Reflections on Silence
There was no place, there was no time
Only He dwelt within Himself;
He alone, and One complete,
just Him, no other, only ….ONE.
So says the author of One Being One. And he continues: “Before the beginning there was stillness, silence, no time, no space, nothing.”
We live in an increasingly noisy world. It is hard to escape the noise of the world, what not to say of the voice in our heads. You have to go very far to find a quiet place, somewhere in the mountains or in the desert. Some place where you can’t hear another human or a car – just natural sounds. And even then, somewhere high up, a plane may be passing. Not even the Dera is quiet. Those who have been there know that it is continuously busy and there is always background noise.
We have no control over the world around us. We cannot stop these noises, except maybe by getting into a sensory deprivation tank. So the only logical thing to do is to start within ourselves: see if we can reduce the chattering of our monkey minds, and so find a place of stillness, calmness and peace – a place full of nothing.
Joan Walsh Augland published a little book of poems in 1964 called A Cup of Sun. She wrote:
Thoughts, rest your wings.
Here is a hollow of silence,
a nest of stillness,
in which to hatch your dreams.
Augland also wrote: “Day! Now thoughts begin – on dawn’s grey back old fears ride in.”
Isn’t that true? We wake up and thoughts begin: about things that happened yesterday, last week, years ago; thoughts about this day, fears, plans; thoughts about tomorrow, next week; our family, friends, things, places. Just buzz, buzz, buzz. Madness. How do we stop this and find our way back to the silence?
Well, the first thing to think about is stopping to think – or, more accurately, to be aware of our thinking and make a conscious decision to reduce the noise. It is good to stop thinking for a while if we can, for if we think all the time, it is much like talking all the time. If we talk all the time, we won’t hear the interesting things someone else may have to say and, likewise, if we think all the time, we may not have anything to think about except our own thoughts.
The philosopher Alan Watts writes:
Now, you will find if you try, that it is a very difficult thing indeed to stop thinking. Stopping thinking doesn’t mean to stop using your eyes and your hands and all your senses. It means when you see a dog, you don’t say ‘dog’ to yourself – you just see what there is.
Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking
A quiet state of mind does not happen without effort. It takes work and awareness – years and years, lifetimes, before we get it right. Simran and bhajan are of course the tools that the Masters give us to quieten the mind. They are very aware that the mind naturally wants to think and name things, wants to flit from this idea to that, from this face or image to that one. And repeating our simran is the way to still the chattering mind once and for all.
Thomas à Kempis writes in Of The Imitation of Christ that we can begin to cultivate silence by starting to talk less. He asks:
Why are we so fond of speaking and conversing with one another, though we rarely return to our silence without some injury to our consciences? The reason why we enjoy talking is because we seek solace in chatting with one another, and desire to lighten our distracted hearts. Furthermore, we enjoy talking and thinking about things we most want and desire, or those we especially dislike.
Human nature does not change. This was written more than 500 years ago. He goes on to say: “Set aside an opportune time for deep personal reflection and think often about God’s many benefits to you.” For us this is our time of meditation when we let go of the world and concentrate only on our simran and on our Master. But also it could be any other quiet time.
Further on he says: “If you abstain from unnecessary conversation and useless visiting, as well as from listening to idle news and gossip, you will find sufficient and suitable times for your meditations.”
None of us can say that we do not have sufficient and suitable time for meditation. Even in the busiest of lives, we can make time for our meditation – and then take that atmosphere of quietness and introspection into the rest of our day. It is all a question of attitude and whether we want it badly enough. The Masters have never said that we must lock ourselves up in monasteries and take a vow of silence, or go and live alone in a hut in some remote place. They tell us to go on with our lives, and within those lives make time for meditation and silence. And we can start by withdrawing from unnecessary talking and arguments.
The Japanese Zen Master Nan-in lived in the Meiji era. A professor came to visit him to talk about Zen. Nan-in, ever the good host, started pouring tea while the professor kept on talking. He filled the professor’s cup and then kept on pouring. The professor looked at this spectacle and, when he could not hold himself in any more, said: “The cup is full. There is no space for more tea.” “Yes,” said Nan-in, “Just as this cup is full, so are you full of your own opinions and speculation. How can I show you Zen if you don’t first empty your head?”
To still the mind is the job of a lifetime. The mind likes to run around all the time looking for things to nibble on. The early kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah describes our struggle to control the mind: “Close your mouth that you speak not, and your heart that you do not ponder; and if your heart be too busy, bring it back to its place, for therefore it is said: run and return.”
The Masters tell us that simran and bhajan are the only ways to still the mind – they are our only way into silence. And it may not be a bad idea to build some quiet time into every day, and not only when we get up to meditate – a little quiet time now and then, sitting somewhere alone, without thinking, without ‘looking’. And then, very likely, we will find the simran going on in the background without our even having to make an effort to remember the words. And in this silence we may begin to see a glimpse of who we really are. We may begin to become aware of everything around us, in the sense of an awareness of oneness, of godness, if you will.
There is a relevant story in the Vimilakirti Sutra from the early days of Buddhism. Vimilakirti was a family man, an ethical businessman and a God-realized soul. One day all the bodhisattvas, priests and nuns and other God-realized souls decided to gather to discuss mystical wisdom. They came together in Vimilakirti’s bedroom.
Each one got a chance to expound on godly and mystical wisdom and each gave a brilliant verbal description of the absolute, the indescribable and the unknowable. Each spoke better than the previous speaker and delved deeper and deeper into mystical wisdom. The penultimate speaker was Mansjuri, the Maha bodhisattva of wisdom. His speech was brilliant and inspiring, the absolute pronouncement on unity – the highest and purest mystical wisdom. When he had finished, all bowed before him. At last, all turned to Vimilakirti and asked him for the final word on mystical and godly wisdom. And then, says the Sutra, “His silence resounded like mighty thunder.”
It is in this thundering silence that we may begin to hear something else: the “still small voice” mentioned in the Bible. As we are now we cannot hear God. Our minds are too busy and too noisy – full of things and thoughts of self and others. There may be no place even for the Master if the cup is overflowing. Only when we start emptying the cup through meditation, can we make a place for him in our lives.
So, our bhajan is our nest of stillness, our hollow of silence. And into this the Shabd comes when it so wills. In fact, this silence is the Creator talking. His silent language is expressed as the unstruck music, the ringing radiance, the thundering silence. And in that silence we start to become one with him.
And so we come full circle. We started with him and in the end we have to come back to him.
The longer we are on this path, the more we realize that thinking will get us nowhere. We cannot think ourselves silent, we cannot think ourselves into unity! The only way is through concentration, or simran and awareness, or bhajan. So we sit in meditation and concentrate on the words to bring us to one-pointed concentration. And then we sit in awareness and wait for him to manifest in the silence. We listen without listening. We are aware. We become one.