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Understanding and Cultivating Silence

--by Ajahn Sumedho (May 31, 2010)



Just by exploring this you really get to understand what [self] is, how you become a personality and also to see that when there is no person there is still awareness. It’s an intelligent awareness; it’s not an unconscious dull stupidity, it’s a bright, clear, intelligent emptiness. When you become a personality through having thoughts like: feeling sorry for yourself, views and opinions, self-criticism and so forth, and then it stops — there is the silence. But still the silence is bright and clear, intelligent. I prefer this silence rather than this endless proliferating nattering that goes on in the mind.

I used to have what I call an ‘inner tyrant’, a bad habit that I picked up of always criticizing myself. It’s a real tyrant — there is nobody in this world that has been more tyrannical, critical or nasty to me than I have. Even the most critical person, however much they have harmed and made me miserable, has never made me relentlessly miserable as much as I have myself, as a result of this inner tyrant. It’s a real wet blanket of a tyrant, no matter what I do it’s never good enough. Even if everybody says, “Ajahn Sumedho, you gave such a wonderful [inspiring talk]”, the inner tyrant says “You shouldn’t have said this, you didn’t say that right.” It goes on, in an endless perpetual tirade of criticism and fault-finding. Yet it’s just habit, I freed my mind from this habit, it does not have any footing anymore. I know exactly what it is, I no longer believe in it, or even try to get rid of it, I just know not to pursue it and just to let it dissolve into the silence.

That’s a way of breaking a lot of these emotional habits we have that plague us and obsess our minds. You can actually train your mind, not through rejection or denial but through understanding and cultivating this silence. So don’t use this silence as a way of annihilating or getting rid of what is arising in experience, but as a way of resolving and liberating your mind from the obsessive thoughts and negative attitudes that can endlessly plague conscious experience.

-- Ajahn Sumedho, from "Intuitive Awareness"


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Previous Reflections:

 
On Jun 1, 2010 Yazmin wrote:

Good one



On Jun 1, 2010 Briskey wrote:
  1.  


On Jun 2, 2010 mike wrote:

Instead of running around, stand still in silence.



On Jun 7, 2010 Swati Singh wrote:

This Is a very good one.



On Jun 7, 2010 Susan C wrote:

Ah yes, the tyrant, this is where my "work" is.  Listening to the bubbling bright with-in, not the tyrant. *:)



On Jun 8, 2010 Ripa Ajmera wrote:

Another incredible Wednesday, full of deep sharing on the power and need for silence in life. I liked Neil's reflection on the sound of silence, from a recent DailyGood article called "In Pursuit of Silence: How Noise is Really Killing Us." In this article, the writer explores how noise wreaks havoc throughout the body and how, as a culture, we tend to view noise as being linked with the pursuit of fun and happiness.

He discovered how marketers actually play loud music in stores to attract customers and how noise is also connected with the pursuit of individuality. It is true that in cultures like the Indian one I come from, quietness is looked upon very highly, whereas it's misunderstood to be something dull and boring in places like America, where people often compete to be the loudest. Examples of this include dressing a certain way to 'make a statement' or express oneself, noisy rock and punk bands that blast their music and the "boom car" competitions to see whose stereo can make the most noise.

Noise, however, is not just something external. There is much noise to be found inside the mind when one turns inward for the practice of meditation and contemplation. Often, in life, however, we cannot even hear ourselves, much less be receptive and available to listen deeply to the unspoken needs of others around us. I love this idea that the soul speaks in a whisper, which often gets tuned out by the noise of the senses.

To me, silence is an invitation to listen deeply to oneself, as a necessary prerequisite for being able to listen deeply to others. To be able to know the deeper aspects of ourselves and others. I liked how Viralbhai shared how people ask him what he has gotten out of his many experiments in silence (he has meditated continuously for up to 30 days at a time and has been practicing the past 13 years!). He said that there is now noticeably less 'nattering' in his mind than there was when he began meditating at age 18.

Listening, whether inwardly to oneself, or being receptive to what's between the lines of what others share, is such a wonderful, subtle art and powerful tool. It is a rare and auspicious quality that is hard for most to master, one that invites insight and intuition, bringing us into a sort of active consciousness.

