The Stillness and Silence of the Mind

Updated: Mar 10


"Landscape with Moon", Algernon Newton (1880-1968), British

Almost all of us are familiar with the concept of "backrgound noise" - a TV, a radio producing incomprehensible sounds that very often nobody is closely listening or paying attention to. The purpose of them working, at that moment, is nothing but to prevent silence from taking over. "Uncomfortable silence" as it is often called. The silence, seemingly, is so frightening that one has to prevent it from creeping in. The noise does not have to be pleasant, actually very rarely is that noise Chopin's Nocturne. The whole point of such noise is that it is there but that it is not emotionally or mentally engaging.

"Woman Before the Rising Sun", Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840), German

Silence, given the constant noise of the modern world and given the need for "background noise", seems to be frightening and something to be avoided. The truth is, that quiet of the environment, in one's surroundings, is very rarely followed by silence. When the surroundings are silent, another sort of noise creeps right behind it - the noise of the mind. Who does not relate to the stories and jokes about "bedtime mind", the time when myriad of memories, seemingly forgotten emotions, existential crises and thoughts assault the individual who was just prepared to sleep and rest in the oblivion? Mind, being such a tyrant to many, is then, best not given any chance to speak, to express that which torments the one who is at its mercy. Shutting it down by making an external stimuli the point of one's awareness seems like a quick and effective solution to the many problems of the inner noise. The external noise is always easier to cope with. It is controlled and easily non-provocative. Those of us who live in modern societies, are also surrounded by a culture that to a degree, values individual, personal comfort. While one could say that to a degree, feeling comfortable is important, at times, it takes such an extreme form that an individual cannot deal with anything that provides even smallest amount of discomfort - be it a book or article that in an intelectually provocative and open way discusses certain topics, be it exposure to certain opinions or perspectives, be it life circumstances and social interactions and vast amount of discomfort and conflict that comes with each of them. In that sense, Schopenhauer's idea that teaching young people that happiness or comfort is something they should expect from life and that it ironically, only makes them disempowered and deluded about realities of life, shows true. So often, I notice, people tormented because life, even beautiful, is still full of hardship, they feel victimized by external circumstances, incapable to look the life in the eye and accept that our utopian dreams, whatever they are, rarely, if ever, manifest in the world of human interactions. This idea of comfort, seems to have become imperative of internal lives as well. Although there is more speech of mental health than ever before, and perhaps it was necessary and needed, there is also a trend of creating an ever greater attachment to one's preconceived pathologies. Not once did I observe people completely describe themselves, their entire identities in the terms of traumas they struggle with. And while, there may be emotional and psychological torment, such attachment provides existential comfort. The "I" can safely attach itself to something. The "I", the ego, will engage in the same narrative, over and over again, until it seemingly becomes, the only dimension of the individual's existence. Be it that we attach to external noise - "background noise", constant busyness, or internal noise - thoughts, memories, narratives, future projections, both leave no place for silence of the mind and both leave place for present and experience. But, being Divine comedy that life is, it offers stillness of the mind through both internal and external life.

To be Still

Dasha Mahavidya Bagalamukhi, also known as "Vak Sthambanakari" - "The One Who Paralyzes Speech" (Image via Google)

"Silent Contemplation", "Silence is Golden", "Empty Mind", "Silent Worship" "Silent Zikr" are similar concepts that exist across spiritual and philosophical traditions around the world. I am of thought that every time a similar idea appears in distant places or using different methods, that there is an underlying, perennial, universal wisdom beneath. The power of this wisdom is that every time our ego decides to attach to every passing thought and emotion or create narratives of the past and future, the one engaged in silence, focused on mantra or prayer, or just observing without labeling, shifts his or her awareness to the present moment, to that which is being said, to that which one is engaged in. For a moment, there is no past to bring its baggage and regret, and there is no future to overwhelm one's mind with anxiety, fear, expectations and plans. Being free of thought, or better said, from attachment to thought, one is able to be engaged in the present. It is not a quest to destroy the ego. Ego or self - consciousness is a uniquely human way of existing, the plethora of subjectivities is richness of human existence. Ego will return at any attempt to kill it, but in stillness and silence, free from imagination and thoughts, the "I" can be silent, and one, for a moment can experience the "small death", a realization that in the experience, any experience, there is nothing but experience itself. Individual comes to understand that they are not the fleeting conditions of the mind, but awareness of the experience, or the experience itself. Dasha Mahavidya Bagalamukhi is personification of this experience in Shaktism (a major tradition of Hinduism, with a focus on Goddess worship). She, in her golden robes, holds a mace and is ready to strike the devotee's tongue. She represents freedom from mental engagement in the future or past, freedom to fully engage in that which is, without any additional commentary (noise). Commentary or noise may appear, because mind does what it desires to do, but they are gently observed. They no longer hold power or define the entire existence. One is no longer afraid of silence and needs no external or internal noise for comfort. No thought, ugly or good, has power to define the moment of experience. Similar, non-objectifying relation with the world is spoken of in Martin Buber's "I-To-Thou". World as experience, not world as object or point of reference.

