It’s a noisy day in the neighborhood. Through the doors and windows, opened earlier to let in a rain-sweet breeze, the racket from landscape workers and their machines rattles my thoughts. Lawnmowers roar, weedeaters whine, leafblowers buzz, men shout and laugh, jackhammers clatter, engines clang…
I pace my apartment, sliding glass windows and doors shut, turning the outside volume down about 1/4. It’s not enough to let me think, and I begin to feel frantic. Maybe I should drive to the library? Should I complain to the management? Am I the only one in the building who feels assaulted by the sounds of lawn care?
The verse comes to mind “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10.) For about the thousandth time in my life, I wonder how to do that, how to be still. My parents taught me music, how to read, cook, do math in my head…they tried to teach me to be honest, to pay my debts, to respect the human dignity of each person…but I don’t remember them ever instructing me in how to be still. As far as that goes, did I teach my son how to be still? Like my parents before me, I taught my progeny to read – print and music – taught him basic piano, music theory, how to play a plethora of board and guessing games, how to cook; we read the Bible, prayed and sang and hiked and camped and dragged blankets out to the backyard at 2 a.m. to see meteor showers and identify constellations. But did we ever even talk about how to be still and know God? I asked him about this and, though he remembers doing yoga along with “Lilias” on educational TV, and “oming” along with the hippies at the Farm in Tennessee when he was eight, he assures me I didn’t talk to him about how those might help still the mind, and that until he learned to meditate from his own explorations of Buddhism and Tai Chi in his early 30’s, he lay awake till the wee hours with his mind racing.
As did I until my early 30’s.
The summer my son was nine he went to spend time with relatives in Wyoming, and I took time off from being mother and instructor to stay in a hut on the side of a mountain in a monastery where all kept a vow of silence. I discovered there that the constant barrage of aural stimuli from outside me was nothing compared to the noise between my own ears, where 17 radios of my mind, each tuned to a different station, muttered and nattered and waxed incoherent without let-up.
I learned a little bit that summer about quieting the internal racket. But I grieve that I imparted none of what I had learned to my son. Why did I not consider quieting the soul as important a skill as reading and making music? I had not yet heard John Michael Talbot’s soothing album of musical settings for many of the Psalms, “Come to the Quiet.” But I began reflecting on the Psalms. Psalm 4:4: “Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.” The word translated “still” there, Strong’s 1826, is translated in other places as rest (in Psa 37:7, “rest in the LORD”, cease, quieted (Psa 131:2 “Surely I have behaved and quieted myself/ my soul”), tarry, wait (Psalm 62:5, “My soul, wait thou only upon God”), forbear, and peace.
“Behold, I have stilled myself…” So this is not something that just happens, it’s something I can — must! — deliberately do, something that can be learned. I studied the Apostle Timothy’s counsel that women should “learn in silence 2271 with all subjection” and discovered that the Greek word translated “silence” there is not necessarily the same as “making no sound.” Another word — sigao 4601 — is used to mean “silence” in the sense of “holding peace” or making no sound. But 2271, hesuchia, is used to describe stillness, i.e. desisting from bustle and commotion. So it’s not that we should refrain from speaking in the congregation — it’s that we should refrain from being all stirred up, agitated, in the midst of worship, prayer, and the Word…
I discussed this recently with a homeschooling mom of 8 and 10-year-olds, and was excited to hear that she actually instructs them, explicitly, in quieting themselves. While reading Psalm 131 one morning, the youngest asked her “What does that mean?” After talking about being quiet within, as well as being noiseless, she put a 5-minute timer on, and invited her girls to be silent and “wait upon” God, with the expectation that when their own voices were stilled, their spirits would begin to be less “ruffled up” and they would hear God speaking to them. After the timer went off, her younger daughter reported that God had told her “Everything will be okay. You are God’s child and He will take care of you.”
Scientific studies have shown that just 5 to 10 minutes a day of meditation increases people’s happiness. Regardless of the specific faith in whose context the discipline of quieting the soul is practiced, a study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggests that meditating for just a few minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, happiness and empathy. This is an amazing idea: that we can do something that actually changes the structure of our brains and increases our capacity for compassion and happiness. “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the delightfulness of Adonai, and to meditate in His temple.”
The paths we take in search of happiness often lead to frustration and suffering instead. We try to create outer conditions that we believe will make us happy. But it is the mind itself that translates outer conditions into happiness or suffering. This is why we can be deeply unhappy even though we “have it all”—wealth, power, health, a good family, etc.—and, conversely, we can remain strong and serene in the face of hardship.
Do you believe that happiness is a skill to be cultivated? Are you able to deliberately let go of agitation, to still your soul? Do you have a regular time of specifically teaching your children how to quiet their minds?
With a degree in Modern Languages and Bilingual Education, Jennifer has taught Spanish, Russian, Latin, and Bible, coordinated weekly chapel, and tutored Hebrew at The Garden School. She homeschooled her son before sending him to Sarasota Christian School, and is an avid advocate of home cooking, home remedies, home birth, and home death as well.