Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Sound of Silence

Today is Sunday, May 26, 2013.

I'd like to talk about silence, today.  That may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but here goes, anyway.  When I'm finished, I promise to be silent.

There are all kinds of reasons to be silent or not to be silent.  I do believe that it's important to speak up when we see injustice and impending danger, but I'm not talking about that sort of situation.  Rather, I'm talking about silence as a spiritual discipline.   All the world's major religions, plus a few others, have something to say about silence as a spiritual practice. 

A wise man in Islam said, "Wisdom consist in keeping silent, and those who practice it are few."  The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said, "Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something, and sometimes one creates as significant an impression by remaining silent." 

 Perkey Avot, which could be translated as Chapters of the Fathers, is a compilation of Jewish ethical teachings from Rabbis of the Mishnaic period.  It states, "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah, tithing a safety fence to wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom..... is silence."

Christianity also advises silence in a long list of situations, including when you are angry or critical, when you don't have all the facts, or when you haven't verified someone's story.  The Bible also advises silence when you might offend a "weaker" person (e.g. someone who is unable to accept some bit of truth), when you might convey the wrong impression, when yo u are tempted to tell a lie, when your words might damage a friendship, when it's none of your business, when you are supposed to be working, or when you have already said something more than once. All these might be considered instances of "outer silence."  If you are interested in reading the full list, click here.

The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) actually make silence a part of their worship service.  They feel that it is important for each individual to be silent in order to hear the "still, small voice of God."   They take the Psalmist's advice to heart, literally: "Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)  Although it is an outer silence, it is a little closer to the Hindu and Buddhist views, which focus on something called "inner silence."

Inner silence, or inner stillness, is learning to quiet that "chatterbox" inside our heads who seems to have a comment on every situation that we experience in our lives.  This is the silence that we cultivate in meditation. When we leave behind that pesky voice, what we are really letting go of is our need to frame our experience in terms of human language.  When we quiet the chatterbox, we begin to experience life – and truth – more directly.  It's hard to explain this state of being because there are no words for it, intentionally.  Each individual has to experience it for himself or herself.

My spiritual path, Eckankar, recognizes both outer silence and inner silence.  We learn to do "contemplation," which is a slightly more focused and intentional form of meditation.  We may start out by asking a question, then quiet our minds to get an answer.  Sometimes the answer comes in the form of visual images, and other times the answer comes in the form of inner experiences.   In contemplation, we may also simply let ourselves ponder a spiritual quote or a concept such as love, forgiveness, etc.  Or we may seek a spiritual experience in a Temple of Golden Wisdom on the inner planes.  Outwardly, we may sing HU, an ancient name for God, but at come point we stop chanting, and simply sit in silence. 

We also recognize the Law of Silence that governs some outer situations.  We are taught that silence is a good practice when we are angry or when we feel like defending ourselves.  This facet of the Law of Silence is not unique to Eckankar.  In fact, a lot of thoughtful people on the Internet are suggesting the same thing. 

A number of bloggers on the web have written that it's important to restrain ourselves when we hear criticisms.  The urge to defend ourselves is often overwhelming, but as many of these people point out, we can actually learn a lot about ourselves from criticism, so it should be thought of as an opportunity for growth, rather than something to be avoided.  

Russell Bishop tells a story in an article in Huffpost GPS for the Soul, called "Why You Should Never Defend, Explain or Justify."   Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, an American architect, systems theorist and futurist, was speaking to an audience on the topic of seeking to understand and be understood.   A member of the audience too the microphone during the Q and A session and proceeded to tell Fuller that his ideas were bunk.  Fuller's response was to say, "Thank you."  The audience member kept talking, obviously trying to provoke a reaction, but all Fuller ever said was, "Thank you."   Later, he explained, "Did you not notice that each time I paused to consider what you had to say?  I looked inside myself to see if some part of me was reacting to what you had said about me, particularly if some part of me was upset, prone to counterattack, or otherwise affected.  I have found that when I am in that kind of reaction, there is typically something there for me to learn about myself, something for which I need to improve."

There are other reasons to keep your silence.  When you feel the need to explain your actions by blaming them on other things, you are not exercising personal responsibility.   What you said or did is not the fault of your boss, your spouse, your kids, your job, or your stress.  It is not the fault of your having gotten tied up in traffic, having to miss lunch, or staying up too late last night. Whatever you said or did is your reaction to life, which you chose to display in public, pure and simple.  As my mother has often said, "You could have gone all day without saying that."

