By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “The Healing Power of Silence” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.
Every one of us has probably felt the beneficial influence of silence. Even the busiest people need to have breaks of silence in their work. Silence seems to be a necessary factor in our lives, yet we do not always realize the implications of the quietness we unconsciously seek and enjoy when we take a walk in a solitary meadow or in a forest or on a mountain. These quiet recreations may not occur very often, but when they do we cannot forget the spell that such solitary communion with nature leaves upon us.
Again, if we chance to wake up at dead of night when everything is calm around us, the deep silence of the night seems to penetrate into our being. Of course, silence may be frightening: some people cannot bear the absence of sound. But apart from those few, most of us welcome and profit by occasional contacts of silence in nature or even in our homes. Our nerves are soothed, energy is regained, and the total effect is bracing to our bodies and minds.
The experience of deep sleep proves our need for silence. We may be very busy throughout the day, but at night we hanker for that hour when everything—our sense perceptions, responsibilities, thoughts, worries, emotions, desires, hopes—is left behind. What is sleep? Is it not silence? In sleep nothing disturbs us. Even though we leave everything behind, including body consciousness, we enjoy the experience.
However, sleep is not emptiness. The sages of the Upanishads had great insight into the study of sleep. According to them, sleep leads human consciousness close to the Ground of universal Existence, which is infinite calmness. That is why, when we come back to the waking state, we return refreshed and at peace.
God has combined noise and silence, activity and rest; it is the plan of nature. Look at the boundless space outside. Scientists say that space is vast, containing millions and millions of stars with their planets, galactic systems, and nebulae. Yet this stellar universe is very small compared to the immensity of empty space. If by some cosmic disorder all the celestial bodies were to collide and be annihilated, the vastness of space would not be affected in the least. And what is this vast space? Is it not characterized by an immeasurable silence?
Imagine the totality of sounds emerging from this small planet of ours, the summation of all the noises produced every minute by millions and millions of human beings and all other kinds of living creatures and machines, as well as various natural phenomena. Then think of a similar noise connected with every other heavenly body. If we now add all these noises together, we can imagine what an enormous quantity of sound this cosmic universe can produce. Yet compared to the infinite stillness of space, this sound is nothing. Throughout the universe there is great activity; there are innumerable interactions throughout life, mind, and energy on one side of the picture, but there is also another side. Behind all these cosmic activities there is the vast silence of limitless space and time.
Time, like space, is inexhaustible. Like a river it flows continuously, without any regard for what happens within it. Thus space and time are both silent sentinels of these cosmic activities which we call the world processes. That is the plan of God. If God is responsible for this plan of creation, His plan includes not only evolution and activity, but also a state of quiescence that pervades the vastness of space and time.
All this refers to external silence, the quietude of our surroundings. It is necessary for every one of us in the interest of our physical and mental health to consciously avail ourselves of silence as much as we can, apart from the rest we obtain from sleep. A person can try a preliminary practice of silence by just sitting quietly without any serious thought or activity. To be by oneself, if only for ten minutes, is a healthy tonic for our physical health, but this practice also serves to relieve our cares, anxieties, and mental restlessness. One can sometimes get up at 3:00 a.m., when everything is still, and try to feel the pulse of the serene night. It will have a remarkably soothing effect on the mind.
More important than outward silence is inward silence, and that is not so easily available to us. Just as when we look outside and see a vast universe interwoven with activities and quietude, our internal world has both action and silence. When we look into the mind we ordinarily see only the surface phenomena—thoughts, feelings, and desires. We must make additional effort to experience that inner silence, the silence of the mind; we must silence our inordinate desires and passions. The background of silence escapes our notice. If we can come in touch with that inner realm of silence, our mental troubles can be healed.
Without such healing, the unrest and suffering caused by maladjustments, unbridled passions, desires, and frustrations can result in illness. We have to seek the counsel of psychiatrists who may or may not be able to help us. Driven by psychological complexes, we feel restless. Repressions and unsatisfied urges can fragment our personalities; when this occurs, the mind becomes a great burden—an uncontrollable enemy with which we cannot cope. Both our foolishness and wrong education have created the mind’s restless behavior. The remedy must come from within ourselves: the remedy lies in the discovery of the true background of the personality.
Here is a simple practice for experiencing inner calmness: it consists of watching the mind and trying to see what is going on within. This practice is not necessarily spiritual; we need not remember God or meditate on a spiritual idea. All we have to do is just sit quietly and observe the movement of our thoughts. As we observe the mind, we place ourselves outside the mind for the time being. We should not allow ourselves to be involved with the ideas that appear and disappear on the mental scene. We need not feel mortified if some bad thoughts come. Neither should we be elated if good thoughts appear. We are neutral spectators, as it were. In itself, watching the mind will gradually lead us to the experience of inner silence. We will find that thoughts are no longer rushing in in an irregular way. Our nerves will be soothed, and our minds will attain considerable stability and a new power of self-control.
