Sunday, April 3, 2011
The Sanctity of Silence
How have you been, NIP?
I apologize for having spent the last month in silence, so to speak. Something struck a profound chord in me at the end of February during one of the YTT weekends. It was a quote by Swami Kripalu, one of the well-known teachers who introduced yoga to the West. It reads, “Before you speak, consider whether your words will be an improvement upon silence.” Anyone who knows me personally could see why that would stop me in my tracks. I have the propensity from time to time to be an incessant windbag, believe me. So the last six weeks or so have been an exploration of this idea; I wanted to be more mindful of when I talk, what I say, and how I say it. It’s not easy as it requires something I have yet to cultivate—being mindful of my own thoughts all the time. But I’m working on it. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…
To many of us, silence has the potential to be terrifying. We don’t like it and our response (whether cultured or instinctual, I cannot say) to it is to banish it with noise of our own making. Whether we talk or turn on a television or any other noise producing stimulus doesn’t matter—we’re trying to mask the silence. This is a particularly interesting phenomenon to observe in my students. Every day there is a brief “bell work” assignment on the board, a review question for them to complete in their notebooks. Perhaps 10% of them sit quietly and do this; the others do too, but while chatting with their neighbors. About a week or so after the weekend I heard the quote, I wrote it up on my whiteboard for the “Quote-of-the-Week” and then proceeded to watch their reactions; not much changed. That Friday, however, I pointed the quote out to them and our “Cultural Friday Activity”—a moment when we step outside the purview of geography and broaden our understanding with a poem, song, article, whatever—was to sit in sustained silence for five minutes. Most of them felt awkward at first, but as they settled into their breathing and got comfortable in their seats a hush settled over us like a blanket of snow. I get goosebumps recalling it now, as I think that was one of the best shared moments I’ve had with all of my students this year. Before we observed the silence, I asked them to relax, stop thinking (as much as they could), and really focus on the silence. I wanted them to just stop all the craziness in their minds and take stock of what was in the here and now of that moment. What’s always right here in every moment should we choose to see and hear it—potential.
When I told them the time was up, many of them were hesitant to talk. By the time five minutes had passed, they had transitioned from feeling awkward to a sense of ease. I think what is so unnerving about silence initially is that it isn’t silence at all. Most of the time there are plenty of other auditory stimuli filling the void. But the act of listening intently, almost as if trying to penetrate the real silence that is beneath those noises brings us a grounding experience. Focusing solely on the silence allows us to get out of our heads by quieting our minds. And considering our minds are precisely the source of our pains—and joys—it is best to give them a break once a while by engrossing them in stillness. The stillness that follows the silence (or is perhaps part of it) allows us in many ways to simply be. To appreciate life for what it is. To revel in the breeze that brings the scent of blooming milkweed and the sounds of songbirds. That entire day with my students, in fact, I kept my vigil trained on the tree outside, twisting in the wind. The sunshine tickled the twigs and danced on the verdant, budding leaves while I kept listening for the wind. I couldn’t detect the slightest whisper in the silence, but in that space and time I felt as if everything in life was pure. It was then that I intuitively knew that only our thoughts have the power to sully this purity.
This is perhaps why my students didn’t want to talk. They felt it too. To destroy the silence we had created would be to make the world profane again. Each of them perhaps had found the solace they sought. There is something sagacious about silence. It teaches us every time we tune into it. It begins with our submission to our surroundings, listening intently to discover the “satya” or personal truth that lay beneath the rubble of our everyday mental chatter. The very act of listening in some way seems to consecrate the world, to imbue it with a precarious inviolability as paradoxical as that may sound. What is made manifest in so doing is miraculous. It’s an ineffable, ephemeral connection with being. Though it may be tenuous, there’s something sustaining and substantial about it. When my students and I finally broke the bond with silence we felt changed. A little more at ease with ourselves, with each other. There was a calm that stayed with us for a few minutes after and when chatter resumed it was lower in volume and lighter in tone. For lack of a better explanation, the silence seemed to be healing. It was a salve to the day’s stresses and wounds, most of which had been mentally afflicted by others or ourselves. Getting in touch with the ground of being, the essence of life and its very pulse and breath, we were able to let go a lot of our anxiety and inhibition. By doing so we allowed ourselves to grow just a little bit, to learn from the wisdom within the sacredness of silence.
If you get the chance, NIP, make some time for exploring the silence in your life. Even if it is only for five minutes each day, try to really listen to what’s going on in your world. Our culture offers an endless sea of anesthetizing distractions that tug our focus in every which way but within. The answers you seek and the healing we all need begins by communing each day with silence. Today my meditation consisted of sitting just outside the backdoor of my porch in the shade, closing my eyes, and listening to the world around me. It was comforting to be still, take a moment, and enjoy the fact that I am alive. That I am breathing. That I have a wonderful wife. An excellent family. Meaningful relationships with friends. A great group of students. And a whole other lot of blessings that came and went in my mind as I tried my best to discern the satya of the sacred silence beneath the sounds of the outside world. Silence, like darkness, is sometimes feared unnecessarily. It is only the complement to sound, the other half of the dynamic—and unfortunately the one we tune into way too much. Take some time to get to know silence, NIP; I’m sure you’ll come to find it quite comforting.
Shhhh. The cicadas are calling…
Keep listening, NIP.