I have written about silence a few times in this blog, with poetry (here) and through essays such as this one on contemplative silence (here).
It is a subject that has fascinated me as I try to bring it fully into my life. Intellectualizing runs contrary to that, I know. Yet, my hyper intellect side shall I say, pushes me to inquire and seek inspiration through the words of the wise,
In the above mentioned essay, I speak about silence without effort as explained by the wise Taoist Chang Tzu. His explanation resonates fully with what I instinctively feel is contemplative or inner silence.
The Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers are my other inspiration —the very ones who during the first centuries of Christianity grew tired of the notion of martyrdom as a path to salvation, and of the squabbles among the various Christian communities; and who hence decided to retire to the desert. While they spent their time in contemplation, they remained very much in touch with the world, giving teachings often from the height of their columns as with St Simeon Stylites, a 5th c. Syriac Orthodox, and I admit one of my favorite wise men in history.
What many advocated, and what many in the Orthodox Church still do, is: hesychasm.
It is the practice of hesychia (from the Greek ἡσυχία) which translates as quietness, stillness and silence.
As with many spiritual traditions, silence is inner silence, the one of the tranquility of the heart. In the Orthodox Church, it means quieting the mind by praying from the heart — most often “The Jesus Prayer” (for the ones who have read the soul stirring account of a Russian Monk, “The way of the pilgrim,” you will recognize it).
As I read about the practice of hesychia, I realize its immense practicality and beauty. Quieting our thoughts through prayer. The latter need not be “The Jesus Prayer,” and it can be any invocation that is kindhearted, generous and grateful. The words will help us focus our thoughts and they themselves will eventually fall into silence, as we reach inner tranquility.
This is different from the recitation of mantras where the repetition of fixed syllables stills the mind. With hesychia, words with meaning and filled with good intentions help us attain tranquility by letting light infiltrate our hearts.
Inner silence is the only way I find to calm my thoughts and actions. Indeed, our thoughts are often scattered especially when we are worried. In social situations, we often speak without having pondered our words and we tend to act without fully weighting the consequences of our actions. Inner silence helps us have a full picture, gives us the ability to take a step back before speaking and acting, and to stop the turbulence that often grips our thoughts.
Of course, simple or guided meditation, watching a beautiful sunset, listening to a delicate piece of music, can also help us reach inner tranquility. Yet often, that tranquility manages to escape as soon as we are faced with a worrying thought or an uncomfortable situation.
Effortless silence amidst a noisy world
Many centuries ago, Chuang Tzu spoke about “wu wei” (無為) or non-action to reach inner tranquility. As I have mentioned previously in this blog, it does not entail idleness; rather, it is allowing things to happen effortlessly. For Chuang Tzu, silence is a natural condition.
Yet, as we become embroiled in thoughts and daily confusions, the art of silence needs to be nurtured because frankly, it would be luring ourselves to believe we can attain inner silence by just remaining still while the world twirls and whirls around us.
I find that the practice of hesychia leads to that effortless tranquility the Tao, Zen and other spiritual Masters all spoke about. It remains one “tool” among others and a beautiful one at that.
So I will end with these simple words:
“The first stage of tranquility consists in silencing the lips when the heart is excited. The second, in silencing the mind when the soul is still excited. The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.” — St. John Climatus, Mount Sinai Monastery (6th-7th c.)