Pravrajika Bhavaprana is a nun in Santa Barbara. She gave this lecture March 19, 2014 in the Temple.
Years ago, a friend of ours wrote an article on “Silence” for the book “Living Wisdom”, which was compiled by our very own Vrajaprana. Later, this article was published as an essay in TIME magazine. The author’s name is Pico Iyer, and his writing is exquisite. I’d like to begin with a quote from his article:
Silence is not an absence but a presence, not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is the enchanted space in which things open up, and surfaces fall away, and we find ourselves in the midst of absolutes. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say, is that we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink beneath our daily selves, into a place deeper than mere thought allows. Silence is a way of clearing space and staying time; of opening out, so that horizon itself expands, and the air is transparent as glass.
Silence is responsiveness, and in silence we can listen, and in listening to the self, the wind, the sea, we can hear something else beating far behind.
Last summer, I was vacationing at Crater Lake, and one day we went with a ranger to the lava caves. We walked deep into one of the caves as he lit the way with a flashlight. After 15 or 20 minutes of walking, he asked us to sit down and be absolutely quiet because he was going to turn off the flashlight. When he did so, it was eerily dark— I mean REALLY dark, like black. And there was no sound either, not even an ambient sound. No light, no sound. When there’s no external stimulus to wrap our minds around, our senses have nothing to react to, and they become totally non-functional.
This was my first experience coming face to face with utter silence, untainted by the senses. At first, it felt like a big black void. But as the ranger gave us more time to experience it, I felt more and more soothed and comforted by it, as if I were almost back in the womb.
At one time or another, we’ve all experienced the soothing atmosphere of silence, especially in today’s world, where there’s so much external stimulation screaming for our attention.
The infernal noise—traffic, cell phones, TV news, billboards, constant chatter… all this has become shattering. And this is only the external noise. Added to that is our mental and emotional noise, which is even more non-stop.
There’s a wonderful book by Swami Shraddhananda, who was the head of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, and has since passed away. The book is “Seeing God Everywhere”. There’s a chapter in this book on the healing power of silence. In it, he says, “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.”
In my opinion, which is very biased of course, one of the best ways to experience silence in nature is to come to the Vedanta Temple in November or December, and watch the sunset from the porch. Some nights are absolutely awe-inspiring, like when the air and the ocean are very still, and the setting sun shines it’s light on the calm sea, creating a glimmering surface of reds and pinks.
But silence is much more than simply a way to escape from the sensory overload in our world today. After all, deep sleep has the same effect. Silence, as Pico said, “is not an absence, but a presence”. And this is a very important thing to remember, as we shall see later on.
Most of the religions of the world revere silence, not only as a discipline, but also as a place to experience God.
Many churches, temples, and mosques maintain periods of silence within their walls. It keeps it sacred. Silence goes beyond doctrines and dogma. It’s the great unifier. This is because, as Thomas Merton, the great Trappist monk said, “As soon as you are alone, you are with God.”
For many centuries, silence has been practiced in every monastic tradition. There are Catholic monks and nuns, who take the vow of silence as a spiritual practice, in order to better commune with God. In the Psalms we read: “Be still and know that I am God.”
But the practice of silence isn’t confined to monastics. A modern Christian minister said, “Solitude is for being alone with God. It is completed by silence. There’s much to be said about solitude. Solitude and silence is an opportunity to focus on your intimacy with Jesus, to unhook from your daily responsibilities and the people you interact with, in order to attend to the Lord alone. In solitude we don’t try to make anything happen. We just bring ourselves to the Lord to be with him.”
In Buddhism, there is a wonderful saying: “Do not speak—unless it improves on silence.” It’s a common practice for Buddhists to remain silent during a retreat so they can totally focus on their state on mind.
And, of course, Hinduism has a long, rich history of holy men, living in silence in caves or in the forest, practicing meditation, and achieving great spiritual heights.
There’s a story in the Upanishads of a father who sent his two sons off to a sage to learn about Brahman. When they returned, he asked the first son what he had learned. The boy expounded on the many attributes of Brahman. When he was finished, his father asked the second boy, who remained silent. The father was very pleased, and said, “Ah, you have known the truth of Brahman”.
Sri Ramakrishna had this to say about silence: “The nearer you approach to God, the less you reason and argue. When you attain Him, then all sounds—all reasoning and disputing—come to an end. Then you go into samādhi, into communion with God in silence.”
“The bee buzzes as long as it is not sitting on a flower. It becomes silent when it begins to sip the honey.”
To quote Swami Prabhavananda: “The moment you try to define God, you limit him and make him finite. To define God is impossible: he is indefinable and inexpressible. But he is realizable. And as you realize him, you become silent. Silence is his name.”
Swami used to tell us, over and over, that religion is experience, not belief, not an acceptance of any creed or dogma, not the authority of any scripture, but a matter of direct experience.
