There is something spectacular about the grace of silence. Starting this month, September, the Abbey is going to feature a monthly theme (click over to the Abbey blog to see the beautiful icon). This month we are exploring silence, the first principle of the Monk Manifesto: “I commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.”
Each month for the next seven months, we will take one of the Monk Manifesto themes for the entire month and it will shape our Poetry Parties, Photo Parties (see below for the newest one this week), and other reflections.
The desert mothers and fathers wrote extensively about seeking interior silence. The word they used was hesychia, which refers to a kind of deep inner stillness. We can surround ourselves with quiet, but hesychia refers to the quiet that comes from within.
Amma Syncletica, one of the wise desert mothers, offers us this wisdom saying:
“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” (Syncletica 19)
What I love about this saying is that she very directly tells us that we do not have to wish for a life in a monastery to find silence and stillness (especially if I go there and never let go of the endless mental chatter). To be a monk in the world means to cultivate the practice of silence in our everyday lives. I love life in the city, I love to be able to walk and get whatever I need. But the crowds, the traffic noise, and the jackhammering that has been going on across the street from my building these last couple of weeks, can all make silence feel far away. But if my inner life is full of judgment, or clamor, or chaos, I will never find silence, no matter where I am. Whereas, the desert elders tell us, you can be in the midst of a sea of noise, and still cultivate inner peace.
This is where practice is essential. Each morning I show up to my morning time of silence. I begin with some journaling to help give the chatter in my mind a place to rest. I engage in a time of yin yoga, which is a marvelous and deeply contemplative practice of holding asanas, or poses, for 5 minutes at a time. In this way, I enter the stillness of the body. I close my physical practice with a movement prayer and I seek stillness at the heart of dance (I am a big believer in being a dancing monk!) And finally I have a time of sitting in silent meditation, where I just sink into the quiet both within and without.
I find the physical element of meditation practice important. When we meditate, we aren’t trying to transcend the body. When I practice yoga and dance, I move energy through my body, I release patterns of holding and tightness which can just get reinforced by sitting still. If I don’t have a movement practice before meditation, I often find my body is more restless. If I allow it to have its natural language, then I discover the vast pool of silence right within my body. Allowing my awareness to sink into my body cultivates more capacity for physical stillness, which is connected to the stillness of the mind.
I shared last week about the silent retreat I participated in recently. The first couple of days there I found my mind full of chatter, refusing to grow still. It took commitment on my part, to keep showing up. I could have just given up and decided to spend the whole retreat running in circles in my mind. But as I continued to let go and let go, I slowly dropped down below the choppy surface to a vast pool of silence beneath. I had to actively stay committed to being present (because chatter loves nothing more than to distract us and numb us). I had to keep releasing the clamoring thoughts each time they arose, sometimes that was my entire practice, just letting go.
Sometimes when we sit down to silent meditation, we feel agitated, we are restless, a list of things to do is hovering right in front of our eyes. These are the times when it is so tempting to walk away, to decide that you just aren’t in the “right space” for it and to try another time. But this is exactly when we need the commitment to notice our thoughts, and as much as possible every time they arise, breathe deeply and let them go. The whole practice may be just that. Because cultivating this capacity to be with the mental overwhelm will always bear fruit in our daily lives. We don’t wait for our life situation to be “perfect” because it never will. My time of silent retreat was in service to my life as a monk in the world (and never in spite of it). I am much more likely to be able to find a moment of calm in the midst of life’s busyness.
Returning from retreat was another challenge, as I transitioned from the stillness and beauty of the place I had been, to the demands of everyday life. This can often be a hard threshold to cross and is where my daily practice is essential. Where I can stay connected to source in the midst of the world. It also helps if I haven’t overscheduled my life, so there are never any moments of holy pause. Because we don’t necessarily need more folks going off to the wilderness to pray. What we need are more people, living in the heart of the world, and witnessing to the capacity for peace, stillness, and hesychia, right here, right now.
Do you have a daily practice of silence?
Could you pause right now, for just 5 minutes, quieting your thoughts and breathing deeply? (yes, even just 5 minutes can offer deep refreshment if you give yourself over to it)
What might you discover?