Due to several recent changes in my life, I’ve been able to spend more time throughout each day in silence. Although this was unintentional at first, I’ve increasingly experimented with moving deeper into this silence and having more time each day where my attention is not occupied with distractions. Since distraction is such a persistent feature of modern life, we may not encounter the many challenges that arise in silence but that are essential for our personal growth and self-knowledge.
It may be difficult at first to set aside the time that silence asks for. The initial forays into the silent wilderness can be extremely painful as we learn ways of dealing with the things we find there. In order to more fully understand this process, I’d like to examine what happens as we begin to immerse ourselves more fully in silent contemplation and start to be more present within ourselves.
When we first begin to give time each day to being quiet and listening, boredom, anxiety, and panic are very common. Without a constant stream of noise, the mind may substitute its own fantasies and attempt to create stimulation for itself. I’ve found this to be very similar to a process of withdrawal from addiction, as our bodies metabolize the silence away from a steady input of distraction and entertainment. An important caveat here is that this process will unfold completely on its own, and in order for it to come to fruition, we need to give the process our undivided attention. Without any conscious prompting, the mind begins to naturally quiet and enter more readily into silence. An enormous breadth and depth of experience begins to emerge that was not apparent before. That breadth hints at a silence that seems to come out of existence itself.
I noticed throughout this silence that my daily regimens of thinking and behaving were often trying to cover up a reserve of painful feelings. While some of these only become apparent over time, some I realized had been there persistently and I had created ways of avoiding. Part of these feelings come out of our past and the regular traumas we all endure. Others seem to be more existential: a great sadness at our moment to moment disintegration, and a desire to solidify ourselves into something seemingly more real and lasting.
All of those attempts at self-creation are things which are part of that silence which does not convey its essence or what it truly means. And that silence that we are can often be so frightening we don’t look at it clearly. At every point we are confronted with this vast unknowable thing we are, as well as the dark and bestial side of human existence. We need time to come to terms with these facts, and our consciousness begins to change the more we delve into these things, and eventually listen to and accept them.
With time, the process has given me an increased ability to be more fully engaged with my own stream of consciousness. I have noticed this quality in those who have trained in this kind of contemplative practice, a deep settling that occurs the more time they spend being simply themselves. Advanced practitioners seem to be able to manifest the teachings of their religions more readily through action and speech. There does appear to be a direct correlation between the amount of time a practitioner has given over to contemplation and quiet and their ability to do this. This is why silence is so often emphasized in contemplative traditions.
I have begun watching Into Great Silence again (now streaming on Amazon), which is based on the lives of Carthusian monks in the French alps. The Carthusians are a sect of the Catholic church that practice rigorous methods of austerity and solitude. According to their website:
The Carthusians consecrate their lives entirely to prayer and seeking God in the secret of their hearts. They intercede for the Church and for the salvation of the whole world. . . Our principal endeavor and goal is to devote ourselves to the silence and solitude of cell. […] There is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human.
The movie is full of rich imagery that helps convey these dimensions of monastic life. There is barely any dialogue throughout the film. It relies on a series of poetic images and the minute observation of monks going about their daily activities. Every rustle of paper and exhalation reverberates out of existence like the bell calling the monks to prayer.
Without anything to distract them from their task, the monks seem to be inhabiting a world apart from normal human consciousness. The ascetic life is a logical extension in service to this change in consciousness, in which all distraction and worldly concern are removed so that the monk can focus on becoming one with their religion’s teachings. And once the monks are more aware of what is inside themselves, they can be more equipped to handle those things in ways that enhance love, compassion, and generosity.
In that sense, being able to fully occupy our silence is a basic component of sanity and self-knowledge. Without silence, we can’t ever know who we truly are, the pain from our past that may torment us, and the vicious circularity of our thoughts and behavior that readily come up when we are no longer distracted. We cannot see ourselves without that kind of silence every day. Otherwise we exist on the edge of madness, in which we are in constant motion and cannot stop lest we have to acknowledge our daily movement into tempering flames.
There is a Zen koan which asks us to show our original face before we were born. Like so many Zen stories and parables, it asks us to go beyond the superficial in our desire to deepen our understanding. Zen is described as having three pillars, which are great faith, great doubt, and great determination. Like the image of the Carthusian monk in his cell, the image of a Zen meditation hall comes readily to mind. Here the practitioner utilizes that incredible silence to in order to what they truly are become known.
And once we have come to understand this fundamental level of silence and can more readily rest there, we can begin to see how that silence and that deeply unknowable something is our original face in a way that we had never realized before.