It won’t come as a surprise to some of you who are reading this that there are things we do, physical things, that seem to quiet us. Those of you who practice hatha yoga are aware of how quiet your mind becomes when you concentrate on your balance or breathing as you move through an asana.
Some people find it important to carve out a physical space, even a minuscule one, where they are “safe” and can close off distractions: an uncluttered corner, for example. This is as physical as practicing yoga. Some of us may be visually oriented: I’ve often found that an image could be my “space” where I can find peace and quiet. This is part of the attraction of using icons in prayer: I can go out of myself and “into” the sacred space, the scriptural space, described by the icon painter. A photographer friend of mine once sent me a photo of the famous moss garden at the temple Saiho-ji in Kyoto. For years, looking at that photo was an effective way for me to begin mental prayer.
Living conditions can be crowded: I know someone living with her family who gets some minutes for herself in her room, listening to Vivaldi’s Gloria. And isn’t that interesting? Listening to sounds, music, can quiet the racing mind! But then silence, the pauses in a series of bars, is part of the structure of music.
Perhaps that leads us back to St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries: the point of silence is to listen and listen well. Try that in conversation: listen so well to the other person that your mind is still. Try that in a tense conversation, an argument–there’s nothing guaranteeing that I’ll be calm and still, that my feelings will be still! But when I listen intently, even in that sort of exchange, at least for a few moments, I’m pulled out of my preoccupations and perennial distractions. What I find very difficult is knowing when to talk, when to respond; yet what a relief to be concerned about this–connecting with someone else–than being absorbed in my petty preoccupations, being curved-in on myself!
I’m suggesting that silence is more than the absence of noise or distractions. It is also a state of self-transcendence, a state of openness and listening, a responsiveness, even an ethical responsiveness, the foundation of relationship to others and the world around me. It is a matrix for creativity, a threshold–rather than the forum–of living well.