Saturday, March 12, 2016

Screaming Sounds of Silence

Quiet sitting with Yoga Frog
Struggling with silence?  In this post I try to dispel some myths around silence, highlight my own fall from a pedestal I had put myself on, and give a few thoughts on how you might manage the silent class.

The back story
About 10 years ago I lived alone in Sri Lanka in a small room.  I had no radio or television.  Just a room with a bed, table, a little kitchenette, bathroom, and myself.

I was busy working and not at home that much.  When I was at home there was plenty of street noise going on.  A temple down the road chanting over load-speakers, horns horning, buses belching.  There was a war going on at the time so there were sirens wailing intermittently.

But at home there was never any spoken words.  I was by myself after all and am not prone to talking aloud.  But there were still the silent words.  The silent voice.  The one inside my head chattering, commenting, planning, and wondering.

When I was busy doing something like cooking or washing up or getting dressed or cleaning the floors or practicing my yoga it was less chatty.  The voice had only had a few things to notice or mention.

I relied on that voice most when I was not busy.  That was not much of the time mind you as I avoided non-busy time (more on that shortly).

I was a little smug that here I was living this life without the trappings of technology (no wifi or smart phones then either).  I would sometimes think I was on a good road to a simple and mindful life.

"I don't need a TV.  I don't need a radio," I would think.  I was pretty chuffed at what I thought was as my lack of attachment to those things.

Instead of radio or television or videos I sought out newspapers, books, and journals.  Things that I thought of as somehow better.  More nourishing brain food or mind food was the line of thinking.

Whenever I was not doing something I had those books or readings handy.  This included the 'not-doing' activity of eating.

One day I came home and realised I had read all of the newspapers that week, all of the books, and it was time for dinner at my little table and I had nothing to read.

I went into a panic.  The voice inside was a bit frantic.  'What will I do? What will I do? What will I do?'

It was a bit like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland looking at his watching saying 'I'm late, I'm late, I'm late' and just as anxious as well.

I could feel the anxiety in my body.  My heart pounding, body tensing.

I suppose I was lucky I had the good sense (and perhaps the good reading of a few books on Buddhism behind me) to stop and notice and think 'Hey, look at you all in a panic!'

To stop and ask, 'Is this something to really be worried about?'

And to have the presence of mind to be able to pause and wonder and realise in one of those eureka moments, 'By gosh, you have become attached to busy-ness.  And you have become attached to those words.  You think you are comfortable here on your own but you are not.  You need to anchor yourself to those words to distract you from being on your own.'

What I realised is that I had simply found something else to do to keep my mind occupied.   Far from being present and mindful I was just substituting one form of distraction for another.  Instead of moving images across a screen or sounds vibrating in my ear drums, or the movement of my body to rock and calm me, I had that voice reading aloud some words on a page.

When I was busy doing things and moving my body I found I did not need that voice--perhaps because I love movement and I love to sense the movement and I can go inside and just feel and sense and be.

But when I had to be still with something I was not particularly interested in (I have never been a foodie and I suppose some people would find it delightful just to feel and sense and be with their food and would never want to be distracted from that) I found I had an enormous challenge.

I had to be quiet, and pretty still, with just me and my thoughts to occupy me.

It was a bit scary.  I realise for me I was scared of my own thoughts.

Fortunately I had enough insight (but obviously not that much that it took me so long to realise this) and some basic practice in me that I could start to sit down and just eat that night without the need for  those written words.
Me learning some mindful eating!
Smiling away at this delightful dhal and pol sambol.

So I sat and ate in a much truer silence.  The silence of me, my body, and my food.  I continued that practice for some time.  It was hard and I suppose that is why it is called a practice.  I tried to just chew and eat and enjoy that experience.  It took much longer to eat and was a process of retraining myself for this simple task.  I tried not to allow myself to then get distracted by some internal mental chatter and would keep bringing myself it my eating and (again trying to apply some of the things I had been reading) perhaps just had some nice thoughts about the food and who had grown it or where it had come from (trying not to whizz away on other thoughts from there).  I guess it was an act of appreciation.

Sounds of silence?
You are never in complete silence.

Even if you can stop talking there are still sounds.

There are the sounds around you and the sounds within you.

Thoughts are not sounds but in the sense that you can 'hear' yourself talking they are.

My dad has chronic tinnitus and the fire alarms, as he calls them, that are going off in his head are not sounds to me but are a very real and disturbing noise to him.

There is stuff (very technical word) inside most of our heads going on all the time to produce some internal noise or clutter.

If you can sit and be quiet and manage to quiet your inner voice (very hard) you might notice your ears drawn to sounds like the birds chirping, your clothes rustling, maybe your stomach gurgling, a pulse in your ears.

Or, conversely, if you draw your attention progressively to those sounds you might help yourself to quiet your inner voice.

I have had meditation teachers who  have used that type of progressive turning of attention to various sounds as a way of supporting concentration on something other than your own chatter.

