The Challenge of Finding Silence

I have been reading Christine Jackman’s book, Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World, which inspired me to write about the power of silence and to offer a guided meditation to quiet the mind.  I had expected that the book, a personal journey written from the perspective of a very busy and much-travelled journalist, would be a quick and easy read.   It is very easy to read given Christine’s mastery of the written word and her skill in storytelling.  However, it is quite a profound, personal exploration into the challenge of finding silence in a busy world (internally as well as externally “on-the-go”).  Trent Dalton describes this exploration as “treading bravely, beautifully into the wonder of silence”.

Barriers to silence

Christine describes in humourous detail her visit to a health retreat on the Gold Coast in Queensland.  While humour is her tool to disarm the reader, the description of her stay at the retreat is very honest and personally disclosing as she lays bare the barriers that she experienced in attempting to find silence.  She had to find her way through a labyrinth of thorny issues to achieve some insight into silence and its transformative power.

Christine had decided to observe silence during the retreat (where no one else was observing such a challenging discipline).  She even had a sign on her clothes explaining that she was observing silence.  The barriers she encountered were her own self-doubts and negative messages, her projection of the expectations of others and her habituated behaviour.  So, the barriers included a lifelong accumulation of negative self-evaluations, living up to the expectations of others and learned responses to negative stimuli. 

As Christine progressively worked her way through these issues that are not readily overcome, she emerged, however briefly, in a clearing where she was able to experience silence – achieved through a bush walk during which Christine held “a soft focus “ on her senses.  By tuning into her senses, she was absorbed in savouring the present moment.  She was able to let go of the busyness of her life – both internally and externally.

In the metaphorical clearing, Christine discovered a heightened awareness, a state in which her senses became “more acute’ – a state arrived at by doing nothing , including internal commentary.  She had already asked herself how comfortable she could be when confronted with being alone in silence – “Stripped of the ability to curate and present myself to others, who was I really?”

After experiencing the power of silence, Christine wanted to be able to sustain the deep tranquility and peace she had enjoyed . However, after returning to her normal, busy life she found that she was “no closer to working out how to build silence into my daily life”.  

Sustaining the silence

After several years of re-absorption into her busy life, Christine set out on another personal journey.  This time her journey took her to a Benedictine monastery because she had learned that a central rule of the Benedictine tradition was “the pre-eminence of silence”.  She visited New Camaldoli, a Benedictine monastery situated in a remote area of the Californian coast.  The hermitage hosts guests who want to participate in a residential retreat.  Christine participated in communal prayer in the mornings and Vespers and meditation in the evenings and filled her days with hiking and reading. 

In her book, Christine shares something of what she read – she found she resonated with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly where he describes the “quiet desperation” of people’s lives and the reason he went for walks in the woods was because he “wished to live life deliberately”.  She found that her experience at Camaldoli confounded her when she experienced something “both familiar and foreign” – including the fact that the sun seemed to sink into the ocean in the evenings whereas on the East coast of Australia where she lived, the sun rose from the ocean in the mornings.  Christine found that the silence and reflection afforded by the environment enabled her to experience serenity but she had realised that these feelings did not stick – she was unable to sustain them.

I look forward with anticipation to reading about the next chapter in her life of her exploration, titled “contemplation” – an interest that was stimulated by her reading Michael Casey’s book, Strangers to the City.

Reflection

In many ways , Christine’s book is a story of a journey that we all experience in some form or other – the quest for peace and tranquility in a busy world.  We find that silence, which is the gateway to this world of serenity and ease, is both elusive and ephemeral – and Christine’s story is a personal account of this journey and accompanying experiences.  For me, however, her story precipitates a number of personal recollections that are very strong to this day – it is as though I have shared something of her journey.  For example, I had also visited a heath retreat on the Gold Coast and could relate, in part, to her experience.

Christine’s description of the view from the Camaldoli monastery on a mountain top to the water below reminds me of the time that my wife and I attended Vespers at Eibingen Abbey, a community of Benedictine nuns, founded by Hildegard of Bingen (a true exemplar of stillness and silence and the creative genius that lies beneath).  At the time, we were staying on holiday in a friend’s place at Bingen on the Rhine in Germany.  The image above is a photo I took from Bingen looking across the Rhine towards Rüdesheim with the monastery in the background .

