The Attainment of Silence


  When Jesus Christ stood before the Roman governor, Pilate, he was asked:  “What is truth?”  Jesus refused to answer.  He remained silent.  We might perhaps have wished that he had said something!  Might this not have been a time to declare and to explain the truth?  Perhaps some would wish that Christ had used the occasion to state the truth so clearly and certainly that no questions about it would have remained. 

 But He did not answer, unless it could perhaps be said that his very silence was, in a certain sense, the best answer that could ever have been given. 

 I happen to think that the silence of Christ was itself a tremendous answer and incredibly powerful.  His silence was more powerful than the best arguments that have ever been made.  That is because His silence pointed to the magnificent quality of his inner state, of His inner attainment.  I would like myself to live more fully and deeply in the kind of silence that Christ lived in.

 I had it drummed into me during a certain period of my life that I was always to have an answer ready for any questioner.  I was supposed to know absolutely what I believed and why I believed it!  Which is important as far as it goes.  But what was left out of the instruction I received was much of an emphasis upon the quality of my inner life.  Without that emphasis,  I used to feel the burden only to be a good 'answer-giver.'  I don't think I ever felt that silence itself might be the decisive factor in an encounter with someone who questioned me about my faith.  

 When Christ Himself was questioned and under far more pressure than I have ever come close to experiencing, He did not answer.  He was silent.  It was, I think, an incomparably powerful silence. 

 I think there’s something to this level of silence, a silence that is more formidable than anything that could be said or explained.  There is a silence that is mightier than mere words.  This is a silence that is rich and full .  Such a silence is a great accomplishment.

 That is the point I wish to make in this article, that there is a silence that is a profound attainment.  There is a silence that is the realization of a human being’s greatest possibility.  There is a silence that is the fruit of the absolutely highest ascent of consciousness.  This silence is an expression of the fullest, deepest and best knowledge.  I say again - there is a silence that is indicative of the deepest possible spiritual realization.

 Just think of the opposite of silence for a moment. Think of noisy, talkative people at a party somewhere. Think of that person at the bash who is 'always talking' and does not allow for space and silence. We immediately feel in the presence of such a 'talker' that he is someone who hasn’t attained much of anything!  We're not impressed and may say about him later: 'Well, he sure likes to talk! He doesn’t listen of course, but boy, can he talk!' 

 Such a party-talker may even be a good 'talker,' that is, good with words.  We may be impressed with how sharp and quick he is - 'bright as a whip,' we might say.  But his presence tends not to create the space and atmosphere that enables others to find their voices or ways of expressing themselves. 

 In the great talker’s presence we may feel uneasy and unsure of ourselves.  We realize as he continues to talk that, he doesn’t really care whether we say anything at all.  He’d like us to listen to him.  But that's about it!  So we go away feeling that the 'great talker' has serious limitations.  It was his 'one man show' that evening.  And not many of us are impressed with the 'show' where our role was to be mere spectators.

 In contrast to the 'big talker,' is that rare person who somehow has the ability to be quiet and present. Such a one may truly be a force with which to reckon! 

 How uncommon it is to meet someone whose tendency is to hesitate before she speaks because her first priority is always to be listening - listening to you and, yes, listening to perhaps a greater voice than her own, in the depths of her being.  It was said, as an example, that the philosopher, Socrates, appeared continually to be listening for direction and guidance from an inner voice. 

 Thus we’re emphasizing here the quiet presence of someone who has no interest in 'putting on a show' and avoids drawing attention to himself.   Here is a being who may lack the great 'credentials' that the world ordinarily cares to recognize.  But what he does in contrast to the 'great talker,' is to be a presence and to listen.

 This practiced ability to be a presence can actually have a huge impact!  I don’t, frankly, know what's more powerful than the presence of a being who is truly 'whole' and 'holy.'   It is so unusual and so wonderful to behold such a being.

 To the undiscerning, it may appear that such a being is not doing anything.  How mistaken they are!  The 'listener' is doing 'everything' by her presence and attentiveness. 

 Almost nobody lives like this but I can, however, immediately think of several examples of outstanding persons well acquainted with silence and  ‘bearers of the Spirit,’ whose very presence impacts any who are fortunate enough to meet them.

  A case in point is when I brought my own Yoga teacher, whose name was 'Rama,' several times for Yoga workshops and intensives in Calgary, Alberta.  I remember well what happened during one of her seven visits to Calgary.  She arrived early at my Yoga studio on a Friday evening and simply sat down cross-legged at the front of the room. There was no busy, fussing and bustling about to get ready for the Yoga retreat. Rama just sat there quietly, waiting for people to arrive. 

 Every now and then she’d look up and smile. She was very gracious and kind. But what she did, by doing nothing, was so remarkably powerful! Over and over, I noticed people hurrying into the room, noticing Rama merely sitting there and suddenly deciding that it might be a good idea to stop gabbing and to sit quietly and to become still. Before long there were thirty or forty people people in a room who had become as still and quiet as the person who sat before them.