Silence in Activity and Inactivity

The "Divine comedy" that life is, as suggested earlier, reveals its Mercurial nature in the suble absurdities, inconsistencies and oxymorons of life. Just like constant motion, noise or busyness can be a way to avoid silence, so can external activity be a path to stillness that is not mere escapism. Just like the constant engagement in the noise of the mind, attachment to every passing and fleeting thought can be a way to avoid blissful silence, so can internal activity, be path to stillness that is not attachment. In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, there is a scene in which Levin is out in the fields, working with the peasants. Leo Tolstoy gives a long and detailed description of his work, but those that focus on his state of mind or state of being in the moment, are the most relevant for this topic. "The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him; while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigor and dogged energy to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments. He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest. (...) ‘Splendid! You can’t imagine what an effectual remedy hard work is for every sort of foolishness. I want to enrich medicine with a new word: Arbeitskur - Work cure" In this quote, Leo Tolstoy perflecty describes how that "unity", or existence of nothing else but the experience itself can happen in external activity. "He thought of nothing, wished for nothing" - there was no past and future, there was the present experience in which, the lines between him and the scythe, body and mind, were blurred. The "I" as a point of reference, with its noise and narrative, for a moment was gone. He was completely engaged in the moment, he heard, saw, what was there. Something as ordinary and as hard as working in the fields became the blissful moments of pure, "I-to-Thou" experience. Our senses are a door for the present moment. For the same reason, escapism through sensory indulgence is very common. Silence in inactivity is something that is probably, more obvious, as it is associated with prayer, contemplation and meditation. Tibetan Buddhist teacher of Nyingma lineage, Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo (1892 - 1940), expresses wonderfully the emptiness, silence, stillness of mind in her "A Song of Amazement". Here is a part of her poem: "In my isolated mountain retreat of limitless appearances, remaining in the practice where the world and beyond arise as ornaments, I sustained the fundamental nature, free from fixating on hope and fear. Gazing upon my own true face – innate luminosity – I possess the instructions on self-liberation of appearances.

In my isolated mountain retreat of self-luminous detachment, resting in the practice of luminosity without clinging, I sustained the fundamental nature of self-emergent simplicity. Gazing upon my own true face – carefree openness – I have the teachings on self-liberation of destructive emotions. In my isolated mountain retreat of self-emergent non-conceptuality, remaining in the practice of self-liberation of conditioned appearances, I sustained the fundamental nature of non-dual hope and fear. Encountering the wisdom of natural self-liberation, I hold the instructions for the self-release of whatever arises." In these simple, but telling verses, she describes her experience while in the isolated retreat of Nyimalung in Amdo . While there, she had a vision of formless spirits and demons, who asked her what kind of blessing would there be for them, if they developed devotion. She then, shared her wisdom with them. She, in her isolated retreat and meditation, understood her "true face". That true face is free of attachment to fleeting thoughts, emotions, "conditioned appearances" (the labeling and definitions humans give to objects, experiences and people, conditioned by memory and imagination). In her physical stillness and inactivity, she was not attached to whatever noise came from her mind, she rather surrendered to experience, just like fictional Levin, surrendered to his.

Links: "I and Thou", Martin Buber "Shakti Rising", Kavitha Chinnaiyan "Anna Karenina", Leo Tolstoy "A Song of Amazement" "Become a Patron"

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