Reflections on Silence
The invasion of technology in our modern world has contributed to the slow death of silence. Lying on the sand dunes in the Namib Desert, gazing up at the stars and listening to the roar of the world’s natural sound, provides one form of silence. Going to sleep in a Paris hotel with earplugs and cushions over one’s head achieves another kind of silence. We pay out a lot of money in search of quiet locations in which to de-stress and recuperate from our noisy lives.
Even our homes are not protected from noise: once the telephone used to be in the hallway, then it migrated to the lounge, from there to the bedroom, and now it has become glued to our hand as we have become addicted to and dependent on constant talk, texting and chatter – or, should I say, twitter. Saint Paul writes in the New Testament:
Avoid empty and worldly chatter; those who indulge in it will stray further and further into godless courses …
Bible, 2 Timothy 2:16
We no longer tolerate silence. It is covered by every kind of technical noise: TVs, radios, MP3 players, bass-enhanced stereo sets in cars and at home. We speak of environmental noise pollution: factories grumble into the night sky, motorways are never silent and noisy cities never sleep. Such a cacophony of noise destroys silence and dehumanizes us, as the inner soul since time immemorial is nurtured by interiority, by silent retreat, by the sacred that emerges within when one listens to silence.
Without silence the relationship between the outer and the inner world becomes brittle, and our connection to our interior energy is shattered by the clamour of life. Without inner silence the sacred cannot be heard and the soul cannot be refreshed by contact with it; we cannot be still enough to hear the sound or the song of God. Losing it, we become immersed in the world to which we turn, seeking compensation for this lonely disconnection from God.
It is possible that we deliberately seek out all this noise simply as a way to block out our fear of silence, because silence is so frequently associated with loneliness, lack of contact, or loss of connection and communication. We fear that silence implies a lack of friends, relationships, lovability, connection: we fear the isolation and solitude and the associated pain – things to be avoided at all cost!
Ultimately, silence is equated with the silence of the grave, with death itself. Perhaps, in this way, silence holds humankind’s biggest fear: the fear of death. We see death as the end of relationship, of all comforting chatter, twitter, contact and life itself.
However, this is not the view of the spiritual adepts, who incarnate into this form of existence to show us the way back to the reality of our spiritual identity and relationship with God. Masters past and present tell us that we have to learn “to die while living”. The secret of life lies in our ability to recognize and overcome our fear of the silence of the grave and to rehearse the process of physical death while we are alive – to be released from the fear of it, so that at the time of our actual death we will be able to do what needs to be done.
In the Acts of Thomas, Judas Thomas speaks of his imminent death as something he is looking forward to; there is no fear of the silence of the grave:
… But this which is called death, is not death,
But a setting free from the body;
Wherefore I receive gladly
This setting free from the body,
That I may depart and see him
That is beautiful and full of mercy,
Him that I love, him who is my Beloved:
For I have toiled much in his service,
And have labored for his grace that hath supported me
And which departeth not from me.
Quoted by John Davidson in The Gospel of Jesus
According to the Upanishads there is no death, only a change of worlds – a “setting free from the body”. If this is understood, life is perceived as a continuous flow of divine energy, an eternal consciousness that comes into and out of being. We appear and disappear, we are born and we die in countless forms, throughout the ages, until we are graced by coming into a relationship with a living Master who reveals to us the spiritual reality of the Shabd or sound current and connects us to it.
This sound current, also known as the Word, the Sound, Nam, the audible life stream, or the creative power, is the source of all creation, which manifests itself as sound and light in the spiritual regions. As the soul manifests in the body as consciousness, the Word of God manifests itself as inner spiritual sound. Maharaj Sawan Singh says in Spiritual Gems: “The Supreme Creator and the individual spirit in the creation are connected together through the sound current.”
The Masters show us how to get in touch with the Shabd through a process of self-realization leading to God-realization. The practice of meditation is the vehicle that enables an initiate to begin this journey towards God-realization. Meditation is simply the daily practice of sitting still, for two and a half hours, initially in inner silence, detaching one’s attention from the sense organs to bring the mind to the inner eye centre, where it may concentrate on listening to the Shabd.
Again in Spiritual Gems Maharaj Sawan Singh says: “The soul wants Nam and when it gets it, it pulls up the mind, and the result is peace and joy and freshness.” He further describes this meditative practice, saying:
Stilling the wild mind and withdrawing the attention from the body and concentrating it in the eye focus is a slow affair. A Sufi says: ‘A life period is required to win and hold the Beloved in arms’. Concentrating the attention in the eye focus is like the crawl of an ant on a wall. It climbs to fall and falls to rise and to climb again. With perseverance it succeeds and does not fall again.
