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The Art and Benefits of Observing Silence

Pam Burton, Special Agreements Office with the Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities, and Reiki Master

My Dad has always referred to me as a “free spirit”. I get it – my lifestyle and life choices are so very different than those of his generation. I’m a minimalist, a loner, sometimes (oftentimes) overly independent, extremely disciplined, a fighter, and I follow my own path. Always. I’ve never been one to conform to society’s “norm” – that is clear in my beliefs, my lifestyle, even in the way the way that I dress, but also how I face my fears head on. For example, I’ve jumped out of a plane with my son, and I’ve also moved to two different countries. I refuse to be anyone but “me”! I used to refer to myself as the black sheep of the family. Now I self-identify as its kaleidoscopic sheep. Fun fact: my father, who has never understood me, seems to get me more now that he is living with dementia than ever before. I have no idea why that is, but I embrace it whole-heartedly! We have the best conversations ever now about meditation, spirituality, life choices, etc. In its tragedy and hardship, it’s also been a gift. There really IS always a silver lining; we just need to find it.

For those who know “part of me” (for I believe nobody really knows “all” of anyone), I am strong, determined and nothing can take me down. I can assure you that this is very untrue; I just prefer to tackle my demons on my own. I require distance and solitude to “process”. I have been brought down to my knees a few times in my life, and the past two years have been of no exception. In November of 2020, we lost my mother quite suddenly. Four short months later, I lost a cousin, also suddenly, who arguably was the closest person to me in my life, my “soulmate”, if you will. The loss of my mother transformed into 2 years of caregiving for my father, who had never lived alone a day in his life. They were together for 60 years. I was working full time, continued my part-time Reiki business and every spare moment was spent caring for and worrying about my father. In other words, I never gave myself a chance to grieve either of these monumental losses. My motto was “responsibility trumps self-care” - which is SO wrong, but hey, that’s the route I took! Dad is finally settling into his new home of 5 months, a long-term care facility, and I am journeying back to health and, well, self-care. I’ve resumed my healthy lifestyle of clean nutrition, exercise and trying to spend time in nature (despite living in the city), meditation, and most importantly, including observing silence at more regular intervals.

For me, observing silence is what I need to process, reset, and rise up again. I try to do so every three months or so and allow myself anywhere from 2 to 5 days for it. It is a process that was introduced to me in Buddhism and it has changed my life. Please note that you absolutely do not need to be Buddhist in order to observe silence! In reality, it’s a fancy term for “disconnecting and recharging”, but we tend to use a more structured and disciplined format. I usually attend a silent retreat with my sangha yearly at a beautiful location in nature, however since I live alone, it is very easy for me to also go into silence in my own home. Generally, we follow this format: 4 meditations daily (preceded by a dharma teaching when with my sangha) that last 1.5 hours, with contemplation periods between 1 and 2 hours in between. I follow the same format when at home, minus the teaching.

The purpose (or intent) of observing silence is to go within and observe your own mind. It’s not easy, nor is it for everyone. I happen to love it and it has become a need in my life. When we observe silence, we shut off all external distractions and communication. We don’t speak to anyone (or even look up at them if we cross paths with them in the hallway). There are no TVs, no books, no music, no telephone, just silence. Once all distractions are removed, you are forced to observe your own thoughts, because that is all that is left. And it’s not always pretty! You will discover your intentions behind your actions and all kinds of memories and experiences will come to the surface to be acknowledged, examined and processed. Your mind becomes so clear that decisions you may have been struggling with aren’t even a dilemma anymore, the answer is obvious. All the “mud” or “cobwebs” of daily thinking, internal chatter goes away. It’s really a mind-blowing experience, and one that settles me, “resets” me. I like to think of it (for those of you who are of my generation) as a de-fragmentation, like we used to do with computers. Everything is thrown up in the air, all those random thoughts, problems, issues, anything that has been taking up space in your mind, and only the relevant ones fall back into place. Once I have gone through the process of emptying my mind, observing my thoughts, reconciled some past behaviors that have hurt others (or even myself), I make commitments for change and improvement. More often than not, once out of silence, I write a letter to someone I have hurt in the past by my behavior, acknowledging my actions and how they made them feel or affected their lives. Then I let it go. In Buddhism, we say that “guilt is a useless emotion”. I mean, it’s a perfectly human emotion and we all feel it, but I try not to hang onto it. Self-forgiveness and changed behavior are the answer, for me.

About me:

I am a Special Agreements Office for the Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities, and have been a Reiki master and practitioner for 15 years. I grew up in a small Northern Ontario community, but have lived in Belize and Guatemala, returning to Canada (Ottawa) in 2014. I consider my two wonderful adult children to be my greatest success. I would like to be remembered as someone who made a positive difference in every life I touched, even in some small way.


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