Enjoying the Silence

From Caroline’s 2002 Salon

A classic cartoon that first appeared years ago shows two Buddhist monks seated in meditation posture. The older monk, responding to a question from the young novice, says, “Nothing happens next. This is it.” It’s a double joke: Of course, the beginning student wants to know what to expect after he closes his eyes, counts his breath, or follows whatever technique the monk has taught him, as if he expects the heavens to open and some explosive enlightenment to occur. But it’s also true that what happens “next” in a fully realized meditation is, well, nothing. Some apprehension of openness to the great Void may be as much as anyone might realistically expect from meditation practice. Yet, as meditation teachers have been saying for millennia, that “nothing” or “emptiness” is really a great something, a realization of the fullness of Being. It’s also the thing we dread most, the Void we may expect to enter at death, the eradication of our precious ego. That’s probably why beginning meditators often experience so much resistance to the practice.

Fortunately, that “nothing is something” phenomenon is not limited to the realm of meditation. What does it mean, for instance, to be creatively blank? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Facing a blank page, unable to come up with a new idea, can be a writer’s worst nightmare. But here’s the thing: That blank space creates a kind of vacuum into which the new ideas you are looking for can rush unimpeded. The problem comes when you try to maintain that blank state long enough for new ideas to germinate, without panicking that you’ll never have an original thought again. It’s a little like the college graduate who has to choose between jumping right into the job market to start earning a living, or taking some time off from the chase to explore other worlds and other ways of being. Although some grads do take time to bum around Europe or go to India in search of enlightenment, most plow right into the workaday world, either from necessity or out of fear. And that fear may not be so much about running out of money as the fear of encountering that creative blankness, or what we might call the “silence within.”


Maybe you can get a clearer understanding of what I mean by looking more closely at the phenomenon commonly known as “vacation stress.” You may be wondering how a vacation could be stressful — but only if you haven’t taken one lately. First of all, there’s the ordinary stress of preparing to go away, rushing to pack while still doing everything else you normally do. Add to that the anxiety of getting where you’re going. Flying these days has clearly taken on an extra layer of stress, but even driving anywhere further than the nearest state park can be stressful, fatiguing, and perhaps dangerous. Once you get where you’re going, you have to check in and start doing whatever you planned on — sightseeing, hiking, swimming, finding a place to eat – all the while pursuing that elusive feeling of relaxation. That can be especially hard to do when you find yourself surrounded by hundreds of other eager vacationers, all flooding into the same desirable locales in the last two weeks of August, hoping for peace and quiet but making it awfully hard to get a dinner reservation at a decent restaurant.

But there is another, subtler, more insidious form of stress best summarized by the age-old question, “Are we having fun yet?” You can feel so much pressure to “do” something on a vacation — to have a peak vacation experience, so to speak — that if it rains and you’re forced to stay in your room or tent or RV and just hang out, you feel like your vacation is ruined! (Especially if you’re paying $200 a day for a room by the beach.)Yet just the opposite is true. The word “vacation” comes from the same Latin root as “vacuum,” and means to become empty, to be free from duty or service. By extension it implies carving out a space of time, leaving your normal location and your normal consciousness as well, in order to enter a different space. The whole idea of a vacation is to let your physical and, if you’re lucky, your psychic field, lie fallow for a time as a way of reconstituting and recovering your power. In the parlance of teenagers everywhere, you have to learn how to “chill” — that is, to enjoy doing nothing. I can already hear the revolt being staged by proponents of the Protestant work ethic — an ethic, by the way, that has been adopted by Catholics, Jews, and most other religious and ethnic groups in this country. Sure, the party line goes, plenty of people enjoy doing nothing — most of them are on welfare, or on drugs, or are just plain slackers. You may even recognize this syndrome in your own teenagers, who are often professional slackers and proud of it. Oddly enough, as some books on parenting point out, the reason teenagers have so much trouble getting anything done is that all their energy is spent trying to figure out who they are. So what looks like doing nothing may actually be a sign that they’re engaged in doing inner work. Okay, so maybe it’s not classic spiritual work, and sure, they also waste countless hours watching TV, but something else is going on, too.


