Opening Ourselves Through Silence

by Mary Cook

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.