For centuries, human beings have experimented with silence
as a way to explore their inner world and to see the exterior
world more clearly. Especially in these times of noise and
hyperstimulation, of the information explosion and an action-oriented
lifestyle, we feel deeply the need for regenerating silence.
Silence gives our organism a chance to harmonize itself
spontaneously, without the interfering, harassing influence
of the ordinary mind with all its problems, and it gives
us a different perspective, another vantage point from which
to examine our lives, our relationships with others and
with the Divine.
The practice of silence is challenging. When we first sit
down to try it, we may find that our ordinary mental activities
refuse to stop. The flow of thought continues, and the act
of turning the attention inward simply makes the thoughts
more active and insistent. We try to hush them or make them
disappear, but they grow more intractable. Finally we become
upset and get up to do something else. On another occasion,
we may sit down, close our eyes, and gradually sink into
a separate reality, lost to the world. Neither of these
two approaches leads to the state of inner silence that
will help us unfold.
In reality, we cannot force our way into a state of inner
silence, a state that we do not know. Instead, we have to
learn how to deal with concrete situations that prevent
us from getting closer to the silence that we want to reach.
It is hard to relate to something that is unknown, but we
can learn how to gradually move toward it.
Perhaps it will be easier to see how we can approach silence
by reducing the level of noise, both external and inner,
rather than by identifying ourselves with silence itself.
When we create quiet surroundings in which to practice silence,
we do not eliminate noise, but it becomes possible to substitute
the noise we are used to perceiving for another kind of
sound. Up in the mountains, for example, we no longer hear
the noise of cars, airplanes or machines, but we discover
the noises of nature. Our whole being quiets down, and we
amplify our capacity for hearing these new sounds. This
is similar to what happens when we quiet down, anywhere,
not just in isolated places; we acquire an inner passivity,
decreasing the constant flow of habitual thoughts, images
and sounds. This gives us the space in which to perceive
something new, to see ourselves from a different standpoint,
learn about ourselves and our reactions and grow spiritually.
Let's look at a fairly common type of situation. In the
middle of work, the telephone rings. We turn from what we
are doing to answer. It's someone needing help. Even as
the person begins to speak, our minds are in conflict. We
don't feel ready to leave the line of thought we were working
on, yet we know we have to let go of it to listen carefully.
The voice on the other end tries to find words to describe
the reason for the call: He is saying, "I'm just feeling so . It's like I . I really don't know, but ..." Sometimes,
even as he starts, our minds may begin to wander. "I'm wasting
my time. Am I up to this? What about dinner? I'd better
finish the sentence I was writing."
Personal judgments may start competing for attention. "He's
really crazy. He ought to have solved this problem by now.
He's not paying attention to what I told him." Sometimes
we catch ourselves being distracted and can rejoin the person
on the other end of the line. Now it is better. Something
is beginning to happen. Then we try to say something, but
he does not hear us and keeps right on talking. Our mind
goes off again to unrelated topics.
This mental chatter goes on and off. Sometimes we really
get lost and realize that we have missed a key point. At
other times we can take quick note of our reactions and
stay with the conversation. Then the call ends. The voice
at the other end says, "Thank you." We reply, "You're welcome."
But how welcome was he? How much mental room did we give
him? Did he feel heard?
Much of our capacity to help ourselves and other people
depends upon our state of inner silence. How do we begin
reducing the inner noise? A very effective exercise for
this purpose is meditation. We focus our attention on a
chosen subject. Our mental activity becomes unified around
a single image or thought, and after a while, we can let
this central idea fade out while we remain still. Thoughts
in the form of sensations, memories, expectations and speculations
may arise and demand our attention. As each thought passes,
we either pay attention to it or not. If we are standing
by a river and a leaf floats by, we can choose between following
the leaf with our eyes and keeping our attention fixed in
front of us. The leaf floats out of our line of vision.
Another leaf appears and floats by. As we stand on the bank
of the river and the leaves float by, we don't become confused
and think we are the leaves. Similarly, we can let our mental
images go by. We are not our thoughts any more than we are
the leaves. We do not need to identify with each thought
just because it occurs. We can remain aware behind all these
thoughts, in a state that offers an entirely new level of
openness and insight.
In this silence, we listen for something that our mind has
never conceived of. It's as if we are listening for a whisper
that would be inaudible in the midst of the loud noises
generated by the daily striving and wants of our personality.
When we function from this place, we are often surprised
to find solutions to problems without having "figured them
out." Out of the reservoir of our minds, that which could
be useful rises to the surface and presents itself for the
appropriate action. We often call this "intuition." Unlike
our thinking mind, which arrives at solutions through a
linear process of analysis, the intuitive mind seems to
leap to solutions. Listening to the intuitive mind is like
listening to the voice within. We trust that when we are
fully quiet, aware and attentive, the boundaries created
by the mind simply blur and dissolve, and we begin to merge
into the essence of the situation. Our stance is just one
of listening, of fine-tuning, of trusting that all will
become apparent at the proper time. Here we stand, free
of the prejudices of the mind that come from identifying
ourselves with attitudes and opinions. We can listen without
being busy planning, theorizing, analyzing and judging.
We can open ourselves entirely to the moment in order to
hear it all.
The very act of listening from our inner place of silence
opens us up to unexplored aspects of life. When we listen
attentively to another person, the distance between us diminishes.
Our field of vision broadens to include the point of view
of the other. This shift in perspective lets us empathize
with the other person, whether or not we agree completely
with him. On the larger scale, when faced with the sadness
inherent in life, we can choose to penetrate beyond instinctive
complaints and rejections to the inner state of silence
and acceptance. In these ways we come to experience tiny
portions of the world in new ways.
Through cultivating the habit of silence, our usually dispersed
attention gradually and spontaneously concentrates itself.
We simplify our minds and our hearts, relieving them of
the enormous burden of images and emotions, and we prepare
ourselves to perceive from another perspective and to experience
expansive - and perhaps new and unfamiliar - feelings.