops away. We don’t have to grope for something to say. We can simply be with each other, smile and make friendly eye contact. Perhaps offer a helping hand. Nothing more is needed.

And how often do we really do that with another person, on retreat or otherwise? I mean consciously offer our presence without pretense or an agenda? When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being. In that unobstructed space, we don’t need words. Actually, words can pull us away from that basic ground of real communication.

Eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience… We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

On this retreat, we ate breakfasts together in silence. And how often do we engage all our senses when we eat? Do we stop and take in the wonderful smell of a fresh pot of coffee? Hear the mechanical ka-chunk when the toast pops up? See the colors and textures of our breakfast cereal? Feel the creaminess and the chilly temperature of the milk in our mouth? Taste the bursting tang of the raisins when we bite down on them? How often do we slow down and really savor our food?

And eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience. What do you think happens if I want the butter at the far end of the table? When we’re all sitting with kind awareness of each other’s presence, it’s not a problem. If I’m holding a piece of toast, and looking toward the butter, somebody always notices and does the right thing. If necessary, there might be a series of taps on a neighbor’s arm and gestures and points. But the butter comes to me. Every time. No words are needed. We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

This is all about mindfulness, really. Of ourselves, each other, and our surroundings. It’s also a deep respectfulness – gratitude even – of everything we encounter. Of our food, each other’s presence, everything.

When we stop talking, we get much closer to our experience and begin to glimpse what’s REALLY happening around us. I don’t think we realize how much talking can take us away from life itself. When we spend all our time thinking and talking, we start believing that’s all there is. But what happens is we end up thinking and talking ABOUT our lives, not actually living it. Skimming the surface.

I know most of us have busy lives, full of noisy hustle and bustle. Thinking and talking are obviously necessary for getting around, getting along, and even surviving in this world. But that’s all the more reason why I think it’s so important to reconnect with silence once in a while. Silence helps me drop down into the ground of something much more real. And it creates spaciousness and clarity in my mind so I can go back to that hustly-bustly world feeling fully present and alive, with all of me intact. I can’t imagine life without it.

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