Most of us feel uncomfortable when our children exercise their freedom to be silent, walk around seemingly doing nothing of importance. This is because most of us feel uncomfortable ourselves being silent and doing nothing. Modern culture, which is obsessed with activity and productivity, calls it ‘laziness’ and conjures up proverbs like ‘An idle mind is a devil’s workshop’. But the most important work is waiting to happen during these times of seeming inaction.
Don’t confuse this with children “sitting quietly, doing nothing” in schools. There they are expected to listen to the teacher fearfully and anxiously, knowing they may be pulled up for anything any time. The fearful minds of such violated beings are extremely noisy, quite the opposite of being silent. By silence, I mean a certain voluntary, fearless and active disengagement with the environment through the senses; a retreat inwards.
Children who are left alone without the pressure of schedules, syllabuses and performance, pursue things that interest them at their own pace. I see Isha do this. She is intrinsically self-driven to explore. She is an extrovert and physically very active. Once every few weeks, she would wake up and say “Amma, let’s just stay at home today. Let’s not go anywhere, not meet anyone, not do anything.” These are not at all days when she is unwell or bored. She asks to stay home with great interest and with a certain clarity of purpose! These are very special days for me too, for I like to observe what she does with her time at home by herself. And I get to slow and quieten down as well.
On these ‘do-nothing’ days, she spends hours just looking at her little beads, or doodling with her crayons, intermittently engaging in some conversations (usually asking some simple but profound questions). On these days, she behaves more like an adult than a child with much less mischief. There is a certain reflective quality to these days. These spaces of silence are built into her life on a daily basis as well. Especially after she has been out all day with very intense kids, or has received a lot of stimuli, she retreats into her own space for a while after we get back home.
Observing Isha, and of course, reflecting on my own experience with silence, here’s what I feel children might be doing when they slip into it.
They process information to make their own sense of the world. Isha asks questions about something that she was told, she saw, etc. that day after a long silence. ‘Appa, why does the lion eat the deer, the lizard eat the fly?’ was a question that occupied her mind for a long time.
We are careful not to impose our meaning of the world on to her. We share with her what we think about something and leave her with “Nee enna nenaikkare?” (What do you think?) Being conditioned ourselves, I wouldn’t say we do it successfully all the time. There are times when we slip and try to indoctrinate her with our conclusions!
Using more information that she gets from us (which includes what we think about something), she processes it in her own way and makes her own sense of the world. This can happen only when there is space for silence in her life ‘at will’. When I say ‘at will’, I mean that these silences cannot be scheduled for “two hours every Wednesday and Friday!”
Many times she comes to us saying “Do you know how this happens? This is how!” giving us her explanation for things that she has processed, and tentatively understood. It may very soon (even as soon as in 2 days) come up for re-examination She’d come and tell us “You know what I used to think about this when I was young? (younger by 2 days!)” and go on with her new understanding of it. Sometimes we challenge her with a more complex question “Oh really! Ok, if so, why then does this happen?” She sometimes gives a tentative answer to have the last word. Sometimes, she’d admit that she does not know and continue her exploration.
They process painful experiences to heal. Children are vulnerable beings who can be easily impacted by the things they see, hurt by the harshness of the world, confused by mixed messages they receive, disappointed by the lack of integrity among the adults they look up to, assaulted by the noise and stimuli around them, bombarded by the information fed to them, bullied by the frustrated older children and adults, etc. When they seek to be silent is when they are naturally drawn to staying with the hurt, processing it and healing from it without the need for much help from the outside. After a long one-hour silence during a recent bus ride, Isha asked me “Why does that aunty with the baby come asking us for money?” about young women beggars at traffic signals. “Why do people always tell me not to cry when I am crying? What else can I do?” Clearly these are very disturbing to her and she was sitting with them on her own terms, trying to understand.
John Holt makes another observation of children who feel free to slip into silence. They replay hurtful incidents in their minds over and over again, until they learn to step out of the experience and become a spectator from the outside. Then it does not hurt so much any more. Once the experiencer of pain from the past becomes a ‘character’ in a story, the character can be made to do whatever we wish for it to. A healthy, fearless and free mind is more likely to be able to reconstruct the past by imagining a different and more sensible, compassionate, fearless and appropriate response to what happened. And this is what we call ‘learning a lesson from our experience’. JH says that children, when left alone, do it very naturally. Quite something for us adults to observe and learn from!
When they have processed both information and pain to a fair degree, then their minds become free to absorb and process newer experiences and information. It is similar to how naturopaths recommend ‘fasting’ for the body to process unprocessed food (akin to learning), eliminate toxins (akin to healing from hurt) after which the body restores its health and becomes ready for fresh input. Repeatedly focusing only on ‘eating food’ (just like we focus merely on ‘information input’) does not mean that the body (or the mind) is assimilating it all. If the body is using up its energy to fight toxins (or build defense against hurt), it may not be able to assimilate the nutrition, however good and wholesome the food intake might be. The input might be excreted without assimilation, cause indigestion and turn into toxins.
A fearless and clear mind (that knows how to regularly cleanse itself of noise generated from unprocessed information and pain) is a very absorbent mind. A child with such a mind is most likely to stay well connected to her sense of life purpose and pursue the knowledge and skills needed to fulfil it. So the next time you see any child sitting quietly, just step back and observe. You may smile at her and make yourself available, but don’t initiate conversation, force the child to do something, excite her or get chatty. Become aware of your own noise in the head. Connect over silence.
Don’t disturb the still pond. Sit by it. Enjoy it. Let the reflection remain clear so you can see.
The post was originally written for Sangeetha Sriram’s own blog – http://sangeethasriram.blogspot.in