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Saturday, March 30, 2019

What is Silence for?

What is the purpose of silence in meditation?

Silence means “absence of sound or noise”. It refers to external sound and one’s own speech. In fact, the most common word for silence in Sanskrit is Mauna which means not talking. In fact, all the other words in Sanskrit I looked up suggest absence of talk, speech or sound to define silence. Great. But, even when there is no external sound as on a mountain top on a still night, even when we our mouth is shut, the mind keeps up with its chatter. Since the mind thinks using language, there is talking, an “internal” noise.

We know that some rare individuals can totally stop the mind from thinking. Then what?  What about those who can still the mind from wandering and agitation and even can stop the internal chatter? They can feel the silence. Then what?

The Vedic system says that one should practice “not speaking” in between mantras. That is not silence.

Patanjali’s Yoga sastra says that one should get to the state of Samadhi at which the knower and the known are fully merged. One gets there through the earlier stages of focus (dharana) and intense concentration (Dhyana). In other words, the mind is active in the act of getting there, but focused.

At other places we learn that silence is to “receive the inner light” by emptying the mind of all thoughts.

Ramana asks us to keep asking “Who is the I?”. He says: “Track the I back to its roots”.  He does not say where it will lead to. He leaves it to us to find out for ourselves. The process of getting to the real “I” of Ramana  is not internal silence. It is “deep looking”.

Buddha talks about Nirvana. He asks us to look deeply to realize the impermanence and inter-connectedness of all things and absence of any isolated thing called self.

It is interesting to note that spiritual path emphasizes silence to relate to the mystery and religion emphasizes sound or word to relate to that same mystery. One leads to meditation and the other to prayer.

It appears that silence can help still the mind and focus, reduce distractions and look deeply into questions that really matter – such as “Who am I? and How did this world come about?”.

In other words, for most of us, silence is not really silence. Silence is a finger pointing to self-inquiry and not the end point. I do not see how sitting in silence doing nothing for 1 hour or 1 year can accomplish, if there is no questioning. Even to empty your mind and make it a receptacle for a “message” there has to be mental effort. Mind being what it is, it does its work with thoughts and words.

Internal silence is impossible for most of us. When we try to still the mind, we may end up sleeping or the mind will keep wandering. It will worry about the future, or rehash the past, or imagine the impossible. All spiritual traditions give us another option – focus the mind on some profound questions. That way, silence is the start for internal listening.

Self inquiry and inner listening are activities of an individual. But the questions to focus on should relate to the other lives, the world and the cosmos. In other words, the mind is tuned to the mysteries of vast space and time and not on “me”.

Space is immense. Time is eternal. I can imagine space to some extent. But, time? The remote past is unknowable. It will always be a mystery and ripe for speculation. Yet, I was part of it. Otherwise, how could I exist now? The future is also not fully knowable except for the certainty of death. Death is more assured than birth! What an irony! Thinking about death is meaningless and unproductive. It only leads to fear, imaginative worlds and ritualistic actions to get there.

Calming the mind in silence, we can focus on the mystery of the common origin of everything we see and experience. We can be thankful for the present human life which endowed us with a mind which can ask these profound questions and feel humble about our inability to answer them. We can experience the beauty of the present moment. We can think about and if we can, experience our connections with everything in this universe and inter-dependence. If nothing, this will help us lead a dharmic life. If we are one of the lucky few, we may even reach a state indicated by great souls like Buddha and Ramana in which we can experience the oneness of the knower and the known. In other words, reflections during silence on the mysteries of the past and the gifts of this life with consciousness are more ennobling than acting out of our fear of death and hope for an after-life.

It is the journey that is important. The end is not in our hands. What we find and experience in silence is the essence. But our mind must be open to whatever presents itself and clear enough to grasp. It is the Samadhi of the Yoga, the Nirvana of Buddha and the “vision quest” of the Native Americans.

I wish to close this essay with a note on the importance of silence in the Native American culture.  In his book on The Soul of the Indian, Charles Alexander Eastman whose original name was Ohayesa, writes that his Native American (Indian) culture believes profoundly in silence. It is a sign of perfect equilibrium between body, mind and spirit. To an average Native American silence is the same as “The Great Mystery”. Silence is the voice of that Great Mystery which is this world, this cosmos, this life. When asked what the purpose of silence is, he is apt to say that “silence is he cornerstone of character” that leads to self-control, courage, endurance, patience, dignity and reverence. And, in ancient times everyone, man and woman, was expected to “meet the morning sun, the new, sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone”. That was their morning prayer.

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