Friday, January 25, 2008


Silence and stillness can teach you a lot

We usually never know the ripple effects of our choices but this time it made the news. It happened at a Starbucks drive-through in Florida in early December.

The chain of events began with an angry outburst of yelling and honking by an impatient customer. The man in the car in front, who happened to be a Tai Chi master, responded rather than reacted. Instead of the usual knee jerk reaction of “you push, I’ll push back,” he paid for the coffee of the man behind him. The miracle of the story is that the man who had been so impatient and enraged paid for the person’s coffee behind him; and so it went for the next 17 customers.

The Tai Chi master said “it wasn’t an idea to pay anything forward, nor was it even a random act of kindness, it was a change of consciousness,” he said. “Take this negative and change it into something positive.” Practicing Tai Chi had taught him how to step back and respond to the moment thoughtfully.

Learning to step back and pause so that we are responding to our lives takes practice, and silence and stillness are our best teachers. We have however become so addicted to noise and busyness that stepping back and being in silence for even a few moments may be unsettling.

At a retreat some years ago, after being given the instruction to go off and be alone I was paralyzed. I didn’t know how, had never taken the time, and felt afraid. I would now describe my morning meditation experience as a cross between peace and the seven dwarfs; sometimes sleepy, happy, dopey, or grumpy, and sometimes restless or bored.

The learning is to be with whatever comes up, without judgment or manipulation. Over and over surrendering to the moment as it is and learning to be present in the midst of it. Little by little there is a subtle and deep shift with glimpses of connection to what is true beneath and beyond the surface of appearances. “There is no substitute for the creative inspiration, knowledge and stability that come from knowing how to contact your core of inner silence,” said teacher and author Deepak Chopra.

We can begin by making a quiet space in our day, a space in our home, a space in our mind to step back and begin to observe rather than identify with our thoughts, feelings and moods. Committing just five minutes each day will begin a life-changing momentum.

Practices like Tai Chi, Yoga, meditation and prayer may be helpful in teaching us to quiet ourselves, step back and be more fully present. The Sufi poet Rumi said: “Only let the moving waters calm down, and the sun and moon will be reflected on the surface of your being.”

Become the change you want to see.

Amy Dunion, a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist, is Coordinator of The William W. Backus Hospital’s Center for Healthcare Integration. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dunion and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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