In Suzanne Simard’s book, Finding the Mother Tree, she writes, “There is no moment too small in this world”. This is her creed - she is writing about appreciating and embracing all aspects of nature. Children have a natural way of wondering about and connecting in the natural world. The cultural historian, scholar of world religions, and self-described geologian Thomas Berry, stated that depriving children of time in nature denies them their “inner intuitive identities”. For Berry, what is learned in nature is a kind of knowledge that is the bedrock for making meaning of our lives and appreciating beauty.
Recently, at one of our yearly siblings (and partners and children) camping trips, I took my young nieces and nephews on a forest bathing experience and invited them to ask a tree if we could approach it, touch it, and be with it. I asked them to pay attention to how the tree responds to their inquiry. After a few quiet moments passed (this was a miracle), they each said that the tree is ok with them approaching and touching it. What intuition! Without hesitating, my five-year old niece gave the tree the biggest hug (I had never seen her hug a human in the same way), while my eight-year old nephew proceeded to climb its branches. The others explored around the tree’s base collecting curiously placed bones.
A sense for Mystery begins in nature. By noticing the changes that occur outside in a day, in a season, by watching birds, interacting with insects, and engaging with trees, we build our capacity for relationships with the human and more than human world. When we build relationships in nature, we co-create spaces for belonging. With our understanding that we all belong to each other, we become compelled to look out for each other, we learn to right any wrongs that we commit, and we work to make things better. Thomas Berry remarked, “As [children] grow to understand their belonging within this larger context, their natural longing to create a better world will increase and they can learn new ways of functioning and creating within a sustainable life context.”
What are ways we can invite children to have direct experiences in nature? It begins with modeling – spending time immersed in the natural environment, prioritizing – making the decision to designate time in nature as more important than other activities, and embedding nature in daily life – building reciprocity and solidarity with nature within and outside the home.
After the experience my nieces and nephews and I had in the forest, I asked my five-year-old-tree-hugging niece a question because I had noticed how familiar she seemed with the trees: Do you prefer hugging trees rather than people? Oh yes, she said, I prefer hugging trees for sure.
~ Jeanette Banashak
“Where the lips are silent the heart has a thousand tongues.”
slowing down -
the setting sun
over mountain creek
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been living and working in different environments than we would ever have anticipated. Parents and caregivers are home with young children who are in virtual school all day; business people have been working from home for months; restaurant workers are meeting the demands of constantly shifting indoor and outdoor service; service workers have pivoted to online appointments; nearly everyone has had to modify their schedule or lifestyle in some way.
Chances are also good that the noise levels at home and work in the past year have been anything but the same as pre-Covid days. For some, the home environment is noisier because family, friends, and housemates are around a lot more. While for others, it is quieter due to working from home without colleagues present.
Several years ago I had a similar change in daily habit when I spent a month at a Cistercian monastery in Norway. I joined their rituals and practices as much as I could and while initially exhausting, the daily liturgy and contemplation, work, and silence provided a welcome rhythm to my otherwise inconsistent and noisy existence. One of the most striking and surprising revelations came to me as I experienced working together to make soap in silence: Silence is my friend (and this was especially essential for me as an extrovert). Yes, the nuns occasionally spoke to clarify something, but for the most part, everything was done in consistently quiet ways – including resolving conflicts. I spent years processing those days of stillness with my spiritual director and ultimately decided it was important to incorporate silence into my daily spiritual practices.
Researchers teach us that there are psychological and physiological benefits to silence, including improved sleep, improved concentration and calm, stimulated brain development, boosted immune system, the increased ability to be more discerning in decision making, repaired cognitive resources, and a more relaxed body and brain. In addition to psychological benefits, silence promotes attention and intercontemplation, a term coined by Beverly Lanzetta to describe “the dialogue of religious experience as it reaches into deep states of contemplation and silent prayer”. Intercontemplation is a way of being that encourages the interdependence of spiritualities, religions, practices, healing, wholeness, and fecundity of nature.
