Silence Is Not the Absence of Noise, but the Presence of the Divine
Dag Hammarskjöld said, “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.” Yet, for some, silence and stillness are elusive. Caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life, they find it difficult to drown out the clamor swirling about them. Even if they can retreat to a quiet spot, there is still the endless chatter in their minds to deal with. This incessant self-talk is like ripples on the surface of a pool, obscuring the stillness and serenity that lies deep within.
Stress can be a friend, for when it arrives, it gently tells us, “You need a break. You need to find solace in solitude. Dive deeply into the silence within. For it is in silence that we rejuvenate.” Once we develop the habit of regularly visiting our inner oasis of silence, we will discover that there isn’t any noise after all, just the sounds of life.
Some find their inner stillness through the path of meditation. Yet, it isn’t necessary to sit quietly with eyes closed to experience the tranquility of silence. It is just as accessible when enjoying nature or taking a walk. In his book, “Echoes of Silence,” Robert Rabbin paints a wonderful illustration:
”We walk along a beach in that beautiful time of twilight and dusk. As we walk, our thoughts and concerns leave us one by one. We walk further and we become still without even noticing it, until we step out of time. We are no longer walking on the beach. We are no longer looking at the sky or sinking sun. We are no longer watching the birds or running away from the surf. In our walking, something has happened: we have walked out of ourselves into everything. We have become everything. We don’t know if the birds are circling and diving out there, or in here. We are the birds. We are the waves, the sand, the cool air, the fading light, the setting sun. We are the animating presence within everything. We are all of this, without so much as a single thought or word to confirm it. There is no center, no boundary, no self-consciousness. There is no effort, no concern, no problem, no intention, no ambition-and yet everything is happening: walking, breathing, flying. Something is aware. Someone is aware. What? Who? No one can say. There is too much Silence for thoughts and words.”
Lao-Tzu (c. sixth century BC) sums up the paragraph of Robert Rabbin in a single line, “Just remain in the center, watching. And then forget that you are there.” In other words, we first become absorbed BY what we see, then become absorbed IN what we see. For example, we may see a dewdrop resting on a flower petal. At first we see its sparkling beauty, and are later overcome by the power of its silence. Finally, it and its surroundings absorb us until nothing remains but silence.
So, meditation, helpful as it is, isn’t necessary to discover the sanctuary of silence. A simple walk will do. In fact, even that is unnecessary, for as Franz Kafka explains, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” To discover silence is like an orphan discovering their parents, for silence – nothingness – is the womb from which all that is has come. Therefore, when you search for nothing(ness), you find everything.
Lao-Tzu uncovered a great paradox when he taught, “Silence is the great revelation.” We may turn to books for revelation, but the authors of the books found the interlude of silence to be a source of inspiration and an opportunity to fashion their thoughts. So, by entering our own inner silence, we can bypass authors and go direct to the source. Here’s how Aldous Huxley describes what awaits us when we do so, “Silence is as full of potential wisdom and wit as the unshorn marble of great sculpture.”
There are some that busy themselves in all manner of rituals and religious practices to prepare themselves for another life. But as they chase after a future paradise, they kick up clouds of dust that hide the grandeur of this life. Instead of placing our hopes in a future life, why not make the most of what we already have? Stepping into the pool of silence helps us to experience joy now.
Perhaps you have seen a ray of sunshine pierce a black sky and give birth to a rainbow. When faced with staggering beauty, what do you say? Usually nothing. We are rendered speechless. To gasp in amazement at the incomprehensibility of the universe is to taste the waters of silence. Awe, wonder, and joy are silent. They beckon you, but their call is silent. To be aware of their presence we have to be still and listen.
The dust-covered traveler finally made it up to the guru. He asked the master, “How can I find God?”
But the guru said nothing.
“Why don’t you answer?” said the traveler.
“It is not because I could not answer that I was quiet,” replied the guru, “but because silence was the answer to your question. You see, silence is not the absence of noise, but the presence of the Divine.”
In her book “Illuminated Life,” Joan Chittister writes in a similar vein, “Silence is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance of life as we go, so that the God who is waiting there for us to notice can fill us.” This statement of Ms. Chittister reminds me of something Joseph Campbell once wrote, “The cave you fear to enter contains the treasure you seek.”
If you wish to experience life, rather than be swept away by it, be sure to set aside some time each day, no matter how brief, to wade in the pool of silence. For there you will be able to recharge your batteries, tap into your inner wisdom, experience the gifts of wonder and awe, and join hands with all that is.
Whatever happens in our inner and outer world acts as a stimulus that erupts into feelings and thoughts, which in turn lead to action and the consequences of that action. Emotions move us to take action; they motivate us. Our positive or negative emotions then lead to positive or negative behavior. Negative behavior leads to negative outcomes and positive behavior to positive outcomes. The outcomes, or results and consequences of our behavior, then reinforce our beliefs, causing us to become locked into a negative or positive world view.
