Suffering in silence

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When we sit down to meditate, we naturally would like to have an experience which is peaceful, relaxing, and pleasant from beginning to end. However, as anyone who meditates regularly knows, this is not always the case. In fact, in addition to the distractions of a busy mind, what we often find in meditation is discomfort, difficult feelings, emotional pain. Usually in daily life, when faced with these ‘unwelcome visitors’, we try to either ignore them or else seek relief of some kind. In the stillness of a meditation, however, it is more difficult to turn away from our problems. Our normal distractions are not available, there is no one to share our experience with, no way of expressing what we’re feeling. We are, in fact, suffering in silence.

Silence, as Thomas Merton wrote so beautifully, has many dimensions – ‘it can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery.’ It’s important to reach out to others when we struggle, to talk to a friend or get professional help. Yet we can also reach out to ourselves, within the silence of a meditation, and bring kindness and compassion to our experience of suffering.

Years ago, at a conference in Sydney, I was talking to someone who as a young man had been training for the priesthood.

‘This will sound very immature,’ he told me, ‘probably because it was, but when I was twenty I remember wishing I had cancer, so that I could be closer to God.’

There are many dimensions to a statement like that, and it can be seen on a number of different levels. Yes, there was probably a certain amount of immaturity in his wish, as he may not have realised at that age what terrible suffering cancer brings with it. But it was also his way of exploring his spirituality, which was very important to him. As he explained to me, having cancer would have focused his mind on what really mattered; helped him, perhaps, to get closer to the essence of his spirituality rather than becoming side-tracked by the many distractions of life. As I reflected further on the statement, however, it also occurred to me that when someone has cancer, they are entitled to some legitimate sympathy for their suffering. The kind of suffering he might have experienced at the time, and which many of us go through, is more internal, difficult to talk about, and unlikely to get much sympathy from those around us. Cancer is actually a very good analogy, as it destroys our healthy body, just like suffering can destroy our spirits and souls. Cancer of the body is visible, and no one would argue we shouldn’t be entitled to medical treatment and some special consideration for it. The anguish of our minds, however, such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and so on, is usually hidden away. And as a society, while there has been some progress, we are often not very good at supporting those who struggle in this way.

Many of us do suffer in silence, but it is the negative silence, which, as Thomas Merton describes it,’ blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties.’  Positive silence, on the other hand, ‘pulls us together and makes us realise who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two.’

Meditation doesn’t replace our connection with other people. Instead, meditation gives us an opportunity to connect more honestly with ourselves, and therefore, by extension, to relate more deeply to others as well.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, plan some ‘sanctuaries of silence’ into your day. It might be ten minutes in the garden with a cup of coffee, or watching the dawn before everyone else in the house gets up. How does it feel, to create the space for a sense of presence?

Anja Tanhane