Letter 44: External and internal silence

In the last two Weekly Teachings we have explored ways of stilling the breath, the body and thus the mind to reach the inner silence. To help this process along it is good to aim for external silence. But this may not be easily achieved, as silence - in the world we live in nowadays - can be an elusive quality for most of us: we are on the whole constantly surrounded by external noise. One result of that is that we have become so used to it, that absence of noise feels strange and unfamiliar, therefore even threatening.

We need to find the courage to create pockets of external silence in our day, in addition to our periods of meditation, where we don’t talk to others, in person or on the phone, where we don’t listen to the radio, TV or music, especially in the hour or half hour leading up to meditation. This kind of preparation before prayer/meditation is important. We can’t expect to sit down and meditate, stilling the mind, if just before we have been involved in a conversation – heated or otherwise -, watching our IPad or TV or listening to the radio.

If you are living in a busy city another preparatory exercise can be helpful. First become aware of the noises outside the house, really listen to them, name them and then accept their presence with equanimity. Stay with the moment, as it is; no point wishing it to be different. Then focus on those inside the house, acknowledge them, accept them as inevitable and then take your attention of them. Complete absence of noise is virtually impossible, wherever we are. I remember being amused at the account of an English woman living in a cave in the Himalayas being driven to distractions by the noise of the goats around her cave.

This acceptance of what is whether it is a noisy world or our own chaotic mind is crucial. We are so used to criticising and judging ourselves as well as others that we get irritated when we sit down to meditate and the thoughts just crowd in. The moment we sit still, our thoughts start whirring. But the more we get irritated with ourselves, the more we try to suppress our thoughts, the more persistent they become. Instead of unifying our mind we are dividing ourselves; one part of our mind fights another. Accept your monkey mind; stay in the present moment and listen to your mantra. Learning to accept the way our mind is at this moment, teaches us tolerance and patience.

An image comes to mind: I remember years ago there was an advertisement for meditation. On a poster there stood an Indian Guru, in typical attire and appearance, on his surfboard, balanced perfectly, riding the waves. Underneath was the phrase: ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.

We cannot suppress or get rid of our thoughts; they will be there just like the waves. We need to accept them as an inevitable part of ourselves and just ride them skilfully. In Christian meditation the mantra is our surfboard. At times the thoughts and the waves calm down, the sea is smooth and calm – we lie on our surfboard – and our mind is still and at peace. At other times there are so many thoughts whirring around that we can’t even pick up the mantra. The sea seems too rough to surf.

As you gently watch your thoughts, accept them and then let them go, you will find that they get quieter. If you know there are lots of things on your mind, it might be helpful as a preparation for meditation to sit quietly noting these surface thoughts for a while, acknowledge them and then let them go. Sometimes naming them, when they interrupt your meditation, helps you stay detached from them, not to get hooked by them: work, shopping, friends etc. Slowly, they get quieter, less demanding and you become aware of the gaps between the thoughts, which allow the mantra to sound uninterruptedly.

The tradition stresses the inevitability of distractions and thoughts: “A brother came to Abba Pastor and said: ‘Many distracting thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger because of them. Then the elder thrust him out in the open air and said: ’Open up the garments about your chest and catch the wind in them. But he replied: ‘This I cannot do.’ So the elder said to him:’ If you cannot catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head.” (Sayings from the Desert Fathers)

Thoughts appear against a matrix of silence. When using a mantra we focus on the word sounding in the silence and note the interruption caused by thoughts. Eventually the gaps between the thoughts get wider. And that’s when the mantra comes to the fore. We say it, interrupted by thoughts at first, but slowly the mantra reigns supreme in the gaps, the doors to silence. The stages on the journey of meditation are in fact our changing relationship with our thoughts.

The point about thoughts and other distractions is that they happen at the surface level of our mind. But the effect of meditation is at a far deeper level than that. So our surface mind can be busy and yet our deeper self is calm. Often when getting up from a ‘distracted’ meditation we can still feel much more calm and peaceful, as long as we did not get irritated or critical with ourselves.

Kim Nataraja

Adapted from ‘Dancing with Your Shadow’