Last June, Josh Sims, a journalist for the BBC, wrote an article entitled Will the world be quieter after the pandemic? In his piece, Sims considers if noise pollution will be the next major public health issue. He notices that access to quiet has been primarily granted to those with privilege, including people who have had access to quieter neighborhoods and resources for technologies that enhance peace. Sims quotes postdoctoral researcher and founder of Noise and the City, Erica Walker, who maintains that quiet should be a human right. Noise and the City, Community Noise Lab, Herb Singleton at Cross-Spectrum Acoustics, and noise researcher, Arline Bronzaft, collaborated on a research project that looked at noise levels in and around public schools. They concluded, “Noise pollution impairs learning in children and affects schools in city neighborhoods” and they offered their top recommendation: “[Be] noise aware!”
Since my time at the monastery, I have taken small steps to incorporate silence and intercontemplation, and be noise aware, with everything I do. At the foundational level, this looks like taking an extra breath before making a decision and allowing my body to regulate and calm. Additional ways include taking multiple day silent retreats each year, camping and backpacking in nature, taking a break from electronics, walking through the city, writing haiku, and being deliberate about the moments of silence throughout the day. If I can, I’ll do almost anything, or nothing, to recognize beauty and sustain presence.
I wonder, will there be a new standard for quiet after the pandemic?
bends rocks and minnows-
Text and photos by Jeanette Banashak
Co-Founder, Co-Director, Spiritual Guidance Training Institute
Spending those first 72 hours in silence seemed like a daunting and ridiculous idea. But my dear, introverted friend suggested that sustained silence might be more difficult for extroverts than introverts. This novel perspective compelled me to register for my first silent retreat, from a Thursday to Sunday at the end of one chilly March. In a small town in northern Michigan, I met the woman who became my interspiritual guide for many years beyond that first retreat. Silence would be the seed that influenced my life-long attention to the contemplative life.
During the first evening, thirty retreatants sat in a circle to set intentions and learn the ground rules. “What do you want the silence to do for you?” That was one of our first questions. I naively imagined that I’d take time to consider my entire life up to this point. My contemplation would consist of asking questions of myself, seeking answers, interpreting experiences. All in 72 ordinary hours.
After my first nap, it was time for dinner. The retreatants and I entered the dining room, took a food tray and all the necessary utensils, and walked through a buffet line. Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer music was playing on the speakers, and no one was talking, asking questions, or processing. Three or four of us sat around a round table and ate our meal in silence. I heard forks scraping on teeth, knives clinking on the plates, shoes rustling underneath the tables, and my own inner chatter. Everyone seemed quite focused on their meal, but my eyes were wandering around the room to see what people were doing. How they were doing. Why they were doing. I chewed my food slowly and began to notice and savor how the flavors of the chicken and vegetables and rice all tasted together. While grazing, my eyes continued to gaze around the room for a shared glance, a sign that I was not alone. When I finished, I went back to the buffet line for a piece of chocolate cake. After I ate that, I went back up to get a cup of tea. Anything to pass the time. Twenty protracted minutes went by, and I made my way to my room. I was feeling satisfied. Yet exceptionally lonesome.
As it turns out, I made it through those first of many several day periods of continual silence. During my extended weekend, I spent a lot of time in my cell of a room. I tested my span of focused concentration while seated on the floor with its thin, brown carpet, I lay on the twin bed with my long legs dangling off the end, and I rested on the sumptuously cushioned recliner from the 1ate 1970s. Stories from growing up surfaced that were previously forgotten. I made peace with some of them through tears. Some memories I saved to contemplate later, or perhaps I waited until the next extended period of silence. It took some time, but I began to experience solitude for the first time. The memories that emerged became an instrument for further introspection, and for the first time I began to see that my fears may have been getting in the way of me listening to life’s signs that were pointing the way.
Jeanette Banashak, PhD, EdD.
About this blog
Deepening the understanding, practice and importance of spiritual guidance-companionship across traditions.
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