 Nothing at all was said. Nothing needed to be said. And the event began to unfold in an organic way.

 That evening I soon learned that I had no role to play, nor did my Yoga business partner. Rama obviously didn’t expect either of us to do anything at all! We kept expecting that we’d be asked to help to set up this or that.  There was nothing to set up! There was just Rama sitting there and eventually thirty or forty people sitting there.  So that even before the workshop had even begun, people’s lives were beginning to be changed simply by the fact that they had walked into that room on that Friday night and had noticed this unusually content person just sitting there, perfectly relaxed, still and quiet.  

 I could go on about examples I’ve noticed of the quiet power of 'realized' beings in this or that context who have demonstrated no need to 'put on a show.' I will mention just one other for now.  It was when I went to hear the philosopher, Jacob Needleman, in Seattle, two years ago. What I remember about Jacob was the way he and his wife, Gail, were as they ordered coffee and a bite to eat, just before the session. 

 What was immediately apparent about them both was that they had no need to draw attention to themselves at all. They were quiet and present. I got the sense that even their movements reflected spiritual attainment. That’s what I remember and what impressed me.

 Then there was the meeting later after Jacob’s talk at a spiritual retreat center in Seattle. I noticed the way he was when people spoke to him.  He gave others his complete and undivided attention. He was so fully present to everyone. 

 People glowed in response to his attentiveness. It was plainly evident that Jacob continually lives in a certain inner silence and that that makes all the difference in how he is with others. His presence, combined with others who similarly appeared to be living in that same space, created an atmosphere of quiet and calm expectancy. Then, when this humble and gracious philosopher spoke, it was so clear that his words emerged from a long association with the depths of his inner life. 

 It also happens to be the case, as an added bonus, that I remember what the philosopher talked about, which was very wonderful.  But what impacted me most was the humble way he waited in line for coffee and the way he was present to others.  There is therefore, as I'm emphasizing, a grand and powerful silence that reveals a quality of spiritual attainment. 

 I’ve been studying the writings of Raimon Panikkar, the Catholic priest who, at the age of 91, died only two years ago. Panikkar wrote of the silence of the body, the mind and the will. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.  We’re exploring here the subject of silence and saying that to find it and to live in it, is a wonderful attainment.

 Consider firstly that there are spiritualities that leave the body out of the picture. The focus instead is on a 'life in the spirit.' Living myself in these overly 'spiritual' and therefore body-neglecting environments for many years, I became starved to engage my body in spiritual practices. 

 Why, I used to ask, for example, could it not be a form of prayer to involve my God-given body?  By turning to Yoga more than twenty years ago, I found a practice that integrates the body with the mind to create a fuller level of experience.     

 These days, after years of practice, I often sit with one leg crossed over the over. It is now more natural for me to do that than to sit on a chair. 

 Some have thought that this position could not possibly be comfortable.  Sometimes looking alarmed and uncomprehending, some have actually thought that I might be hurting myself, as if somehow it would be better to sit or stand in a hunched over manner, along with the rest of the population!  

 To sit as I do is for me what I call a 'bliss posture,' a way of releasing tension and of inhabiting my body fully, instead of living outside of it, as many people do. In Yoga, I continually come back to my body.  I do not live in my brain, apart from my body. I do not live outside of my body in a severed and disconnected way. I try to live in an embodied way.  

 How can I explain, and perhaps I’ll never be able to explain to some that, my experience through Yoga is of a profound and liberating sense of inner synergy that is the result of this posture and many others. 

 My Yoga teacher used to say that 'if you get it right in just one posture, you can get it all.' By that she meant that if any of us are able fully to inhabit our bodies at any given moment, which is to be totally present, that we will feel incomparably 'at home' and 'at peace.' In such a state, we will experience ourselves as 'coming together.'   

 I can recall for example, a certain rough period in my life when I had an undiagnosed hip problem that would keep me up at nights. I turned to Yoga for help. On one occasion my family and I were on vacation in Maui. It was two or three in the morning. As I lay in bed, my body had stiffened up yet again and I was in agony. I could not lie down any longer. So I hobbled down to the ocean and waded into the water. Not to drown myself, but because I had had the inspired thought that I would stand in Yoga's Tree pose for as long as it took to take the pain away. 

 There I stood in this hip opening posture for more than half an hour early in the morning on the Kaanapali beach in Maui. As I stood there, I felt my body and mind entirely relax and the pain left me! It was one of the best experiences of my life. 

 Usually I hear people say about their vacations that they 'went here and went there and that they saw this and visited that.'  My best vacation moments are the ones like the early morning beach scene.   

 Now, it happened that the pain in the hip returned later on.  Nevertheless, for a time I had somehow relieved the pain, or transcended it, by a total immersion and relaxation into the Tree Pose on the beach in Hawaii.  There was such a sense of triumph!  I felt I could have kissed the stars! 

