Any spiritual path worth its salt is full of calls to silence. Be still, we’re told, and know. Listen to the still, small voice within. Of course we’re also told to keep our opinions to ourselves, and that children should be seen, not heard. I am a particularly stubborn mystic, and it seems to me stillness and silence are better found when they happen to us than when we go looking for them. At first, I mean. I mean, there are moments that strike us dumb. Children fall into this silence all the time. As adults, we tend to only notice it when it comes as a slap across the face. When we first catch sight of the ocean after long absence, for example. Or in those odd, terrible moments when there is really nothing you can say.
That seems the best way, to me. The real heart of the matter. Once we know that, we can return to meditation and stillness knowing what it is we are looking for.
Quaker author Parker J. Palmer suggests “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you”. Much of what we’re taught about meditation and stillness is less about listening than about manifesting and creating. Important pursuits, but without being able to first listen and accept, we have no real power to manifest with.
What happens, when we start, is clamor and noise. Of course the clamor and shuddering and debate of the world. But what we ultimately confront in silence is not only the world but one’s self, especially the complexity and noise we carry within. This is what makes meditation hard. This is what makes noise and distraction all the more appealing. A frenzied life allows us to ignore, at least for a while, all our contradictions, duplicities, self-deceptions. Meditation is advertised as a way to ‘deal with’ stress and life, and it is that. But what happens once we begin is a realization that we have much to ‘deal with’ in our own selves, as well. Our lives are frantic, and we have developed apps and tools and schedules for managing them. Unfortunately, we’re usually trying to manage ourselves and our lives as well, which is simply not a thing we can do. How do you know what god wants of your life? Most of us simply assume.
Something else can happen in stillness, meditation, silence. This is what happens when we are startled into silence or awe, and it is more profound than the meditation of management or dealing with or even letting go. It can be cultivated. I am learning. There is a well, a center, a core. I don’t know its name and I would be leery of calling it anything, because the name would be false. But it is there. I am learning to approach it. Prayer can do this. Meditation can do this. But with time, I think awareness of the thing grows and influences waking life. The whole aim of the heart begins to seek alignment with what we hear. The intent becomes constant communication with that center. The practice of yoga then becomes less of what I want and need and more a meditation on who I am.
For as much entertainment, crisis, and stimulation we have in our lives, we have very few opportunities to really be moved. We’re dulled, rather than inspired. Spend a few days noticing the drone of noise in your life. How many hours of your day are you allowed quiet? Without cellphones, televisions, computers. Start to cultivate times when silence might creep in, create a lifestyle where inspiration actually has a place. Get up at dawn once in a while. Turn the cellphone off during your lunch hour. Seek out quiet places. Visit beaches and forests. Listen to trees and stars. Meditation is disarming. Sometimes we learn it on the mat, or in actual sitting of meditation. Try it somewhere else, walking to work, eating dinner, sunday mornings in a park.
Quiet is disturbing. Sitting still is hard. But it is a practice and you can cultivate it; doing so changes your practice more than sweat or difficult asanas or class five times a week. Use shavasana. Most of us stay for a minute, up to three, when class is over. Push yourself.
It took me a very long time. I had to simply focus on clearing my mind, letting go of thoughts, not getting up yet for months. Eventually, I committed to being the last person in the room for a while. This worked. It wasn’t comfortable, but it worked. I’d still wonder what the hell the person in the corner was doing, if they hadn’t fallen asleep. I’d still slip into thoughts about life after class. But with time, with days, the silence started to work. You have to be there for it to work. Stay still. Keep listening. Keep showing up.