Apprenticed to Silence

“Listen closely… the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on. This is because the world is nothing but a dream and is just thought of and the everlasting eternity pays no attention to it.”   — Jack Kerouac

 “In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.” – Rumi

When I was younger, a good friend of mine spent a week walking in northern Finland.  After a few days he noticed that his mind quietened and thoughts and questions just seemed to stop.  There was nothing special he had done, although the physical exertion of walking might have been in some way responsible.  Rather, it was what was not happening.  His mind was no longer receiving so many new stimuli.  Sure, the scenery was constantly changing as he walked but the snowy hills and birch trees were sufficiently similar to not be jolting.

Reading books by contemplatives of any tradition, be they Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, Native American or any other religious persuasion, I am struck by a similarity of thought and experience.  This, I believe, comes from the opening that is afforded by silence.  Without space, a flower cannot grow, and silence gives our mind space to grow into.  How different do you feel amid the more busy parts of life or on your own by a lake?  Of course, there is room for both in our life, but finding the moments of silence can be hard in the modern world of communication technology.

Meditation and contemplation practices in different spiritual traditions give us the space for our mind to become quiet and deeper thoughts to arise (deeper here meaning of a less surface nature rather than philosophically deep).  Dreams are one place in which our thoughts can surface and silence is another.  I have found that the more I embrace silence and refrain from putting more into my head, the more at peace I feel and the more I am aware of what is happening around me.  Silence seems to beget more silence, peace more peace.  However, silence is not always a pleasant companion to spend time with.  Although it can feel like a warm relaxing bath, being alone with little or no noise can also be a scary, unknown emptiness that stretches our forever and is home to our worst hopes and fears.

Meditation teacher Ajahn Chah once described meditation practice as sitting in a chair in the middle of the room and seeing who comes to visit.  Of course, he meant that metaphorically, as the expected (and unexpected) visitors are always our own thoughts and feelings.  One of the reasons that many of us avoid silence is that there are some parts of our experience which are too difficult to face, or at least it feels that way.  In silence, all of our nagging doubts have nothing to keep them away, and can come at visit at will.

So, what to do?  Avoiding silence, we can keep up with the pretence that everything is fine and our psyche is whole and well-adjusted.  Or else we can take the plunge and open up to what is really going on.  The spiritual path is all about the second option but we do not have to undertake it alone.  Meditation and contemplation practices give us the tools to work with what comes up in the silence, and friend and teachers on the path can help to guide us through what arises.

As well as ghosts and shadows, silence is a well-spring for all kinds of creativity and it is no surprise to me that people hear the voice of God when they are left in silence for a long period.  I never wrote poetry before I started to meditate for long periods and I find silence far more conducive to all kinds of creative pursuits than noise.  Others may differ in that, though.  The singer Sheila Chandra once did a collection of music based around drones to show how the melody arises from an apparently monotonous tone.  Silence works in much the same way for me.

Opening to silence works best, in my experience, done slowly and like greeting an old friend.  Switching abruptly from noise to quiet can be a harsh shift, though.  Better to move quietly into its depths and stretch out your heart and ears as into the space around you.  Let silence settle on you, and you into it.

 Silence is not an elusive prey but she can be hard to find because of our own way of living.  Next time you find yourself alone, though, resist the urge to turn on the computer or television and spend some time with her.  Personally, I know of no better teacher.

“Flowers are silent,
Silence is silent,
The Mind is a silent flower,
The silent flower of the World

Ikkyū Sōjun

One response to “Apprenticed to Silence

  1. Lobsang Palmo / Eve Hardman

    Thanks for this, Andy.

    Yesterday I watched “7 Years in Tibet” and was touched by the character Heinrich Harrer telling the young Dalai Lama what drew him to climbing. His description sounds similar to your Finnish walking friend’s.

    Recently Pema Chodron was quoted as follows

    It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human”.

    Which I found inspiring.


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