“When both body and mind are at peace, all things appear as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing.” – Dogen (13th Century)
Driven by the insecurity that comes with living in our contemporary world, we all seek one thing even if we do not know it and our hectic lifestyles do not reflect it: we seek peace. Even in the most driven and ambitious of people, what they are really after is that moment of peace that comes after some achievement, the release of the chronic tension of living a modern life, because for a moment, what has been chased is achieved and there is felt release. Ah….. The smile comes on the face, a moment of the body relaxing, a thought of “Yes.” Just for a moment – then, back into the fray, the sense of peace gone, as the seeking, for exactly what, we do not know – the next accomplishment, problem overcome, or desire fulfilled, returns. It is the anxious routine of our lives.
Everyone wants to feel peace within themselves, but nothing in our social conditioning affirms this – quite the opposite. We are told to accomplish something with our lives, to be somebody, to take care of business, to do what a “good” or “successful” or “cool” or “devout” or “manly” or “womanly” or whatever person is supposed to do. It drives us all quite crazy, but unless we’re driven crazy to a degree that causes big problems, we, and those around us, pay very little attention to how crazy we’ve become. We push on.
What if real peace were possible? Not the peace of the grave, or the peace of the hermit who escapes the world, but a peace that pervaded the everyday and normal routine of our lives. All the mystical spiritual traditions from around the world point to this peace, and they all say it is within everyone, but that it is buried under a mind in motion, a commotion of thoughts and emotions. The mystical traditions tell us that there is a deeper being within us than our troubled, seeking minds; some call it the soul, the modern consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it Being, Eastern traditions call it the Self or original Self, Buddhism calls it the Buddha (awakened) self or mind. This is the dimension of who we originally and fundamentally are, and it is characterized by peace, wisdom, and compassion. It dwells within us in silence, in stillness, and in a sense of vastness within the totality of existence, all very different from how we live our contemporary lives.
The Buddhist mystical tradition of Zen makes a great point of telling us that our true purpose is to return to our original or natural mind, the mind we were born with, the mind before we were conditioned by an anxious, materialistic society to be anxious materialistic people. Recognizing that to be free of this anxiety seems impossible to the person imbedded within the hurry of everyday life, Zen recognizes the need for pointers, road signs that can get us on our way, and it points us towards silence, something most of us have no real notion of or much tolerance for, as the gateway to this Nirvana. It tells us that to follow this path will be difficult, the pull back to the path of distraction and commotion is so very strong, but that with each step along the path the truth of the possibility of peace becomes increasingly evident.
“Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the challenge to any person who has felt the dissatisfaction, what Buddhism calls dukkha, suffering, that comes with the soul whispering to us that there must be more than the hurry and the anxiety, anger, and depressions, small and large, that come with living our striving lives. The challenge is, how do we find our way through the commotion of our mind and our circumstances to silence, to stillness, to vastness, to peace, for it is there we will find “the peace that surpasseth understanding” pointed to in the Bible.
How do we enter into silence? Where is silence? You must come to realize that it is ever-present. Beneath and between all the noise of the world and our minds is silence, but you must move away from the deafening noise and listen very carefully. You must listen with your soul. It is even present visually when you look with your soul, and it is present as a feeling state when you feel into your body and into the world with your soul. Listening, seeing, feeling with the everyday mind does not get you there. You must listen, see, and feel with your soul, where the Universe comes into being through us. You must listen with the silent mind beneath the noisy mind of your little self, your ego-self, the “me” that sits inside this body thinking itself alone in the world, always striving to make the connections and accomplishments that will give fleeting moments of peace and happiness but is at a loss as how to live there with any constancy.
