The Gifts of Silence By David Simon
The great paradox of exploring silence is that ultimately, we can’t experience it with our mind or encapsulate its essence in words. To enter a deep state of stillness and silence, we have to go beyond the mind’s constant stream of thoughts into the field of pure awareness. In our dynamic, goal-oriented world, we don’t usually spend much time or attention cultivating this quality of awareness, but it has been my experience that learning to surrender to silence nurtures all aspects of life—including our environment, our body, our relationships, our creative expression, our heart, and our soul.
The Sufis and Taoists say that those who say, don’t know; and those who know, don’t say. So the fact that I’m willing to spend a few words discussing silence may imply to the reader that I don’t know, but I’ll take my chances because I believe that if this exploration helps you weave even just a little more silence and peace into your daily life, the benefits will be profound.
· Learning to Listen
If you close your eyes right now and listen to your environment, you may hear the traffic moving on the street below, the television in the next apartment, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen. These sounds contribute to the ambient noise of modern life, which we usually filter out of our conscious awareness.
Even if you are in a completely silent setting, you may still notice an ongoing level of activity that is independent of your surroundings. The source of this activity is your mind, which hosts the continual inner conversation you are having with yourself. Notice that you don’t have to try to think; the thoughts keep bubbling up from an inexhaustible source.
Noticing our mind’s constant inner dialogue is actually a cause for celebration, for until we become aware that we are having thoughts, we usually believe that we are our thoughts and that we’re defined by a continuous pattern of memories and anticipations. Freedom begins when we are able to transcend the thought traffic and start to shift our identity to the silent witness that is not bound in time or space. This inner silent witness observes all the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and experiences unfolding in our life without getting caught up in the stories, repetitive thought-loops, and conditioned reactions that keep our mind in bondage. You can connect with the witness right now by noticing what you’re thinking and then asking yourself, Who is the one who is thinking? The aspect of yourself that is able to observe your thoughts as well as your answer is the silent witness.
Learning to still the mind’s dialogue opens the door to a domain of silence that has the potential to heal and transform your life. As you tap into this inner silence, you begin the process of shifting your internal reference point from ego to soul, from fear to love, from anxiety to peace, and from constriction to expansion.
There are many ways to access the field of silence, yet I have found that one of the most powerful and systematic approaches is the practice of meditation.
A Tale of Two Minds
I remember my first experience of meditation when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I had a remarkably conscious social studies teacher named Mr. Schacko. One day when we were studying a lesson on Eastern philosophy, he introduced the idea of meditation. He said, “You know, in the Western world, we take great pride in having a very active, creative, dynamic mind. In some way or another, the underlying belief of the Western mind-set could be summarized as ‘whoever has the most thoughts, wins.’ In contrast, in certain parts of the Eastern world, such as India, Nepal, and Tibet, there’s a much greater appreciation for a quiet mind.”
“So we have these two world views,” Mr. Schacko continued. “The one we’re immersed in is about keeping our minds active, having our thoughts going all the time, and memorizing lots of information. Then there’s the Eastern view, which is focused on how we can find silence.”
When my teacher introduced this concept to my class, most of my fellow students thought it was very funny. It seemed like it was so easy to have a quiet mind. Why was it such a big deal?
Then Mr. Schacko said, “Okay, right now everybody close your eyes and see how long you can go without having a thought.”
Of course, anyone who has practiced meditation even once knows that it doesn’t take long before we have thoughts. And I remember my very first thought was, Uh oh . . . what if they are right? And what if having a big, active mind isn’t the best use of our awareness?
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first real introduction to meditation and it has stayed with me for more than forty-five years. I learned that the ability to quiet our mind and experience silence is a practice that requires attention and cultivation.
Several years later when I was a young college student, all things Eastern seemed to be exploding on the Western cultural front. I was once again exposed to the concept of meditation and quieting the mind, and I started to realize that we in the West have been really afraid of the emptiness that often accompanies silence.
When we haven’t embraced silence, we seek fulfillment and gratification through achievement, material possessions, sensory experiences, and status. Yet no matter how much we acquire, the pleasure we glean is transitory and only partially satisfying. It’s as if we’re trying to stave off the anxiety and discomfort that are bubbling just below the surface by filling our minds with thoughts and engaging in perpetual activity and busyness. We may do this in a thousand subtle ways—automatically turning on the radio when we get into the car, opening the refrigerator to grab a snack when we find ourselves alone and bored on a quiet Sunday afternoon, feeling uneasy about a long silence in a conversation and rushing to fill it with our words.
Riding the Waves of Awareness
When people begin to practice meditation and other technologies to quiet the mind, they may experience a sense of discomfort ranging from restlessness to actual agitation. It’s common to feel resistance in part because so many of us grew up with nearly constant sensory and mental stimulation. If we’ve never sat quietly with our eyes closed, opening to silence may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first.
Yet the shift from outer activity to inner awareness ultimately allows us to generate an internal state of peace and happiness that is independent of the people, situations, and circumstances around us. With practice, the transition from activity to silence reduces stress and becomes the source of our most blissful state of awareness.
Investing the time and energy to go through this transition is well worth it. When the mind quiets, we experience the silent space between thoughts. And the thoughts that do arise are less conditioned and come from deeper, less predictable, and less familiar layers of awareness. The philosopher Alan Watts described this as the “wisdom of uncertainty,” which reminds us that in the ambiguity of life, we drop into a deeper domain of awareness that touches the sacred source of all evolutionary impulses.
Since uncertainty is woven into the fabric of creation, we cannot always accurately predict which sensations will unfold—happiness or sadness, pleasure or pain, enthusiasm or emotional constriction, love or hostility. Yet stepping into the unknown, while sometimes terrifying, is what makes life compelling, powerful, and meaningful. In addition, as we become more experienced travelers in the realm of silence, we can learn how to consciously choose interpretations that generate more comfort than distress.
Taking time to close our eyes, quiet our mind, and go within offers a profound opportunity to go beyond our ego’s tight identification with the transitory aspects of our personality and personal lives—and connect more deeply with our essential nature, which is infinite and eternal. Then when emerge from our meditation, our mind is refreshed and we’re able to see the same experiences from a slightly different perspective—one imbued with the peace and clarity we have tapped into during meditation. This is the basis of authentic love, healing, creativity, and transformation.
Lifelong entrepreneur and resident of the 1000 islands. Started his meditation practice in 2018.
15.What am I Grateful For?