Next we can substitute simple “watching” with an active effort to concentrate. In general, concentration means fixing the mind on a particular object without allowing it to wander from thought to thought. The mind in its ignorant state is always restless. It is continually being pulled by sense objects outside and agitated by desires and attachments inside. This restless state of mind can be controlled by the practice of concentration.
But a spiritual perspective in this practice is essential if we wish to reach the quiescent Consciousness that illumines our bodies, minds, and the world of our experience. The objects selected for meditation may differ, according to the temperament of the aspirant. It is easy for some to concentrate upon an image. Others find it more convenient to focus their minds on a spiritual idea or a word-symbol, a mantra. The goal of concentration, however, is the same in all cases; namely, to reach the Ground of our being, the Self. To the extent that we can do this, we proportionately develop mental composure, strength, and peace.
Spiritual life is essentially a life of silence. It means learning to experience deepening, chastening states of inner quietude. What does love of God imply? Experiencing that calmness which can cure our ignorance. The more we love God, the more we become silent in the spiritual sense. There is no longer any “noise” from the turbulent mind. In the Upanishads, God is described as Shivam shantam, the essence of goodness, the essence of silence.
The more we approach God through love, the feebler our worldly attachments become. We become transformed through the touch of divine love. No longer do we suffer from the clamor of infatuation, hatred, or wild desires. The whole world becomes transfigured for us.
Love for God makes our lives quiet. Not that we become like stone; spiritual tranquillity is not inertia. It is marked by the highest wisdom and clarity of insight. External noise and perplexities do not disturb us anymore; we find harmony and peace. The whole world’s tremendous activity appears to us to be the silent play of God.
The healing power of spiritual silence can also be found through unselfish actions. If we can dedicate our actions to God without considering ourselves the doers or the enjoyers of work, then this detached attitude serves to make us calm and creates an abiding calmness in the background of our lives. It is essentially an eternal, spiritual truth shining in its own majesty. Though we are always living in this truth, it remains veiled by our ego-sense, our false individuality. Unselfish action gradually tears this veil until we are given a vision of that “peace that passeth all understanding.”
Finally, there is the Vedantic way of approaching the silence of our being through reflective analysis of the “seer and the seen.” We read in the Upanishads, “This Atman is eternally silent.” The Atman, our true Self, is the eternal subject, the “seer,” and everything else is the object, the “seen.” What we call movement—noise, distraction, or activities—all belong to the realm of objective experience. Behind this objective experience there is the eternal Witness which is our true Self, and the more we grasp this fact, the more we partake of the nature of the Self. By separating the subject from the object, we can eventually become centered in the Self. The Atman is never an object of thought. Nothing can disturb its silent majesty. It precedes all other facts.
The Atman, the basic, eternal Existence and Consciousness, is the primary fact of existence; everything else follows. When I am poised in the Atman, even my body is external to me. My mind, thoughts, and movements are all outside of me. This is the process of reflective analysis. In monistic Vedanta we call the process neti, neti, “not this, not this.”
We have to push away everything that is not the Self. We must be extremely selfish in the spiritual sense; that is, we must know that in the Self there is no place for any other thing. Of course, this is not the final picture of truth. However, when we are trying to realize the Self, we have to practice this kind of sternness because in our perception the subject and the object have become mixed together, and this has created all our troubles. It is like a malignant tumor which needs immediate surgery. The surgical treatment is not a cruel act; the surgeon is my friend for he is saving my life. In the basic malady of life the Self has become confused with the non-Self, and, as the result of this spiritual “tumor,” we are full of wrong ideas.
So in Vedanta we say, “I am not this, I am not this.” Then when we discover our true Self, we find that it can never actually be confused with the non-Self. No illness, no passion, no death, no frustration, no suffering can ever disturb the eternal stillness of the Self. That is the end of all ignorance, or maya. We have reached the center of tranquillity, the source of infinite security and happiness. We have attained the culmination of healing by being one with Silence, untouched by any noise or imperfection.
When we finally know this truth, we will also know that what we had previously eliminated as not being part of us is actually within us. There is no such thing as duality. There is only one homogeneous unity, and that is the Self. Distinctions of external and internal vanish at that stage, and it is no longer necessary to call the Self “silence” because without the opposition of noise, or movements, there cannot be any concept of “silence.”
Everything that is, is in the Self. Everything is the Self. Whatever names and words and ideas we use are included in the Self. That is the highest truth, and the steps to that highest truth are to be gained through the experiences of the different kinds of silence, beginning with external silence. Through all these stages, silence becomes a progressively greater healing power in our lives until ultimately it reaches its culmination in the Truth, which is our true Self.