Imagine rising in the early morning before the dawn chorus of birdsong, metaphorically camping at the feet of the Master – that is, doing one’s meditation. Gazing into the inner darkness, watching the inner light break through, just as we see the sun rise in the outer world. In this inner, silent world, one senses the consilience between long-forsaken instincts and a growing awareness that there is, within, an autonomous power greater than the mind.
The adepts explain that as the inner light brightens, this awareness develops into an inner vision that mirrors the outer view of the Master. A silent communion unfolds that leads to experiencing the presence of God within oneself. This aspect of meditative practice, say the adepts, leads towards a communion with the Shabd, now experienced as the inner Master, who lies within at the centre of being, sustaining all.
The Shabd, as inner Master, both sustains and is the wholesomeness, the central ordering factor, of our being. It is something to be searched for, to be found and realized. It is also spontaneous and numinous and is able to seize hold of our consciousness and draw us towards it. In the Katha Upanishad it is clearly written:
The pure Self cannot be found through studying the Vedas, nor through learned argument, nor through much hearing of the scriptures. The Self is known only to those It chooses. To them alone It reveals Its true nature.
The Upanishads, Sacred Teachings, translated by Shearer and Russell
The word “Self” here could be seen as referring to the Shabd within. The Shabd is the silent centre and director of our life; it embodies both the aspect of intrinsic being and the aspect of its being known. It has the ability to break through all obstacles to lay claim to a personal life and to connect that life to itself. The fact that the Shabd is the centre and the director of our lives makes it the pivot of a satsangi’s entire existence. The Shabd has the ability to be reflected or meditated on, and in this way it has the ability to be known by the persons who are experiencing and living in and through it. So the Shabd is found both in the subjective and in the objective worlds of a person.
L.R. Puri in Radha Soami Teachings quotes Soami Ji as follows:
O! know thou, Shabd is the beginning of all; and the end of all … Shabd is the cause (of all), and Shabd is the effect. ’Tis Shabd that hath created the whole cosmos.
L.R. Puri further explains:
All things get their power and sustenance from this divine melody or celestial harmony, called Shabd. It is the Life of all lives and the Being of all beings …
The Shabd is thus the Beingness that is both God and the experience of God. We may imagine it as acting as a magnet, gathering and focusing our attention, turning us inwards onto the silent and solitary journey that leads us towards a union with the manifestation of God within ourselves.
When we sit in the initial silence of meditation, camping at the Master’s feet, we become receptive to primordial intuitions of those silent nights in which the stars and fire are one. We remember a mystical union when once we were at one with the creative power. As we camp at the Lord’s feet, waiting as silently as did primordial man in the darkness of his night in reverent awe at the power of the Creator and Creation, we too, in the sacred silence, may open to a connection to the sound of the Shabd and see the light. Even as, over millennia, individuals in their chosen spiritual discipline (whether Buddhist, Hindu, Kabbalist, Muslim, Christian, Sufi or through any other practice) have opened their inner eye to experience the divine presence.
In esoteric mystic teachings, this process takes place through the body, in the interiority of being, yet, in crossing the eye centre, it goes far beyond the body. In meditation, when concentration is achieved, the energies of the body are drawn upwards to the eye centre, known in Christianity as the single eye. To attain this centre, the mind must be disciplined. Maharaj Sawan Singh says in Spiritual Gems: “Spiritual progress primarily depends on the training of the mind.” He instructs the devotee to teach the mind not to be led astray by the senses, nor to allow the senses to form deep attachments to objects, situations, people or circumstances.
The Self is not revealed to anyone whose ways have not changed, whose senses are not still, whose mind is not quietened, whose heart is not at peace.
When the five senses are stilled, and thinking has ceased, when even the intellect does not stir, then, say the wise, one has reached the highest state.
The Upanishads, Sacred Teachings, translated by Shearer and Russell
By overcoming the fear of silence, solitude and darkness and distractions from the inner path, the soul gains the power to attach itself to the Shabd and to pass to the divine regions within. In the Bible (Matthew 6:22), Jesus Christ says, “… if therefore thine eye be single thy whole body shall be full of light,” and later he says, “Enter ye in at the strait gate” … meaning the eye centre … “Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Mystics are well aware of our fear of death, of the silence of the grave. So they show us how to make best use of silence and time, and teach us to listen to the Shabd and hear the word of God. They advise us to live a measured life, which balances our householder’s responsibilities and our meditational duty to the Lord, and so to honour the commitment to the inner path we made at the time of initiation.