When I listen, I notice I become immediately calmer and can let go of self-consciousness. I become free. I always think of deep listening as being an act of love and compassion, one that invites growth and transformation. When I truly listen, I am able to step away from my own thoughts and feelings (particularly the negative ones) and embrace new perspectives. My mind becomes free and open to change and the space of infinite possibilities.

In deepening my ability to listen, I've found how much not listening is connected with the ego. How interrupting is generally an act we engage in when we do not feel safe. It's been interesting and important to observe when people interrupt a lot, as I can now see how this stems from insecurity. I try to honor others by interrupting as seldom as possible when someone else is speaking and have found that I have the chance and the honor, really, to bare witness to the candid, personal testimonials of others who I may or may not even know very well to begin with. I know i have personally benefitted so much from the many mentors who have listened deeply to me and try to pass that on to others, to pay it forward.

It has been interesting to observe which groups of people are most receptive to the journey of going inward, of accessing the inner self and the inner knowing that is always available for guidance. People who have not gone through as traumatic of experiences have tended to like to talk a lot and to really check me out before I can ever start teaching yoga or meditation. My young female Indian students in particular used to ask me so many questions about myself. They always wanted to know how old I was, what I did for a living, where and what I studied, what my goals were for the future. One girl even asked me if my life goal was to become Miss India! 

The Salaam Balaak boys, on the other hand, who had run away from home, those in NYC who had been through some prolonged experience of homelessness, as well as the incarcerated teenage boys in California are often the most receptive to the invitation of silence. That has been a fascinating and very inspiring observation, to see how willing the most outwardly 'hardened' young boys and men have been to go inside themselves. They don't seem to possess the same fear that others do toward entering the void of silence, the empty palate of possibility. To pause to enter the unknown.

As Master Patanjali has shared, however, in the very first yoga sutra, "Atha yoga nushasanam" (meaning "Now this is yoga"), yoga is not something one simply comes to. The word "now" is very important, as it indicates that something significant had to have happened for one to come to the path of Yoga. It can be really scary to go inside oneself, as we don't know what we will find there. Most people who come to Yoga have faced some kind of crisis, where the outer world has failed to provide them something essential, whether that be the security of a safe and loving home, caring parents or a stable job.

I remember helping clean out the main center at Manav Sadhna (the organization I volunteered for in Ahmedbad, Gujarat, India) the day before I left for Vipassana (a silent 10-day meditation course) a year and a half ago. While the space wasn't noticeably dirty before we began cleaning, it became quickly apparent just how filthy it was once we started sweeping, scrubbing and polishing. Sometimes while cleaning, we uncovered brand new, deeply rooted layers of dust and dirt in the windowsills, cabinets and cubby holes. We all had to wear handkerchiefs over our mouths and noses to protect ourselves as we cleaned.

I found the Vipassana course to be very similar to this experience of cleaning, in the sense that it was really an opportunity to go beyond cleaning up the surface layers of dirt, to dig out and clean up the dust that had been previously swept under the rugs. To really pull the weeds out from the roots and plant the seeds of beautiful flowers in their place. As Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Chapter 2, Verse 33 states, "Vitarka-badhane-pratipaksha-bhavanam." "When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think of the opposite." A yogi must be ever alert, observing his or her mind. When seeing useless thought waves arising, we replace them with positive ones to create new mental habits that are more conducive to spiritual evolution.

So much of yoga is about this process of replacing what is negative within us with something pure and positive. Transforming out weaknesses into strengths. Fear into faith. Confusion to clarity. As in Vipassana, it is important to have the protection of the (at least) 10 days in silence, to allow the space and time necessary to delve deeply within without having the dangers of distraction (from the phone, friends, Facebook and mostly, our own deepest fears). The support of the satsangha (like-minded/hearted community) in this process of personal transformation is crucial, as the people we choose to associate with comprise our environment. As a flower needs fertile soil to grow, so, too, do we need fearless and faith-filled friends to evolve spiritually, to unfold our own consciousness. Sunlight and water are necessary for the development of beautiful flowers, as are practice and a proper lifestyle for the development of beautiful people, on the inside as well as the outside. 