Christine’s description of monastic life brought back to me memories of my five years of silence as a contemplative monk in the Whitefriars Carmelite monastery at Donvale Victoria during the late 1960’s.  This involved a balanced life of prayer, meditation, Gregorian chant, physical activity on our dairy farm and extensive study (including reading and discussing the mammoth work of Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy)

Christine through her disarming honesty, transparency and clarity of writing takes each of us on a journey with her.  We can each see in our own lives, reflections of her struggle with the busyness of life and her search for serenity through silence – which she describes as “a space in which I could finally stop”.

As we grow in mindfulness by finding the silence and stillness in our own lives, we can develop an intimate self-awareness, learn to manage our difficult emotions, and achieve self-regulation in terms of our habituated behaviour.  In the silence if we persist, we can find tranquility, resilience, and creativity.

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Image Source – Photo by Ron Passfield, Looking from Bingen to Rüdesheim

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Grateful

In the previous post, I discussed how savoring the moment and the experience of pleasantness nurtures the seeds of happiness.  This savoring of the many things in our life that generate positive feelings, leads naturally to a sense of gratitude.

Being grateful

Rachel Naomi Remen who suffered unbelievably from Crohn’s disease learned how her inner strength grew with appreciating the many things in her life that she took for granted.  Rachel writes in her best-selling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, that appreciating the small things in life can make us strong enough to deal with the big things, such as cancer and chronic illness.  She encourages us to be grateful for “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain”.

These small things are so much a part of our daily life that we overlook them until we lose them.  The same applies to our health which we so often take for granted.  Tara Brach urges us to go beyond the “to-do list”, focused on doing things, to creating a “to-be list” that focuses on being.  Whether we call it “soul” or “life force” or “consciousness”, our inner resources develop as we nourish the sense of gratitude for what is a normal part of our daily life.

Cultivating gratitude

Tara suggests a number of ways to cultivate gratitude including engaging a “gratitude buddy” (who you email every day with your gratitude list), savoring moments of pleasantness, developing a gratitude journal and/or regularly undertaking a gratitude meditation.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we pay attention to” – we become grateful by paying attention to the things that we are grateful for.

Gratitude enables us to deal with the challenges of daily life that would otherwise disturb our tranquility and calmness.  It opens us up  to appreciating and serving others through empathy and compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become much more aware of what we value in our life, develop gratitude and build our inner resources and resilience.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dh_creative on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

From Outer Landscape to Inner Landscape: The Growth of Awareness

In my previous post, I discussed mountains and rivers as a source of meditation and their predominance in Chinese landscape art. I also focused on the Shan shui tradition of landscape painting where the artists expressed their thoughts and emotions about a physical landscape in their painting.  In this way, they revealed something of their inner landscape.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Coming to Our Senses, describes each of the traditional five senses in terms of a landscape, e.g tastescape and touchscape.  After discuhttps://tidd.ly/2UxBWarssing each of the five senses, he introduces “mindscape” and describes its role as follows:

…ultimately it all comes down to what we call, by extension, mindscape.  Without the discerning capacity  of our minds, there would be no knowing of any landscape, inner or outer.  When we become aware, when we rest in the knowing, we are resting in the deep essence of mindscape, the vast empty spaciousness that is awareness itself.  (p. 234, emphases added)

He maintains that as we grow in mindfulness, we can gradually gain access to mindscape – that unadulterated awareness that is a deep insight into our inner landscape and our outer reality.

With this awareness comes the realisation that everything is passing – our sensations, thoughts and emotions.  They are here today and gone tomorrow.

Awareness increases our insight into our inner landscape and how we tend to cling to things that we want. It enables us to let go of our disappointments generated by the past and fears about the future.

Awareness leads to full acceptance of ourselves as we are – with our bodies and our quirks.  However, being able to access full awareness, mindscape, does not mean that we will not go backwards towards lacking acceptance or engaging in internal conflict.  As Kabat-Zinn points out “that is part of the human condition”.

He goes on to say, encouragingly:

But, there may very well be a gradual shift in the balance over time, from more inner conflict to more equanimity, from more anger to more compassion, from predominantly seeing only appearances to a deep apprehending of the actuality of things. Or there may be so at times  but not at other times. (p. 235)

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to see things as they actually are – we become less likely to project onto people, things or events, our negative perceptions shaped by our own life experiences.

Accessing mindscape, opens us up to full awareness of our inner landscape so that we can realise our full, creative potentiality, develop deep insight and self-compassion as well as compassion for others. In this state, we can find true peace and tranquility

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay