Silence – Part 2

‘If you feel that your dreams aren’t coming true, you might think you need to do more, or to think and strategise more. In fact, what you might need is less – less noise coming to you from both inside and outside – so that you have space for your heart’s truest intention to germinate and flourish.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Us humans can be contradictory creatures at times. We might wish we had more ‘space to breathe’ in our lives, but then fill up every available moment with checking our smart phones, watching TV, playing online games, or endlessly rehashing old conversations in our minds and planning ahead in microscopic detail. It’s tempting to think that finding that ‘magic something’ to add into our lives will suddenly improve it. And it’s true that at times, an important ingredient might be missing – such as enough exercise, or time to read a book, or going to a workshop or a class which is meaningful to you.

Other times, however, we already have everything we need – if anything, our lives are overfull. Life is crowding in on us – there are demands coming from all directions, we’re busy rushing from one task to the next, our minds are crowded with internal and external noise, and there is little time to pause and reflect on life. When this way of life becomes chronic, we may well find ourselves asking – ‘is that all there is to life?’

We don’t always need to find new strategies for ‘solving’ life. Sometimes, simply creating some intentional silence and space might be enough. Some of the ways we fill up space are so automatic, we don’t even realise what we’re doing. Always having the radio on when we’re driving, for example, or using time in the check-out queue to quickly check social media, or reading a magazine or watching TV during meals. No matter how busy we are, most of us can probably find opportunities for decreasing noise, and creating a little more silence and space. A daily intentional practice, such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or prayer, can be very helpful. We can also experiment with other ways of decreasing stimulation – placing a curfew on our smartphone at certain times, not saying yes to every social engagement, only watching TV if the program really interests us, and then switching off…

We all have our own quirky ways in which we fill up space unnecessarily. They’re not always problematic, but can become so when we feel we have no ‘space to breathe’ in our lives anymore.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of two simple ways you can reduce excessive stimulation in your life, and experiment with cutting these out for the week. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Silence

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

What is the place of silence in our lives? We might call for a minute’s silence to honour the memory of someone. We might go for a walk by ourselves, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around us. Most meditation retreats have periods of silence, and we may also practice silence during our own meditation at home, or during a yoga class. Yet for many of us, silence is in short supply – it’s quite common to be bombarded by sounds just about wherever we go. Over time, we can become desensitised to sounds, and barely notice their effects. Yet sounds can have quite a profound impact on our bodies and minds, and can add to our level of stress and anxiety.
Of course there is no such thing as complete silence – there will always be some sounds around us. Yet we can consciously take time out from talking and interacting with people, from filling every available space with radios and TVs, and simply come back to a sense of ourselves, just as we are, without distractions or busyness. If we’re not used to being in silence, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, however, we might find that these periods of intentional silence can be very nourishing for our spirit. It’s as if we open up more space in our lives, instead of feeling hemmed in by too many thoughts and words. By giving ourselves this space, we allow ourselves room to breathe and to grow.
Not all silence is beneficial. We might have been the unfortunate recipients of the ‘silent treatment’, which is really a form of aggression. Or we may have been silenced in some way when we wanted to speak out, to be heard. Some people yearn for a lot of silence in their lives, while others are content with brief periods. We may not wish to join an order of silent monks, but still find great benefit from bringing more periods of intentional silence into our lives.
Practice idea:
Choose one way in which you can bring more silence into your day. It might be driving without the radio, or setting aside ten minutes for sitting in silence, or eating one meal in silence by yourself. What do you notice?
Anja Tanhane

Mindful listening

We all know people who only seem to be listening to us in order to jump in at the first opportunity and start telling their own story. Perhaps we even do this ourselves at times? For example, you might be complaining to your friend about your teenage son who is spending far too much time in front of his computer, and your friend interrupts you with,

‘Yes, I know just what you mean, my husband’s sister’s husband’s second cousin had a neighbour whose son was just like that, blah blah, actually, that reminds me a bit of the movie we saw last night, did I tell you we went into the city…’

Just as annoying can be the tendency to give advice, especially if it’s not asked for, or if the other person knows little about your situation. So your friend might say,

‘Oh, that’s easy, what you have to do is get a system where you agree on how much time he is allowed to spend in front of the computer, and then for every minute he spends over that he has to pay you a dollar, and for every minute under he gets a dollar, and so you buy this special software to keep track but you need to physically monitor it as well because these kids often know how to get around the software, so he needs to use his computer in the kitchen, and only when you’re around…’

And you’re looking at your friend and thinking of a hundred reasons why none of this would work in your family.