My relationship with food has been huge in my spiritual evolution. I've gone to both extremes of severe under-eating and overeating and felt horrible in both cases. I've loved following the Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle guidelines, including eating my biggest meal at lunch, not eating too much late in the day and including plenty of fresh, farmers market fruits and vegetables in my meals. It has made it so much easier to wake up to meditate and practice yoga early in the morning. It's also given me the energy I need to do my marketing work, to teach yoga and meditation in a variety of places (including juvenile halls), take a distance learning course in Ayurveda, learn and practice Odissi dance, plan for India and do whatever else is needed.

I remember another key insight I gained from Vipassana (my first experience of prolonged silence) was how much we seek validation from the outside, to the extent that the greed for approval can really motivate a lot of our actions. I saw this in myself when I meditated and in going deeper into the root causes of this, found it to be so deeply connected with the desire for love. Practicing yoga and meditation, living by Ayurvedic principles and devoting myself to serving others, however, has really helped me to connect with the deep love that resides in my self, as my true Self (capital-S for that aspect of divinity that exists within me - and within us all).

It has been such a blessing to be able to judge my actions and behavior from the basis of whether what I am doing could serve the poorest person. Whether my thoughts, words and actions bring me, and those around me, greater peace and harmony. When I realize they don't, I find myself much more able to let them go, thanks to the practice of connecting with silence.

Having found the strength to provide myself such internal validation has been a big source of growth for me. It is what allows me to be able to extend the peace I generate within myself to others around me, connecting always with the knowledge that healing does not come from me, anyways, but through me as a channel of a higher divine power and energy. As spiritual healers and teachers, I think it's really important to keep in mind that others one serves can never be more peaceful than we ourselves are, which is why it's so important to continue to, as Gandhiji has been quoted to say, "be the change we wish to see in the world."

I love the reflections that Parahmansa Yogananda shares in his "Autobiography of a Yogi," about replacing negativity with positivity in the chapter about Luther Burbank, which is entitled "A Saint Amid the Roses:"

"I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillments only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection. In the span of my own lifetime I have observed such wondrous progress in plant evolution that I look forward optimistically to a healthy, happy world as soon as its children are taught the principles of simple and rational living. We must return to nature and nature's God."

 

"Luther, you would delight in my Ranchi school, with its outdoor classes, and atmosphere of joy and simplicity."

 

My words touched the chord closest to Burbank's heart—child education. He plied me with questions, interest gleaming from his deep, serene eyes.

 

"Swamiji," he said finally, "schools like yours are the only hope of a future millennium. I am in revolt against the educational systems of our time, severed from nature and stifling of all individuality. I am with you heart and soul in your practical ideals of education."

 

As I was taking leave of the gentle sage, he autographed a small volume and presented it to me.

 

"Here is my book on The Training of the Human Plant," he said. "New types of training are needed—fearless experiments. At times the most daring trials have succeeded in bringing out the best in fruits and flowers. Educational innovations for children should likewise become more numerous, more courageous."

 

I read his little book that night with intense interest. His eye envisioning a glorious future for the race, he wrote: "The most stubborn living thing in this world, the most difficult to swerve, is a plant once fixed in certain habits. . . . Remember that this plant has preserved its individuality all through the ages; perhaps it is one which can be traced backward through eons of time in the very rocks themselves, never having varied to any great extent in all these vast periods.

 

Do you suppose, after all these ages of repetition, the plant does not become possessed of a will, if you so choose to call it, of unparalleled tenacity? Indeed, there are plants, like certain of the palms, so persistent that no human power has yet been able to change them. The human will is a weak thing beside the will of a plant.

 

But see how this whole plant's lifelong stubbornness is broken simply by blending a new life with it, making, by crossing, a complete and powerful change in its life. Then when the break comes, fix it by these generations of patient supervision and selection, and the new plant sets out upon its new way never again to return to the old, its tenacious will broken and changed at last.

 

"When it comes to so sensitive and pliable a thing as the nature of a child, the problem becomes vastly easier."

 

I receive so much inspiration from this entire chapter for working with children and families in a residential model, to really provide them the opportunity and support to transform themselves in a sustainable way, particularly the children. It is so true that it is much easier to assist children in changing newly formed habits than it is plants, or adults for that matter.

 

However, I really believe that the seed of new beginnings, the invitation to go into the deep silence that sparks transformation, is available to all who are given adequate opportunities, patience and support for the hard work of changing deeply-rooted habits - from the inside out.   

 



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