 When I was a Baptist Minister and knew nothing about Yoga or how to quiet my mind, I used to pace the house when I was worried and upset. I had no idea that if you simply sat or stood in a certain way while repeating holy words that you could feel you’d entered heaven on earth! 

 When I now sit in the foyer after church in a semi-lotus pose, it is because of the experience on the beach in Maui and because of a good many other similar experiences of a practice that has included the body in spiritual practice. 

  I am emphasizing here that there needs to be a focus on what Panikkar calls "the bodiliness of the spiritual life."  Attention needs to be paid to the way we move and to how we stand and how we sit. 

 Our bodies matter. Temples of the spirit are these bodies of ours!  Temples that too often are neglected and left out of the picture in spiritual practice.  The tensions of our bodies need to be released to enter fully the abundant life.  There is a silence of the body that can be experienced through due diligence and attention.

 Secondly, there is a silence of the mind that we need to experience.  Which does not mean, I will say immediately, a repression of thought or, perhaps worse, thoughtlessness.  I am not talking about emptying the mind so that one appears to be 'stoned' and spacey.'  In fact, quite the opposite.

 There is a silence, as I have been writing, that is the fruit of the highest ascent of consciousness.  This silence is the experience of a man experiencing the heights and depths of his God-given powers and capacities.  There is a holy silence which is the culminating point of the highest reaches of intelligence.

 What is that?  This high and holy state of consciousness has to do with a 'knowing' that is incomparably deeper than knowing about something.  We say, for example, about someone that he is an expert about this or that.  He knows how to fix anything or, he is very good in his chosen field etc. 

 What I am describing here in contrast to that kind of external knowing is a deeper level of knowing that is a profound inner shift.  This has to do with 'not knowing about anything in particular' but about, in a certain sense, becoming identified with That which knows within you. 

 This inner shift of consciousness has to do with identifying with That within you that knows. The shift is about identifying with That completely. This 'knowing' is, I think, what St. Paul meant when he said that he ‘no longer lived’ but that 'Christ lived within him.' The deepest thing Paul knew (in his best moments!) was that Christ lived within him! 

 Now, obviously St. Paul continued ‘to live.' He was still recognizeable! But a deep inner shift had occurred in terms of his identity. Formerly he had been a man called 'Saul,' a man who knew about this or that. Now because of an inner transformation, he had become a man named 'Paul' who felt that Christ was a presence and a power living in and through him. 

 The overhauled being now called 'Paul' felt himself to be an expression of God, a channel of His grace. His former limited identity had been swept inside. Paul now felt that, in a certain sense, that 'he no longer existed!' 

 Paul felt that he had been dramatically transformed from a very limited identity to an incomparably fuller sense of being. Before, his identity was restricted and full of all kinds of distortions. Now, he was so identified with the power and presence of Christ within that he felt himself to be an expression of God. 

 Which paradoxically means, by the way, that Paul actually was now 'more himself' than he had ever been before, since the grace of God does not diminish us but heightens, enhances and deepens our identity

 When Paul said that 'it is no longer I who live,' his meaning was that it is no longer the ego 'I'  that lives. His new sense of himself was that he was somehow in touch with That inner knower, That inner Being, That inner Mystery, who was transforming his life and his world of relations. 

When the mind becomes silent, the mystics say that the 'third eye' of consciousness awakens. This is the 'sound eye' of human consciousness, that gives health to the whole body. That 'eye' within me that sees, this 'eye of the heart' or 'eye of the soul,' is, in a certain sense, my deepest identity. It is the Spirit within me and is simultaneously, both my deepest self and God, which is what it means to be both fully God and fully man, as Jesus was.  

Eastern Christianity, in particular, focuses on the transfiguration or divinization of the human being. The Eastern Christians often repeat that ‘God became man that man might become God.'  As Christ was fully God and fully man, not a half-man and a half-God, we, too, it is said, can become as He is.

 There is then thirdly, in our exploration of the subject of attaining silence, the silence of the will. Panikkar writes about how often 'the will' has been over-emphasized. It is not, he claims, 'the will,' or 'willfullness,' that most deeply changes us. It is rather that the deepest change becomes possible when our wills are silenced. The task is to go beyond the will. 

 Panikkar's insight is that what enables deep change is not so much willfulness or determination but the purity of our hearts and the sense of grace in our lives.  'I’m going to will to do this' is far less powerful than an inner aspiration that has awakened in response to grace.  It is the inner cleansing and purification of our hearts that motivates great change.  Simply 'to will' something is sort of a surface effort.  It does not go down deeply enough.  

 Thus I emphasize again that there is a silence that is a great attainment.  To find and experience this silence, which is the human being at his fully flourishing best, we need to experience three silences - the silence of the bodythe silence of the mind and the silence of the will.  Glory be to God. Amen.

Audio:  Ave, Verbum Incarnatum, sung by Benedictines of St. Cecilia's Abby