Silence seems to be making a comeback of sorts in mainstream consciousness. Among the better representatives of a society’s collective consciousness are the movies that are made which mirror the times we live in. Non-verbal communication is a theme currently being explored in Hollywood films. Both Michael Clayton and The Darjeeling Limited dwell on the deep communication that occurs in the realms of silence. In Michael Clayton, the scene between George Clooney and the three horses on the hill speaks volumes; an intense unspoken dialogue between him on one side and the horses across him, wherein he gets profound revelations as if they were speaking with him about life’s lessons and truths, when all his chips are down. Likewise in The Darjeeling Limited, when the mother realises that no amount of talking would help smoothen the relationship between her and her three children as they all kept arguing; she just asks them to sit quietly and look into each other’s eyes. As they do so, they share a most intense and profound moment of communication, which they never would when engaged in conversation.
In April/May, Oprah Winfrey took silence to the world via the internet, by beginning the webcast of her weekly online teaching classes with Eckhart Tolle – author of The Power of Now – with some moments of silence shared between herself, Eckhart and a live audience of over two million people all over the world. Ironically, silence has started getting its due respect from various vehicles of mass communication.
Teaching in silence
‘Talking in silence’ is not a new phenomenon in India. Some of the greatest Indian spiritual masters taught in silence. In fact, Meher Baba maintained silence for the last 40 years of his life! He expressed himself beautifully when he wrote:
Just outside Meher Baba’s samadhi in Meherabad is a signboard that reads: “Things that are real are given and received in silence.” That, perhaps, is why the samadhis of the great Indian spiritual masters continue to draw a large number of people – to simply be in the ‘presence’ of the silence of the Master, as it were. A silence imbued with the Master’s energy even though he is no longer present there in a body-conscious form.
Masters like Ramana Maharshi and Nityananda largely taught in silence. Ramana Maharshi said, “Oral lectures are not so eloquent as silence. Silence is unceasing eloquence.” He further said, “Language is only a medium for communicating one’s thoughts to another. It is called in only after thoughts arise… when one remains without thinking, one understands another by means of the universal language of silence. Silence is the eternal flow of language, obstructed by words.”
Silence is a potent form of communication with contemporary teachers as well. Besides the morning talks at the spiritual retreats of Ramesh Balsekar and Eckhart Tolle – both of them, I remember, had afternoon sessions that would entail just sitting in silence with the audience for about an hour. What was amazing to note was that the turnout for these afternoon sessions was practically the same as the morning talks – in fact, some people even preferred the silent sittings to the discourses. This truly gives significance to Ramana’s words, “What one fails to know by conversation extending to several years can be known in a trice in Silence, or in front of Silence.”
Of course, the greatest embodiment of silence is Nature. One can only marvel at the way Nature silently operates. Take the example of the Earth – a huge mass that weighs nearly six sextillion metric tonnes and spins like a top on its axis, while revolving around the sun at the same time. At the equator, the earth’s surface moves 40,000 kilometres in 24 hours, which is a speed of about 1,040 miles per hour. In addition to this, the earth revolves around the sun at a speed of about 18.5 miles per second. All this it does in absolute silence, while you sit in your comfy chair and read the Life Positive that you hold in your hands, oblivious to the fact that the ground beneath you is perpetually moving. So much for seeking stability in our lives, when our very foundations are in perennial movement. Closer home, one can only marvel at the way the organs in the human body perform their task silently. Even the blood coursing through your veins does so silently, without you even hearing its constant flow while you’re channel surfing, chatting on the phone with a friend or simply lying on your bed.
When it comes to human nature, we know deep within that silence is our true nature, the ground of our being. And this quality of silence is emerging among more and more of humanity today. In fact, I have recently come across quite a few young adults, and even children, who seem to have this calm, composed demeanour about them – emanating from a deep stillness within. A few months ago, I was observing a young girl about 5-6 years old, accompanied by her parents. There was a gathering of people and she sat quietly on her chair, in their midst, without uttering a word for quite some time, and appeared to be enjoying herself doing nothing in particular. It was not a forced silence, a silence under duress, which the child had been disciplined to maintain by her parents. In fact, her parents were not even sitting anywhere close to her to impose their rule. Then, someone came up to the parents and said the child was not ‘normal’ as children her age should be running around and creating a noise. This left the parents quite perplexed, and not knowing how to respond to their new self-appointed advisor, they simply nodded their heads in quiet consent as it seemed to be the easiest way out. After some time, I found the child happily conversing with whoever went up to her; there were no barriers in place – she did not shy away or go into a cocoon. Then, she trotted off to her father and gave him a big smile and a hug. I did remark to the father that it seemed his child was a little Buddha, and wasn’t surprised when he replied that she had been like that right since he could remember. If a child’s nature is one of quietude, then there’s no point in trying to change it in order to fit him or her into the conventional prototype. It’s like forcing a left- handed child to become right-handed – it only confuses the child more as he or she is being asked to act against what comes naturally.