We must learn how to deliberately access the silence and stillness that are readily available, but since we are focused on the noise both around us and in our heads, we do not recognize this. Our ego-self lives in the noise and in the difficulties and victories, in the commotion, so silence is a precious gift that we thoughtlessly pollute. Like air and water, silence, this most precious of resources, needed for the mind and its health every bit as much as air and water are needed by the body, is overlooked precisely because it is hidden beneath all the noise of life. We do not realize its incalculable value to our mental and spiritual health because our egoistic, materialistic society does not recognize this. Like the air and water and land that are everywhere and that we take for granted and so thoughtlessly contaminate, so too it is with the silence and stillness beneath and all around the noise and commotion. We actually avoid noticing the silence; we are afraid of it. We taint the occurrence of silence with our compulsive thinking. If the world is not making noise, our mind is.
We live in a noisy society. We are noisy people, and it is very important to recognize this is not so with all people. Mystics are not noisy. Indigenous people were not noisy. There is a story I remember hearing long ago of a Native American chief, sometime in the early 1800’s, going to Washington D.C. to negotiate a treaty with the American government. In this story, upon returning from his time in Washington, he expressed fear that the city had been so noisy that he had been damaged, that he would never be able to “dream” again. To a Native person, this is a disaster, for the dreaming referred to here is not of the sleep variety, but the ability to enter into the world beneath the obvious material, time-bound, linear structure of our physical senses and our egoic mind into what, in the context of Native Americans, would be called the Spirit World. It is to walk in the silence, stillness, and vastness of what to them is the real world hidden beneath the world of appearances. This is what Zen calls Ultimate Reality, the world we enter into through our intuitive sense, the sense of the silent mind. It is the world of unity out of which the world of things, mental and physical, arises. It is the place of wisdom and insight, of Knowing, of connection, and it is where our true Self abides, and it is where our truly spiritual and psychologically healthy self resides. To lose this connection is the greatest of tragedies to an aboriginal person. To civilized people, the whole concept is mumbo jumbo. We don’t know how to be without noise.
Many people get very uneasy around silence. Our entire society is an environment of hyper-stimulation, visual and auditory. If the Native chief feared that his soul had been deafened by the noise of an early 19th century American city, imagine what his experience would be today. Are our souls being deafened by noise, visual and auditory? I think, tragically, yes. Many people, identified only with the noise in the world and in their mind, have no sense of a deeper self, nor of a deeper reality to the world than the loud material, commercial, high-intensity, chaotic world around them and the neurotic cacophony of their minds. Silence is quite foreign. Their entire sense of self is in this noise and its internal mental equivalent of sensations, thoughts, and emotions. We are dulled by the noise, requiring the intensity be turned up to hold our attention. We are an attention-deficit-disordered society and a significant level of this deficit in individuals is considered normal, causing only extreme cases to be considered a psychological disorder. We scan through life with only the highest level of stimulation catching and holding our interest. We are quite numb to the subtle and the quiet.
A famous story in Zen has an ardent student walking through a mountain forest with their teacher. The student is a fountain of questions, asking for clarification on the Buddhist sutras, on the philosophy, teachings, and practices of Zen. He exclaims, “I am sorry, Teacher, I am trying, but I just cannot figure out how or where to enter into Zen!” To this the master replies, “Do you hear that mountain stream?”……… This stops the student. The mountain stream is a far distance from where they are, and with all his earnest walking, thinking, and talking, the student had not heard it. So, he stops walking and listens, but he still cannot hear it, and tells the teacher so. The teacher then instructs him, “listen more closely.” Now, calling forth his Zen mindfulness training, the student becomes quite still, bringing relaxed alert awareness to his breathing and to his body as he reaches with his consciousness into the acoustical space of the moment. Completely grounded into the moment, all preoccupation with himself and his questions suspended, he begins to hear not only the obvious sounds around him – the wind rustling the leaves and the call of an occasional bird – all heard with deeper clarity and depth, with a sense of resonance and connection, the sounds, paradoxically, both distinct and flowing into each other – he also begins to hear the silence within which these sounds are occurring. He hears the space between and behind the sounds even as they flowed into a unity, and with this, more distant and fainter sounds begin to reach his consciousness. And then….. “Oh yes, now I hear the stream – so faint, so far away – but yes – I hear it now.” He was listening with his soul. Listening into silence. And the teacher instructed him: “Enter into Zen from there.”