Another reason people feel they need to defend their actions by explaining is a fear that they may actually be wrong and their critic may be right.  "Explainers" look for confirmation, validation and approval from others, and they seem to feel that if others understood the situation, they would provide validation.  You hear this all the time.  People say, "I only did that because...,"  "I was just trying to....,"  "No, no, what I really meant was....," or "Please!  Let me explain!" The problem with this is that when you seek approval from others, you are giving them power over you, and it's a fact that most people are not that apt to change their minds. In any event, we cannot control what other people think, nor should we try to.  In fact, in my spiritual path, it is a spiritual violation to try to change someone's beliefs by force.  This extends to "missionary work," as well.   Rather than tell people they are wrong, we try to find commonalities of belief, and we try to listen respectfully to all points of view.  We seek to understand others' beliefs, and encourage respectful dialogue.  Of course, this only works if all parties are amenable to respectful dialogue.  If they are not – if they are bent on converting us, for example, we are encouraged to distance ourselves from them, rather than engage them in an argument that will have no winners.  Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of such works as The Alchemist, had the right idea.  He said, "Don't waste your time with explanations; people only hear what they want to hear."    Someone whose name we may never know said it a different way: "Never waste too much time explaining yourself.  Your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe it."  This is not only true in the area of religion and spirituality, but also in politics. 

There are certain people who seem to believe that if you disagree with them, you probably just didn't understand what they said, so they keep talking, apparently believing that if they explain it one more time, you will see the light.  Two friends of mine were arguing over some matter, and finally one of them said, "I understand very well what you are saying, and I disagree with you.  I am never going to agree with you on this, so just stop trying to explain it.  We will have to agree to disagree."   I thought that was a good way to get her point across.  Unfortunately, the person she was arguing with, the "explainer," simply didn't get it.  Oh well, you can't win them all.

One other reason for silence comes from a number of different spiritual paths, and it has to do with discernment.  When we come to understand a spiritual truth, there is often an overwhelming desire to share it with the world, particularly when whatever we have discovered makes us happy.  The problem is that not everybody is at the same state of consciousness, so there will always be someone who doesn't get it, or who cannot accept it.  One of the more colorful ways to express this concept is given in Matthew 7:6.  In his "sermon on the mount," Jesus is quoted as saying, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces."  The phrase "casting pearls before swine" has stuck in the popular consciousness.   Eckankar teaches this, too.  Whatever spiritual insights you get are meant for you, alone, and not for anyone else.  Everyone else will get their own lessons, meant for them.  Besides, it's well-known that people love to criticize that which they do not understand.  If what you have found out is true, then it will become apparent in the daily experience of your life.  If it turns out not to be true, that information will also be played out in your daily life.  The point is that you will be the one to experience confirmation of that particular truth, or your life experience will contradict it.  In either case, you can learn for yourself, without worrying about the opinions of others.

In her post on "The gifts of inner stillness" on her blog, called Rejuvenation Lounge, Carole Fogarty lists a number of benefits of cultivating inner silence.  Among them are clarity of thought, an expanded awareness of solutions to problems, a chance to digest daily experiences, an increased level of trust in the process of life, an expanded inner connection to your intuition and to divine guidance, and a chance to put things into perspective.  Follow the link to her article to read more benefits.

So how can we cultivate inner silence for ourselves?   Steve Morris, author of Glorious Living: Sowing Seeds of Enlightenment into Your Daily Life, offers these suggestions (my wording):  1) Set aside time to be alone.  2) Seek balance in your surroundings - find places where you can feel this balance, whether it is in nature or in a given space in your home.  3)  Simplify your life.  Get rid of possessions that you don't really need.  Don't be afraid to say no to requests when you cannot put another thing on your schedule.  You do not have to justify this. 4)  Learn to accept criticism without defending yourself.  Ask yourself what you can learn from criticism.  5)  Regularly take the time to turn off your TV,  radio, phone, and computer.  Unplug and relax.  6)  Smile when other people make mistakes, especially if the outcome affects you, and learn to recover from the situation by means of your own inner strength. 7)  Use breathing exercises to control feelings of anger or the desire to lash out at others.  :-)

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