Our silent class that we rotate through every 9 or so weeks is another way of practicing silence and practicing drawing awareness to something else than 'hanging on' to the sound of your teacher talking you through how to do everything.

There is a time and place for verbal instruction but there is a time and place for letting go.

But without the teacher's words to hang onto what do you do with your auditory sense?

Language and language processing take up a massive part of our brain's processing capacity.  One of the reasons I believe you can feel so calm after a silent class is because your brain has not had to use all of some much energy on processing language.

But what if words are what you cling to?  Not just words but the sound of words?  Even if they are the sound of silent words you speak in your own head?

Suddenly, deprived of those external words from the teacher, you are left with no words but your own.  It can be difficult and even disturbing for some.

Trying to slow down this internal chatter is one of the most challenging parts of our practice.  And it is a practice.

So what can you do if you are in one of my silent classes, or even at the end of the class in meditation?

A few tips for the silent class and meditation
If your thoughts are really chatty and you find yourself caught in the whirlwind of their currents, you might need to anchor yourself to something else and draw your concentration to that.

If you have a part of your body that needs relaxing you could try to sense that part and do what you can in each posture to release and relax it.

You could try to bring yourself back to natural breathing, and just keep bringing yourself back to that.

You could try to bring yourself back to relaxing your tongue and lips--these are parts of the body that tend to get tense even without you thinking about it.

You could do a mental scan of your spine each posture and check in that it feels good and then do something about it if it does not.

All of these would be techniques of drawing your concentration to one (internal) thing.

You will likely find that you soon forget about that thing and your mind has wandered and you are thinking about something or chatting to yourself.  That is normal and ok.  Just notice that it has happened and remind yourself what you were trying to concentrate on or notice.  Try to be forgiving of yourself rather than judgemental at those times.

With that in mind it is perhaps helpful to think of something you could use at a sort of 'anchor' while you practice if you need it.  Perhaps think of it before you start the practice if you can.

Over time and with practice you might find you do not need that anchor to be firmly secured and you can allow yourself to float and wander free without flying away.
Being part of the group can help.

Some other thoughts I had would be, if you are in the class, is to make sure you keep some proximity to the group.

I tend to find that people positioned outside the group or way to the side tend to get more 'lost'.  A bit like Nemo swimming out of the reef.  The group practice is time to be a part of the group.  A part of that school of fish--swimming around and moving with the group.

It does not mean you are doing precisely the same thing.  I like to think of this silent group practice as like the troupe of Botswanan dancers I saw recently who kept a general rhythm and movement but still had individual personalities and moves that were distinctly their own.

You need to remind yourself to free yourself of comparison to others, that it is ok to be doing what you are doing.

Remember what I say at the beginning of each class?  Try your best, but without being attached to an outcome.  Without stress or strain.

Remember what I say before that?  The main purpose of this practice is to move circulation and energy through your body.  That happens best when you move slowly, stretch less, tense less, think less, and breathe less.  All of these things, done in excess, will actually block your practice.

Remember what I say at the end?  Be content with what you have done, and where you are right now.

It can be helpful to enter the silent class with an overall attitude that reflects you will try your best, without being attached, and being content with whatever comes about.  Who knows what it will be?

In sum
To be clear, I am not a meditation teacher.  I have some experience with it but I could never think to be telling people or teaching them about it.  But I have had some great teachers in the past.  If people ask me about learning meditation I try to pass them on to someone who has a long lineage that stems from a whole life practice and philosophy that supports a meditation practice.

To be clear, I am far from perfect in any type of practice.  I am still practicing.  I am practicing moving.  I am practicing being still.  I am practicing being a good person.  I still have lots of fails.  I still needs more practice.

To be clear, it is not that I am trying to suggest you stop thinking.  You won't.  You might, however, learn to be a little less attached to those words so you don't start flying away or get carried away with something that immobilises you from practicing and being.

As an addendum I remember saying to a lovely meditation teacher friend around this same time that I did not want my mind to be quiet.  I remember telling him how I wanted to have my overwhelming enthusiasm and joy and be able to speak all of those things and be awash in those lovely feelings.  I had misunderstood the essence of the inner peace and calm and joy of which he was speaking.

Perhaps I still misunderstand (very likely).  With practice I have come to sense that there can be a most wonderful glow of joy and peace that can radiate from this beautiful quiet stillness that is much more powerful and longer lasting than the temporary thrill of excitement that comes with an over-aroused nervous system.

And finally, to be really clear, my intent in writing this is to support you in a joyful and peaceful practice that is long lasting.  It is not to tell you what to do or what you should be doing.  If it does not feel right then don't do it.

Take care of yourselves and others.  And why not try all or some of these things in my upcoming yoga retreat!  We will be in Sri Lanka in April 2016 enjoying moving, breathing, nature, ourselves, and each other (um, don't read too much into that last bit!).

Much metta,

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sam - I read this whole blog with interest and enjoyment, many thanks for taking the time and care in putting these thoughts down in words for others to contemplate. All the best for your April trip! Ming Yu