Silence please

Category : Asanas (Postures), General advice, Philosophy 19th October 2015

Inside Yoga 145 (26/10/15)

How often do we stop long enough to notice silence? If we are honest with ourselves, the likely answer is not very often; and this is not just an external silence that I am asking about but an internal silence.

Silence is harder to hear if we keep moving and keep chattering, not just externally but internally, as this includes thinking. During last week’s classes I asked participants to stand still for several minutes after doing a series of standing postures, and I did this for various reasons, but the primary motive was to give us the opportunity to stop and notice stillness and with it silence.

We can get into the bad habit of using yoga to perpetuate our need to fill the space of silence, to crowd it out by a series of yoga postures which might on one side make us healthier but is not realising its full potential if we don’t tap into our own stillness and silence.

At the core of yoga is stillness and silence, as both the physical and spiritual (with a small “s”) practice ask us to experience stillness, even when the body is moving in and out of a yoga posture we seek a certain stillness that exists at the heart of our movement.

It is, however, easier to understand this stillness and silence by stopping the physical movement, to let the dust settle and the silence become louder and more tangible. I recommend standing or sitting still whenever possible, and listening to everything, not just sounds around us but our breath, keeping the thoughts at bay by concentrating on our body and breath.

Mind the Gap

When we pay attention to our body and breath, we are looking at the gap between our breaths – the gap between thoughts, simply we “mind the gap”. It is within this space that a sense of peace, well-being and clarity can arise.

This is can be hard to accept as we are taught that a journey has a destination, a target can be seen, a goal can be found, yet yoga is pointing out that we are really removing not adding, that what we seek is to remove what we do not need.

There is a meditation practice that repeats the statement/question: “neti neti” which translates as “not this, not that”. We respond to any thought with the phrase “neti, neti” (“not this, not that”), because the answer does not lie in a tangible something or a string of words to make a conclusion, but simply a silence and space between them.

This is why we learn to listen to silence; to create space in our existence so that we can see and feel clearly.

Of course, we can have wonderful thoughts with words which express that joy, so why do we seek silence and the gap between these wonderful thoughts? One way of explaining this is that the experience of joy, clarity and well-being is felt prior to the thought that puts words (thoughts) to the experience.

There is a meditation lesson which states, “when we are meditating, the moment we think we are meditating we are not.” It is the words in our thoughts which are pointing out an experience it has identified but it is not the experience itself.

Restless mind

Stopping still can be hard; being silent can be harder still. Many of us who do this for several minutes notice how our thoughts are repeatedly finding excuses to stop the exercise of silence, looking for distractions and reasons to do something else.

Silence can feel uncomfortable for many of us, because we spend so much of time surrounded by sounds. To the point that if we enter our quiet home what is the first action? Turn on the TV or radio? We might be interested in what’s on, but in many cases, it’s an automatic action not based on listening or interest in a programme or a song, but an impulse to fill the space. We might even find that we say things like “I like it as background noise” but why do we do this? Are we scared of silence and the emptiness or the loneliness it represents?

When I first started meditation on retreat, sitting, standing, and walking in silence I remember how awkward it felt at first. I was surprised at weird being silent felt. Gradually as the days went by during the retreat I became more comfortable with the silence – the silence of the retreatants around me and the silence of my own being. Of course, my mind was constantly throwing up thoughts and I did my best to push them away and stop them, but not speaking was new to me.

It is amazing how our mind will look for a distraction, however trivial. Something must be better than silence it would contest, but gradually I learned to be patient with my thoughts and drop each thought as soon as I could.

As I continued to practice, both with a daily practice and on retreats, I learned to enjoy silence and realise it was actually the best place to be. It is still a practice and will always be a practice because my “thoughts” still persist in trying to drown out silence – I have simply become better at managing my thoughts and returning to silence.

So, stop still and listen to silence, or as our school teachers told us at one point: “Silence please!”

To be honest in the same way we need to repeat this message to ourselves, our teachers probably said “SILENCE PLEASE!!!!” quite a few times!

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