“Silence is the universal refuge,
the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts,
a balm to our every chagrin,
as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.”
––– Henry David Thoreau
“Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”
“Silence tells me secretly everything.”
––– from “Let the Sunshine In”
by James Rado & Gerome Ragni
I’ve meditated on and off for years now. Every kind under the sun, from mantra meditations, and pranayama-focused meditations to guided meditations and walking meditations. And I recently looked up one day and realized that what had been a daily practice for me, or at least a weekly, had managed to fall by the wayside, in favor of work and stress and recreation, even depression-related hibernation. Somewhere in the tapestry, one little textured patch seemed to have torn away.
As I’ve tried to get back in the practice, I’ve begun with guided meditations on CDs and tapes, and attended sangas (a community of like seekers) where the meditations were guided by Buddhist monks. After a time, I always find myself hungry, itchy, antsy, something, and realize that what I really want to do is live in silence for a time, not fill my head with more words, more thoughts, more suggestibility. And while I take nothing away from the value of guided meditations (some of my greatest epiphanies and satori moments for me have resulted from them), I’ve come to realize that the reason I haven’t been moving consistently enough in some kind of forward direction, neither spiritually, nor in terms of my life’s legacy and the planting of seeds; why, instead, I have felt that life lately has become simply about surviving, taking the gig that will pay this or that bill, and then counting out my pennies to figure out what I can afford to do for fun until it’s time to go to work again, and pay another bill, and every day that keeps landlords and repo men away from my door is considered a success, until it’s time to go to bed, wake up the next morning, and start the cycle over again – whew! – this is what my brain is like these days! – is because I’ve been busy, in meditation, asking for.
Everything seems to be about wanting something. Even prayer is about asking for something. Please God, let me ace that exam. Please God, let me win the lottery. I’ve loved and held tightly a mantra I composed about two years ago, and have been dedicated to chanting on my morning walks. “Love, reign over me…” (notice The Who reference; and, as well, my penchant for replacing the word god with love…just my thing). “…Make me mindful. Give me grace. Deliver me from need. Fill me with wonder. Help me to evolve for my sake and no other. Take care of those I love. And those I don’t. Compel me to live fully in my present every single day. Yet always, steadfastly, planting the seeds and tending the ground of my purpose in my life. And then teach me to let go, and dare to trust my very best life to keep exploding before me in a rain of light.” And then repeat. I’m also especially self-pleased with the seemingly writerly bookends of reign/rain (a geek’s excitement).
In my newest head, I think about that mantra and I sound awfully “gimme gimme” to myself. There’s nothing wrong with asking for guidance, help, strength, clarity, protection. And of course, it is incredibly beneficent to ask for peace and goodwill for others. But it suddenly hit me that while those words, and the meaning behind them, merely serve the bigger picture of digging deeper within the fibers of my being, and compelling me to move, act, charge forward in a very specific way, and therefore IS helpful, IS healing…there is still something missing. For me. Right now. In this moment. And the something, I have finally realized, is silence. It is about not going into meditation with an agenda on my plate, but going in with a blank canvas.
This is not a revolutionary idea. Vipassana Meditation, for example, at its basest and simplest, is this idea. But for me, it has taken my own very specific journey for the idea to come out of the abstract and into a tangible resonance.
Approaching meditation with a blank canvas is actually quite hard to do, but I am enticed by the challenge. Because I know that what’s on the other side is the open door that welcomes insight and answers and light bulbs galore. In the silence – true silence – not just a cessation of talking – the world opens up. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced it. Only in the briefest of instances. But I have touched it.
The trick is to let whatever your monkey mind has got brewing just come forth. Your grocery list. That doctor’s appointment coming up. Re-envisioning the argument you had with your friend, where, this time, you actually say all the right things. Shedding songs for that upcoming gig. Lusting over the new guy that jogs by your house every morning. Brainstorming on how to get your book published. Bills. Let it all bubble up and spin into a frenzy. Don’t fight it. Don’t try to shoo it away. Because even THAT is agenda. Let it go wherever it will go. Without the fight, and without a what-am-I-trying-to-accomplish-here? lesson plan in place, eventually the monkey matter begins to dissipate, little by little. It loses momentum and power. It takes time. It takes release and a consciousness about release.
It also takes a certain amount of bravery. Because in this modern, fast-paced, multi-tasking society of swiftly accruing noise, industry, machines, and devices which can “distract humanity from the essence of life,” as the painter and poet Jean Arp once said, we’ve learned the brilliant art of tucking, of compartmentalizing the worrisome stuff, so that it doesn’t invade us too often or too harshly, and cocooning and distracting ourselves with the noise. This is incredibly easy for me to do, because I’m a musician for my living, so I am perpetually wrapped in a blanket of pings and strains and twangs and hums and vibrations and cacophonies of toots and screeches and splats. And that existence can equally serve to bless me with a constant, spirit-feeding music AND keep me in a comforting fog. Inviting the silence means daring to clear the fog, and therefore can mean inviting the worrisome stuff to dance in front of you, to insist that you smell it, touch it, hold it, face it.
The good news is that eventually what begins to happen, by allowing whatever dances in front of you to do so, is that what was important simply becomes less and less so. The mind begins to let go of its burdens. The realities don’t go away. Have a bill to pay? It’s still there. But the mind’s insistence on letting it bog you down suddenly loses its strength. And as the quiet begins to creep in, a true moment of clarity can be experienced. A sense of being able to handle whatever comes your way with skillfulness and grace. The detritus shows its true colors, and the truly crucial issues begin to find their answers, or at the very least begin to break themselves down in order to be examined more thoroughly.
Li Po speaks of returning to the grove. To the music of the trees, the wind, the birds, and silence.
One thing that seems to be a recurrent theme with me is the desire to be a calmer version of myself. I am naturally hyper. I talk a lot. I can’t even sit in a chair for long without changing to the other butt cheek periodically. I cross one leg over the other, and then for the duration of my sit I constantly switch legs. And I need to watch movies in a movie theatre, and not at home, or I will invariably stop and start the damned thing thirty times to: go wash the dishes, make that phone call I forgot about, check my email one more time, see who’s talking about what on Facebook, the list goes on and on. And what is a two-hour movie becomes a six-hour project for me. I long to be calmer, slower, more thoughtful, more focused, and I pray for it everyday of my life, in my own way. “….give me grace, make me mindful…” etc.
What I am realizing today is that what I really need, in order to accomplish anything of value, personally, professionally, spiritually, is to stop asking for, and instead simply learn to quiet my mind, to silence the monkey brain, to live in the music of silence, for at least a few golden minutes every day, and dare I even think it…be at peace with being right where I am. I believe it is there and then that I’ll start to understand so much, and will stop being in such a rush to get somewhere else. Evolving is natural. Needing to be any place but here is…itchy at best.
I don’t have to ask for peace of spirit. I only need sit in silence (yes, it can even be done when the world around me is noisy). And then let the silence speak to me.
Silence. So simple.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.