To quote him: “It is not that you take these words and try to understand them intellectually, for they would have no meaning. You have to meditate to come to the experience. And there are varied experiences at different stages of growth. But the ultimate experience is reaching that whose name is Silence. When you come out of that, you see everything as Brahman.
It’s as Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence.”
But we have to work hard to experience the Eternal, Blissful, All-pervading Reality, which is silence itself. Meister Eckhart said: “There must be perfect stillness in the soul before God can whisper his words into it, before the Light of God can shine in the soul, and transform the soul into God. When the passions are stilled, and worldly desires silenced, then the word of God can be heard in the soul.”
Spiritual life is a life of silence, not only externally, but internally as well. Externally, it‘s beneficial to find a place to meditate that is quiet and still. Since the real work in meditation is internal, we don’t want any outside distractions.
The mind is often likened to a lake. When the wind comes, the lake is choppy and in constant turmoil. Our mind is like that, with the winds of good and bad thoughts, destructive and nurturing feelings, passions, cravings and, more often than not, trivial, insignificant thoughts that fly through our mind.
There’s a great quote from Swami Prabhavananda: “When the sense of ego arises, we feel limited, finite, dry, lacking. We want love, so we go outside. We want happiness, so we go outside. We form attachment to things and objects and persons that give us pleasure, and we consider them as separate from us. And also, we feel aversion to things that give us suffering or pain. Our ignorance is so thick that we cling to life, thinking that it is Reality. You know, ignorance is so sticky! If somebody this moment tried to give you ultimate knowledge, you’d shrink back, “No, no, no! I don’t want it!” Our ignorance is not our real nature, but is just something that has covered the reality, like clouds covering the sun. The clouds are not permanent; a gust of wind removes them, and the sun is shining.”
So the first step is to try to control our thoughts and passions. When we can do this, our mind, like the lake on a beautiful, still day, becomes a reflection of our true nature, and we see in the reflection the face of God who is within us all.
But in order to control the mind, we have to know what’s going on inside of it. A simple beginning practice, that can lead to inner calmness, is to objectively watch the mind. “Objectively”, is the key word here. Be the impartial spectator. Let the thoughts, emotions, and desires—good or bad—come and go; place no value or judgement on them. Be completely objective.
We identify with our thoughts and feelings because we feel they’re part of us. This identification gives them a significance beyond their actual worth. The secret is to disidentify with them. It would almost be like reading another person’s thoughts and emotions. Since we’re not them, what goes on in their head doesn’t affect us like our own thoughts do. So we can watch our mind like that.
The more we practice this technique, the more we get a better idea of how our mind works. Just the very act of watching our thoughts and feelings will help to free us from their emotional grip.
To quote Swami Vivekananda: “Suppose a carriage is drawn down the hill by four powerful horses, and you are the rider in that carriage. It’s so easy to go down the hill, but suppose you restrain the horses, hold back, and with such strength that the horses want to gallop, and there is the hill rolling down, but the carriage is standing still. Consider that as silence, consider that as meditation.”
We see in this simile, that the horses are the senses, eager to drag us down the slippery slope of the world. And you are the rider holding the reins of self-control, keeping the horses from going down the hill. As a result, there is no movement of the carriage.
Now let’s compare this with my experience in the lava cave: yes, my senses were non-functional, but that was only because there was no outside stimulus for them to react to. It had nothing to do with controlling my mind. So the trick is to consciously control the senses from reacting to outside stimulus. This doesn’t mean pretending that the outside world doesn’t exist. It means we need to break our identity with it, and not be influenced by it.
This is what Swami Vivekananda meant when he said: “The ideal person is one who, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, finds the silence and solitude of the desert.”
He himself used to walk through the crowded cities of Boston and Chicago in the late 19th century, completely calm, completely unruffled by the hustle and bustle surrounding him. He was completely grounded in his own divine Self.
Another way to approach the silence of our being, is to discriminate between what is real and what is unreal. This is the path of Jnana Yoga. We see the outside world with our senses, and call it reality. But in fact, it’s unreal, because it’s in constant flux. It comes and goes. It lives and dies. It’s not permanent. The world of name and form doesn’t exist without the Eternal, divine Reality giving it life. This eternal, unchanging reality is the Atman, our true Self.
In Jnana Yoga, there is a practice called neti, neti, “not this, not this”. This is a very difficult path to tread, but it’s also the most direct way to experience God.
We perceive ourselves as separate from everyone else, and we think the world we see around us is real. In the path of Jnana Yoga, we use our discrimination between what is real and what is not real, between what is everlasting and what is transitory. We also use a practice called Self-affirmation—that is, to constantly remind ourselves that, in reality, we’re not the body, nor the mind, because they’re not everlasting. Our true nature is eternal, blissful, and free.
I’d like to close with a quote from Swami Prabhavananda:
“The whole truth of religion and spiritual life is in the one word: silence. Only in silence can the truth of God be known…..It is an experience that transforms your whole life and brings complete fulfillment inside. You may experience this thing or that thing, and perhaps gain knowledge, but the experience of God is something that transforms your whole life and being.”