Silence Calling
Photo by kien virak

Silence Calling

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 18, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

I recently hosted two groups of back-to-back house guests over eight days. It was lovely to visit with old friends and to show them around. The visits were lively and busy. Happy to see each other, even when we stopped moving, we were talking. Other than my morning sitting practice, there had been little silence. Also, personal schedules varied, and I ended up getting less exercise and less sleep than usual.

By the end of the visits, I found myself feeling exhausted physically and mentally. I was more than ready for some alone time and was craving peace and quiet. When my guests had left, I was grateful to have time and space for myself, but I continued to feel agitated. I worried about upcoming events and projects that I’d put off. I ran errands that weren’t really urgent and indulged in “self-care” that was more about vanity than real nourishment. It took several days for me to stop running physically and mentally.

About this time, I had an upcoming appointment to spend time with an older relative whom I love but who can be challenging. She has a habit of speech that feels non-stop: pressured, following tangents, rarely pausing for responses, and often filled with anxiety and dissatisfaction. Our conversations often feel one-sided and I get a feeling of overwhelming fatigue and sensory overload. I have learned from Thích Nhất Hạnh’s (Thây’s) teachings and my own experience that if I am feeling nourished and calm, I have much more capacity to be present for her and to listen and speak compassionately.

At this moment, I am particularly grateful for Thây’s teachings about silence and am reminded that enjoying peace and quiet is not just about the noise outside of me, it’s also about the noise inside of me.

In Silence: The Power of Quiet In A World Full Of Noise, Thích Nhất Hạnh writes:

We spend a lot of time looking for happiness when the world right around us is full of wonder. To be alive and walk on the Earth is a miracle, and yet most of us are running as if there were some better place to get to. There is beauty calling to us every day, every hour, but we are rarely in a position to listen. The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body, are full of noise—then we can’t hear beauty’s call. There’s a radio playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life, the call of love. Our heart is calling us, but we don’t hear. We don’t have the time to listen to our heart.

Fortunately, there is a way to turn off Radio Station NST. Thây writes:

Begin by stopping the physical running around you do with your body. When your body is still, when you don’t need to pay attention to any activity other than your breathing, it will be much easier for your mind to let go of its own habitual running, although this can take some time and some practice. Once you’ve learned how to stop your mind when your body is also stopped, you’ll be able to stop your mind even when your body is moving. Focusing on the way your breathing combines with the physical movements of your daily activities, you can live with awareness instead of in forgetfulness.

Lately I’ve been trying to make conscious decisions about what really needs to get done and what doesn’t, like going out for errands less frequently and saying no to certain activities. I have also spent more time on yoga and other mindful exercise, which helps me to be more present by getting in touch with my breath and body.

The first chapter of Silence is entitled “A Steady Diet of Noise.” Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches that we consume noise not only with our ears:

There are four kinds of food that every person consumes every day. In Buddhism, we call these kinds of food the Four Nutriments. They are edible food; sense impressions; volition; and consciousness, both individual and collective. …

All of these foods can be healthy or unhealthy, nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption. For example, we sometimes eat junk food that makes us sick, or drink too much when we’re upset about something, in the hopes of distracting ourselves even if afterward that consumption makes us feel worse.

We do the same thing with the other nutriments. With sensory food, we may have the awareness to take in media that are wholesome and enlightening, or on the other hand we may use video games, movies, magazines, or even engaging in gossip in order to distract ourselves from our suffering. Volition can also be healthy (constructive motivation) or unhealthy (craving and obsession). Likewise, collective consciousness can be healthy or unhealthy. Think of how affected you are by the mood or the consciousness of the group you are in, whether that group is supportive, happy, angry, gossipy, competitive, or listless.

Because each nutriment affects us so deeply, it’s important to be aware of what and how much we are consuming. Our awareness is the key to our protection. Without protection, we absorb far too many toxins. Without realizing it, we become full of toxic sounds and toxic consciousness that make us ill. Mindful awareness is like a sunscreen protecting the sensitive skin of a newborn baby. Without it, the skin would blister and burn. With the protection of our mindfulness, we are able to stay healthy and safe and take in only those nutriments that help us thrive.

It is interesting to consider mindful consumption in relation to seeking calm and quiet. I realized I was following thoughts when I could be following my breath and noticing the way the sky looks. I also noticed how those thoughts were feeding my anxiety. I practiced stopping, embracing my feelings, and allowing myself to be grateful for the time to sit and watch the clouds turn pink as it got darker.

My day with my aunt turned out to be quite lovely. Thanks to being able to focus on stopping and being nourished, I entered our day together with feelings of peace and stability. Although there were still challenging moments, I was happy with how I handled them. As the day went on, I was surprised that my aunt seemed happier and calmer than I’d anticipated. Who knows how much of that had to do with me; probably there were other contributing factors. I was still tired at the end of the day but left with warm feelings towards her. I’m grateful for this path and the practice.

I look forward to our time together on Thursday. Here are some questions we are invited to consider during Dharma sharing:

  • What is your relationship to silence? Do you find yourself craving it? Avoiding it?
  • Do you notice a habit of running, physically and/or mentally?
  • How are you consuming noise? Which foods, media, conversations, thoughts and other nutriments are nourishing, and which are not?

Wishing you peace,
Rachel Perry

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 18, 2024


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