If we are unhappy with our current situation, we can interrupt the cycle of negativity by changing our focus from what we are to what we plan to become, from what we lack to what we already have or plan to have. In other words, all we need to do is change our thoughts. To help us do this, our Higher Self warns us every time we do something wrong by causing us to feel bad. Negative emotions, such as frustration, anger, and sadness are warnings that if we wish to experience happiness, we have to change our thoughts and feelings and their resultant behavior and consequences.
Sometimes, however, even if we accept all the above and work on changing ourselves, progress is slower than we would like. It is like driving through mud. Because of the absence of traction, we make little progress. What do we do then? Here’s where meditation can help. You see, meditation removes the mud. It unclogs the road so we can make smooth progress. The road I am speaking about is the channel of communication between our conscious mind and Higher Self. Meditation makes us more aware of our Inner Voice or Inner Guidance. It makes us more likely to listen for and follow the warnings that our Higher Self so graciously whispers. Without meditation, our Inner Voice is often lost in the din of internal chatter known as self-talk.
But why do I have to meditate? Isn’t it unnatural to withdraw from the world? Look, if you live in New York City and return to your apartment, you are not leaving or withdrawing from New York. Your apartment is part of New York. Besides, while at home you may read the paper to increase your understanding of the city and enjoy it even more. Similarly, when we meditate, we are merely returning to our home, our inner world, which is very much a part of the outer world. And our rest there strengthens us and improves our lives.
But what is meditation and how do we pratice it? A complete explanation would need a book. After all, meditators have numerous objectives and there are hundreds of methods to help them reach their goals. My aim here is merely to introduce you to the subject and share ONE way of removing the ‘mud’ by clearing the mind.
Meditation that is used to clear the mind is not about thinking. To clear the mind, we have to do the opposite. We have to empty our mind of all thoughts. We are not our thoughts any more than we are our arms or legs. As human beings, we have limbs, and as thinkers, we have thoughts. But we are not our thoughts. As we brush our thoughts aside, all that remains is our Higher Self (also called our True Self). By abandoning all thought, we discover the core of our being. Paraphrasing Alan W. Watts, this process is like a courteous audience that stops talking when a concert is about to begin.
But how is it possible to empty our minds or ‘think about nothing’? Admittedly, it’s not easy. But neither is it as difficult as you may imagine. Pretend you are in the countryside. You are seated beneath a tree and beautiful blue flowers bloom at your feet. You pluck a flower and raise it to your nose. How many thoughts does it take to enjoy its fragrance? How many thoughts does it take to soak in the velvety feeling of the flower petals? How many thoughts does it take to see the explosion of yellow that appears in the heart of the flower? How many thoughts does it take to taste a drop of the flower’s nectar? How many thoughts does it take to hear a robin singing in the background?
The answer is none. When we drop our thoughts, we are free to experience reality unclouded by preconceptions, labels, and assumptions. At such a time, we get to see the world as it is instead of as we THINK it is. By applying the principles in our example of the countryside visit, we can arrive at a method to meditate without thinking.
Sit yourself comfortably and sit straight. Take a few deep breaths and relax all over. Close your eyes and pretend to be in the countryside. Imagine that you are looking at a flower, or twig, or blade of grass, or even an unidentifiable blob. There is nothing to think about. Just look. As you do so, the flower, twig, blade of grass, or blob may change color, shape, or size. If it does, that’s okay. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. Don’t comment on it. Don’t judge it. Don’t expect anything. Merely sit still and observe.
As you practice this exercise, stray thoughts will wander through your mind like leaves blown about by the wind. That’s okay, but as soon as you are aware of them, gently sweep them aside and return to the exercise. Alternatively, if you can’t sweep your thoughts aside, treat each one as a flower, twig, blade of grass, or blob. That is, observe them being blown about by a breeze. Don’t comment on them. Don’t label them as good or bad, positive or negative, or true or false. Just watch them slowly recede into the distance, only to be replaced by other leaf-thoughts.
You can start out practicing this exercise for ten minutes a day and work yourself up to 20~30 minutes a day. As you do so, you will remove roadblocks and enable your Subconscious or Higher Self to communicate more freely with your conscious mind. And intuition, inspiration, and guidance will come your way automatically.
- Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness by Robert Sardello
- The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life by David Steindl-Rast
- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzberg
- Meditation: The First and Last Freedom by Osho
- Meditation For Dummies by Stephan Bodian
- The Three Minute Meditator: Reduce Stress. Control Fear. Diminish Anger. In Almost No Time at All. Anywhere. Anytime by David Harp and Nina Smiley
- How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan
- The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science by Culadasa (John Yates) PhD, Matthew Immergut PhD, and Jeremy Graves
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön