Picture this: blue and white dishes dotted with bits of bright green pesto are strewn across a long pine dining table. Four adults have half-full wine glasses in hand. Two cabernets (my husband and me), two chardonnays (my parents). Two chairs and one highchair sit askew, and their previous occupants—our nine, four and two-year-old daughters—careen around the table, screeching in hot pursuit of each other. My dad leans toward me as I recount a story at ever higher decibels to overcome the sounds of the dining room racetrack.
“Can you even hear them, Lynn?” he says, looking over his shoulder at the mayhem. The irritation simmers in his bright blue eyes and a half smile looks more like a grimace.
“You get used to it. If I let it stop me, I’d never have an adult conversation,” I say.
That was 2007 when parenting was still a very noisy business in our house. Around that dinner table, we didn’t yet know our kids’ brains had formed and functioned differently because of exposure to alcohol in utero—fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Laughter and joy rang out daily but trauma, brain-based differences, and our lack of understanding made our home highly chaotic and sometimes violent.
Neurologists posit that chronic noise and the resulting cortisol flooding can lead to high blood pressure, decreases in immune system resilience, and heart disease. Silence can have the reverse effect, flooding our systems with relaxation and creativity. Think about the relative silence of the shower and the things you remember or problems you solve between shampoo and conditioner. That’s the power of silence.
My longing for peace and quiet began when our oldest was just two-years-old and already exhibiting BIG behavioral symptoms of her brain-based differences. I began escaping home for 24-hour silent retreats with a friend in British Columbia, where we lived at the time. We shared simple meals but otherwise sank into solitude. I hiked evergreen forests, read, walked a labyrinth, slept…a lot, and drank great coffee. Little by little, the practice changed me. I formed a “rule of life” for myself, intentionally balancing work and rest, relationships and solitude, giving and receiving, silence and celebration. It wasn’t easy. It took work. And it kept me going.
Practicing silence has brought me closer to the version of mom and human I want to be. My kids notice when I skimp on my practice and pipe up, “Hey, Mom. Time for a retreat?”
Cynthia Bourgeault says in The Heart of Centering Prayer—a contemplative prayer practice—that the power to rewire our brains is in returning to the still point at our center again and again. Even if just for a moment. Our responses to stimuli dictate the neural pathways our brains follow. If we release and return to openness, our frontal lobes (the site of higher-level executive functions) engage. If we respond with grasping or resistance—constriction—our amygdalas engage. Flight, flight, or freeze happens. Wizard vs lizard brain. When we practice not jumping on the trains of our thoughts, sensations, or emotions as they arise in meditation or as we retreat from daily life, we exercise this muscle that returns us to centeredness. Expansiveness makes its way into our daily lives. Sometimes we pause instead of react.
On another visit from my dad, during round two of placing one of our children in residential treatment to keep her safe, I walked him to his car as we said goodbye.
He looked down at me with those clear blue eyes and said, “Lynn, I don’t know how you do it. How you survive?”
My eyes welled up. “I look for beauty and goodness wherever I can and hold on to it,” I choked out.
Silence creates a spaciousness that opens my eyes to beauty and goodness. Noticing, stopping, savoring gives me strength to keep going. Sometimes it’s just one tiny thing a day. Maybe the sunshine yellow of the Gold Star Esperanza when the first bloom of the season emerges. Maybe the wind playing the chimes on my front porch or temperatures tiptoeing from hot to cool as autumn stumbles in. Maybe my daughter’s dimple that appears with her kind smile and twinkling eyes.
Fast forward to 2012 and a move to the edge of the Texas desert. One daughter lived in residential treatment. I homeschooled the other two, trying to stop their unraveling. I had yet to discover the FASCETS Neurobehavioral Model that would transform us all. Preparing for a talk, I stumbled across an illustration by Leonard Peng in Nautilus’ 2014 article “This is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel A. Gross. The colorful lines bursting through two circles at head and heart reminded me of a kid’s spiral art creation. The image brilliantly shows the attunement of heart and mind offered by silence, giving us that pause and potential to respond differently to stress.
Silence is now the place from which I come rather than a place to which I escape. The gifts and challenges of neurodiversity, the strength and beauty in our family, and evolving through it all in order to love has transformed me.
I tell my story in Tinderbox: One Family’s Story of Adoption, Neurodiversity, and Fierce Love. Find it at bookshop.org to support local bookstores or on Amazon if you’d like a window into our world and the hope we've found. Maybe you'll recognize your own experiences of deep love and deep suffering in its pages and find a way forward into more peace.