The art of listening can often get a little lost in our hectic lives. Sometimes there is so much to get done, who has the time to sit down and listen to every long-winded story someone wants to share with you? There is the elderly neighbour who is a bit lonely but repeats herself six times in four minutes. There is your partner who wants you to be interested in some convoluted tale of office politics when it’s the same old saga – you’ve heard it all before. There is your parent who always seems to ring up just as you’re trying to get dinner on the table and who says, when you ask to ring back later, oh no, this won’t take long – but of course it does.

And yet, when we are able to listen to someone with our full attention, without wanting to interrupt with our own story, or give advice, or wishing they’d hurry up and find a more efficient way of speaking, we know we’re offering the other person something truly precious. We can almost sense them relax, feel appreciated, know that they matter. Being listened to produces oxytocin, the feel-good hormone which is associated with particularly strong human bonding, such as during breast-feeding. There is an exercise we teach in the MBSR course where people pair up and take turns telling their partner about a difficult conversation, while their partner listens in silence and then retells the story back. It feels strange to listen while saying nothing at all, and of course in real life we wouldn’t be completely silent while listening mindfully. However, it is an interesting exercise to realise just how much of our listening can be caught up with either wanting to speak ourselves, or else offering unwanted advice. To what extent can we simply allow the other person to say what they’d like to tell us, without charging in with our own agenda?

Weekly practice idea:

Try listening to someone without interrupting with your own story or advice. See if you can relax into the listening, without rushing somewhere else, and notice how this feels for you, and for the other person.

Anja Tanhane

 

Silence

‘A religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related… This is the experience of silence.’

John Cage

The first performance of John Cage’s seminal piece, 4’33’’, was met by outrage and dismay. It took place at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, in front of an audience which supported the contemporary arts. Yet even for this avant garde crowd of modern artists, the performance, in which virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note (though marking the three movements by opening and closing the piano lid), proved too provocative. They began to whisper among themselves, and some people got up to leave. Thus, along with the wind in the trees outside, and the sound of rain on the roof, they became part of the music. John Cage famously said, ‘there will never be silence’, and the concert hall setting, the prestige of the composer and the performer, the cultural expectations of the audience, created the ideal conditions for a group of people to sit quietly for almost five minutes and simply listen to the ‘sounds of silence.’

There is ongoing debate whether 4’33’’ can be considered music. It is still widely performed, by orchestras, pianists, other instrumentalists. Nowadays the audience, of course, knows the piece, so the performance doesn’t confound their expectations as the original one did.

When we are in silence, we are better able to come face to face with our pre-conceived ideas, biases, our judgemental thinking mind. Everything about a formal concert performance pre-disposes us to take our seat and wait for the performance to start with a clear set of expectations. If a concert pianist is listed as the performer, we expect to listen to accomplished piano playing, not the ambient sounds inside and outside the hall. In a similar way, we take our seat in everyday life, look forward to a mostly predictable day, and therefore often miss much of what is happening.

John Cage was influenced by Zen, and said at one point,

‘Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.’

Is it possible for our intention to go down to zero, as John Cage suggested? Zero is a big number (ironically!). Yet we can definitely open our attention during meditation, to become aware of a greater range of subtle sensations, thoughts and experiences, to be less selective in what we perceive. And yes, there is a certain magic in simply being aware of life as it is unfolding.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 or 20 minutes (or even better, 4’33’’!) to listen to the ‘sounds of silence’. What is that experience like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

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.

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