Training Wheels for Mindfulness: The Quiet Place

The first practice for your work ahead with mindfulness is to practice sitting quietly. This is the step before meditation—before mindfulness. This is a practice of learning to simply sit and not do anything in particular, and to do in such a way that you feel comfortable and soothed.

The quiet place is not a new concept. Almost every organized religion has some concept of this stillness. Prayer and meditation are common examples. These have existed for thousands of years because stillness was useful to the practice of the religion. But how is stillness useful to us? Why be still? From my perspective stillness, regardless of how you choose to use it, is like letting the water settle in a tidal pool. Suddenly all of the life that lives below the surface, which feeds the health of the whole sea, can be seen clearly. When the water is churned up, the life below the surface can’t be seen it. It doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it just means that you can’t see it.  When the water is still, you can see it, and appreciate it, and get a better sense of what lives beneath. And, we all know that the water will get choppy again. No seas on earth remains at the same level all of the time. Tides rise and fall, winds pick up. It is all part of it.  But learning to create stillness is an important balance to the choppiness we have all learned to create. All of our “addictions” and busyness keep us away from the rich life below the surface.

In this spirit, perhaps you need to find a comfy chair and wrap yourself in a blanket. Or maybe you will choose to sit on the porch, or on the patio. There is no right place. If you need music to keep yourself soothed and comfortable, that is OK too. (Wordless music would probably be best so that you may be more aware of your own words, but remember that the“music police” will not show up at your door—do what works for you). The advice I give the adolescents in my meditation groups is to “Get into any position that is comfortable to you.”  For now you are just going to practice the experience of quiet and stillness. Later on you can experiment with more formalized sitting/meditation practices. But right now the goal is not the posture. The goal is the state: letting yourself just be in the water, still or choppy, high or low tide.

OK. You have you comfortable position. Now what? There is the old joke about the young monk staring at an old monk who says, “Nothing happens next, this is it.” And on some level that is true. And on some level it is not. There are many texts about mindfulness and many people who have studied longer than I have. And I highly recommend their work. But I have found in my work with adolescents and adults who have had either trauma in their childhood or grief work of any kind, that learning to sit still is a difficult task and should be broken up into smaller steps. I like to think of it like training wheels for meditation.

If sitting in stillness is difficult for you because your thoughts race or you find your anxiety level rising, it may be important for you to start with a more structured road into the stillness world. I would recommend using guided meditation tapes, attending yoga classes, or using guided imagery techniques that helps you feel held and safe. We can go back to the swimming metaphor. If you are just learning to swim, you don’t just dive into the deep end. You are allowed (even encouraged) to dangle your legs in the water. Use a kickboard. Or even water wings. You may want an instructor or lifeguard nearby. I may be dragging out the metaphor too much, but I can’t emphasize enough that this is a very personal process, and you need to do what helps you feel safe. If you terrify yourself, or are too uncomfortable, it is unlikely that you will choose to go back into the water.

“What do I do?” You ask. Just sit. Just notice what it is like to sit. What happens for you? Does your mind wander? What does it wander to? No judgments. Just explorations.  Just like the tidal pool. What is below the surface? What do you see? Starfish? Seaweed? Nothing? What if I get distracted? Just notice it and go back and look into the tidal pool. What if I get bored? Be bored and look at the tidal pool. How long should I stay in this quiet place? And here I go back to the swimming metaphor. Stay in the water long enough to stretch your new skills, but not so long that you get overwhelmed or your lips turn blue.

Learning to be quiet with yourself takes time. I know it sounds simple. It is not. You need to build your stillness muscles slowly and carefully. Choose times which are most conducive to learning. Not your most miserable moments. Learn to swim in a safe, calm atmosphere. Not as your ship is sinking into the Arctic Ocean.

Let’s give you a realistic range of stillness muscle building. I have worked with some teens who can only tolerate 30 seconds of complete quiet (without some guiding instruction) when they begin to learn how to be still with themselves. But even kids with horrendous trauma (kidnapped and locked in the trunk of a car, e.g.) are able to eventually work up to 10 minutes of quiet over the course of months. Quiet muscles that never have been used are like atrophied legs that have never been walked on. You will need to rehab them slowly and carefully. But what a sense of reward when you can use them!

“Nothing is happening.” This is a common statement. Quiet time is not about making something happen. It is not about becoming someone else. Or becoming better, or more enlightened, or anything in particular. It is about knowing what is there. It is very basic, and sometimes may even seem boring. That is OK. Have you ever heard a little kid talk about their day at school? They go on and on, often repeating themselves and as hard as you listen you really can’t discern a plot or even really understand what happened. This is like sitting with yourself in the quiet place. The point isn’t the content of the story. The point is to be present to listen to the story. To hold the experience for the child. What I am asking you to do is hold your own experience. No matter what it is. There is no right way. There is no performance.  Over time this will shift. A child who is able to tell her stories gradually gains confidence in her own voice and it gets clearer and makes more sense over time. This will happen for you as well.

The quiet place is about sitting within a safe, trusted space. It is about building a relationship with yourself. Over the years I have noticed in my work as a therapist, especially with my child clients who live in precarious situations (foster care, etc.), that relationships, like the quiet place, are very basic, but not easy. Trustworthy relationships are really about consistent, benign, attendance over time.  Even the most severe mistrust gives way to this powerful force. Like water or wind wearing away rock. Attendance over time is almost invisible, but it is transformative. This is where the word “practice” comes in. You must find time daily to go to your quiet place. Maybe it is one minute a day. Maybe it is forty minutes a day. There are monks that do this for three years straight –but even they had to start somewhere.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016