We probably are afraid of silence and empty space because we have trouble understanding the creative potential and power of lying fallow. When farmers do that, for instance, they are letting growing fields go “on retreat,” so to speak, so that they can regenerate precious nutrients that will go into the next crop that is planted there. The result, as farmers have known for ages, is a healthier, more nutritious crop of wheat or corn or strawberries. In the Chinese system of exercise known as qigong (or Chi Gung), one common foot posture is called an “empty step.” That’s when you put your front foot forward but don’t place any weight on it; all or most of your weight remains on your rear leg. As qigong masters explain, this is one of the most powerful moves you can make, because that front leg is free to move quickly to strike or block an opponent. A leg or foot that has all your weight on it is encumbered and can’t be moved nearly as fast or as effectively. And much the same is true of a mind or psyche that has become too busy and encumbered and needs some room to breathe.

We have such a dread of emptiness that the word itself has acquired mainly negative connotations in our culture; it can mean feeling hollow and inauthentic, meaningless, hungry, or just plain out of gas. And, as we saw with our discussion of the concept of “retreat” in a previous Salon, withdrawing from the active world can seem like a capitulation or loss, when, in fact, the very act of emptying out is what makes creation possible. A wonderful book that came out many years ago argued that it is precisely in the vast emptiness of interstellar space that new hydrogen atoms are generated. Because hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, it is considered the building block of all matter. In effect, then, all matter ultimately derives from the apparently empty spaces of the universe; the author referred to this creative space as the “nothing between.” The book itself takes its title from a Sanskrit phrase, Neti-neti, which translates roughly as “not this, not that.” That is, the indescribable something that appears to be nothing. And yet this “nothing between” is not only an abundant source of creation, it also seems to be essential for life. How can we continue to ignore its importance?


Now that we know that it’s good to create some open space for your mind and heart to grow and create in, how do we go about doing that? One obvious way, of course, is through some kind of daily meditation practice. By learning to enter that space of emptiness on a regular basis, even if only for 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll become more familiar with the sensation and less afraid of the negative connotations of feeling “empty.” In time, you will probably come to enjoy the silence, the respite from cares and concerns of daily life, at least in the sense of not allowing them to wear you down and dominate your consciousness. Meditation teachers usually acknowledge that it’s impossible to keep random thoughts, worries, plans, and even obsessions from intruding during meditation. But it is possible to let them simply float by without playing into their hands. Tell yourself that whatever happens during your meditation time doesn’t matter – especially if “nothing” happens. Even if you seem to spend most of the time calling yourself back from daydreams and fantasies, or trying not to worry about something that went wrong at work yesterday, you are still entering a creative space. In time it will be easier to let go of distracting thoughts long enough to get some inkling of the “nothing between.”

But meditation is just the beginning. There are plenty of other ways of entering and enjoying the silence. One obvious way is to allow more silence into your life. Resist turning on the television the minute you wake up or come home from work, or automatically listening to the radio in your car. This kind of silence creates a mental space where ideas can germinate and intuitive feelings may be revealed to you. I don’t mean that you should use this blank time trying to think profound thoughts or obsess endlessly about all your problems. In fact, that’s why we compulsively reach for the radio dial or the remote — to shut out those nagging thoughts and negative feelings. But learning to control your mind is part of your work as a student in this Mystery School, and blotting out troubling thoughts with a constant stream of noise isn’t an effective way to control anything. Some people use mantras or short prayers for this purpose. Repeating a mantra or something like the Jesus prayer (which we also discussed in an earlier Salon) can help calm your nerves and ground you, while making it easier to let go of negative thoughts that are always jumping in. If saying a mantra doesn’t appeal to you, try just letting your mind go blank while focusing intently on what you’re doing. When you’re driving, just drive, as the Zen masters might put it. Don’t talk on the cell phone, listen to the news for the 30th time, or fiddle with the tape deck. (At least as many accidents are caused by people fumbling with the car stereo system as talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving.)