In my own case, I remember being quiet as a child at home as well as in school. I was very happy to sit on a sofa and stare into nothingness. Sometimes, when I was sitting like this, people would ask me, “What are you thinking?” Then, I would start wondering what it was that I was truly thinking. If I was thinking a particular thought then it was easy to identify what I was thinking, but the problem arose when I was not thinking anything in particular… and so I started wondering what thoughts I could be possibly thinking if someone saw me and asked if I was thinking something. Then the mind started going round and round in circles as multiple ‘possible’ thoughts surfaced, and then I started to think which of those thoughts could I have been possibly thinking. This now found me swimming in a sea of new thoughts that arose as a result of someone asking me what I was thinking, when in fact my first memory was that I was thinking of nothing in particular. The mind got all entangled like criss-crossing cable wires in the electric metre room of a building, and the short circuit was simply waiting to happen. Fortunately, it never did.
Perhaps the next time you see someone who looks lost in thought, it might be better to ask, “Are you lost in thinking?” giving them the option to answer with a straightforward “No” rather than asking “What are you thinking?” For we usually take it for granted that each one of us is at all times actively thinking of something. But it really isn’t necessary to consume each second of our existence if not in doing, then in thinking. This reminds me of the Zen saying, ‘It’s never too late to do nothing’. In fact, one of the most simple and yet potent exercises in T’ai Chi is ‘Standing quietly, doing nothing’.
In his book Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle says, “What is stillness? The inner space or awareness in which the words on this page are being perceived and become thoughts. Without that awareness, there would be no perception, no thoughts, no world. You are that awareness, disguised as a person.” A significant pointer he gives is, “When you become aware of silence, immediately there is that state of inner stillness.” The next time, if you pay attention to the silence outside, you will automatically find your mind being stilled. Silence is all around you, enabling everything else to ‘Be’. It’s the space in which our planet spins relentlessly , it’s the space between the words on this page, it’s the screen on which you watch the movie in your favourite multiplex, it’s the traffic signal at the crossroads, it’s the photo in your living room which speaks fondly of a distant memory of a special time spent with loved ones, it’s the space between two thoughts, it’s the silence all around you, it’s the silence outside when you’re not talking, and it’s the stillness inside when you’re not thinking.
Do we take silence for granted because it doesn’t say anything? Thankfully, silence doesn’t mind. For it’s waiting patiently with arms wide open, knowing that all of us will feel the warmth of, and be enveloped in, its inevitable embrace when we leave this world; just like all sounds that emerge from the silence eventually dissolve into that very same silence.
Next time you’re in an argument and someone tells you to shut up, consider that it’s Ramana Maharshi or Nityananda talking through them and reminding you to honour the silence. After all, you were probably just defending a mental position, which ultimately is just a thought. Further, the more you defend it, the other person is more likely to dig his heels in. So let go of it and be quiet, calm and composed. Being silent is sometimes the best way to win an argument, simply because you can’t argue with silence. What’s more, Mother Earth could do without the added weight of your arguments, while it takes you for a spin once again.
Eckhart gives the beautiful example of so-called ‘mad’ people we sometimes come across on the roads, who are jabbering inanities to nobody in particular. He says we do the same but only at a more sophisticated level, as our jabbering is going on non-stop in terms of the thinking in our minds. This is what Ramesh refers to as the ‘thinking mind’ as distinct from the ‘working mind’. Thoughts arise, we have no control over that, but when we latch on to a thought and start thinking in horizontal time, then it detracts from the task at hand. The thinking mind is always projecting into the future or going into the past. The working mind is always functioning in the moment, focussing on the task at hand. The thinking mind comes in when the mind starts getting involved in thinking what could happen, and creates the illusory ‘what-if’ and detracts from the task at hand.
And finally, Ramana Maharshi said, “…Be still and know that I am God. To be still is not to think. Know, and not think, is the word.”