Focusing intently on what you’re doing is good advice in any situation, whether you’re cooking, exercising, or writing a legal brief. I know most exercise is boring and we do it more for the effects than for the sheer pleasure of climbing a Stairmaster (ugh!). But if your exercise regime is so tedious that only blasting the stereo or watching yet another hour of CNN makes it bearable, then maybe it’s time to look at the way you exercise. Or maybe you need to find something that will hold your attention on its own, whether that’s yoga, qigong, or kick-boxing. Remember, it’s the compulsive, repetitive nature of the distraction that we’re focusing on here. If your hour at the gym or out running with your Walkman is the only time you have to catch up on the news, then maybe that’s a helpful thing for you. And a little classical music while cooking dinner can help to soothe your senses. But pay attention to how often you use radio and television to fill in the empty spaces that might otherwise allow your mind to “lie fallow” for a few minutes or more. Don’t mistake what I’m saying for another attack on the evils of television. TV has plenty of good things to offer, especially some of the specialized channels now available on cable. And don’t think of turning off the TV as something negative that you have to do, like the old line about trying not to think about an elephant. Let it happen gently and see if you don’t actually come to enjoy the silence. Watch for creative ideas or intuitions that may begin to pop up during these silent times. (Then, when there’s something on that you actually want to watch, you’ll enjoy the experience even more.)


I think that what most people are actually afraid of when they create noise isn’t the silence itself or even the feeling of loneliness that may accompany it. What you’re really afraid of is the possibility of receiving some important intuitive hit that you might have to follow. It could be an inner voice telling you it’s time to change your job, to leave your partner, to move, or to take the spiritual life a lot more seriously. What will you do if you’re silent long enough for that “still small voice” to be heard loud and clear? You might have to act on it, or else acknowledge that you’re not being authentic. Sometimes the voice will repeat itself as if waiting for the chance to be heard. And, if you start learning to enjoy the silence, those voices that you missed may make themselves heard yet.

The kind of silence we’re talking about here isn’t necessarily related only to the absence of sound. Along with all the insidious forms of noise pollution that drive us to distraction are other forms of “noise” – visual, mental, even unwanted smells. We can clutter up our lives with images that are distracting or negative, but we can also create the mental equivalent of white noise by the constant repetition of negative thoughts. I don’t have to remind you how many hours you already spend rerunning those childhood tapes telling you that you can’t, or shouldn’t, or will never do something that you very well could do if you just believed you could. As Jesus said, “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Be moved from this place to that;’ and it will be moved; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

Do you really believe that? What if you wrote in your journal every time you thought you could do something until a voice in your head told you that you couldn’t? In fact, I’d like you to do that this month and then let me know how it worked out. Every time a negative thought intrudes on your silence, write it down. If you don’t have your journal handy, write it on a scrap of paper and transfer it later. Just by focusing your attention on these little bits of mental noise pollution, you can at least make yourself aware of how often they pop up. Keep in my that increased awareness is one of the goals of this particular Mystery School, and whatever form it takes is bound to be beneficial in the long run. In the short run, expect to meet up with some resistance. This can take the form of your rational mind saying, “What’s this? I know I have negative thoughts sometimes. Doesn’t everyone? Am I supposed to be some kind of New Age Pollyanna and think only happy thoughts?”

Well, nobody said anything about “happy” thoughts. I’m not suggesting you start sounding like the local newscasters who insist on finding something to laugh about even as they’re telling you about the latest child abduction. It’s really more a matter of not letting yourself be overcome by the “unhappy” ones. Let yourself see how it feels to have the burden of that kind of noise lifted from your shoulders for a few days. Imagine unexpectedly receiving a large inheritance or winning the lottery. All the gnawing financial worries and limitations are suddenly lifted and you don’t have to spend endless hours wondering if you’ll be able to pay the mortgage or buy a decent car to get around in. What starts going on in your mind? You may begin dreaming about what you can do once you’re released from the background noise of money worries. And I don’t just mean fantasies about buying a big house in Malibu or taking endless vacations, but maybe creative endeavors like taking up painting or starting to work on that novel or screenplay you’ve been dreaming about for years. You might finally realize you don’t have to live where you do, or stay with someone you don’t love anymore out of financial fear. You might decide you want to explore the spiritual dimension more fully, and spend more time working with a spiritual director or being your own spiritual director.

I’m suggesting that you can let yourself feel that kind of mental release without actually winning the lottery. And it all begins with getting comfortable with the silence – external silence and internal silence. It begins with allowing yourself the freedom to go blank without fearing the consequences. It begins with some simple practices like the ones I’ve outlined in this Salon.

I hope you’ll all continue to enjoy the last precious moments of summer.

God bless you on your journey,

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