Practicing Silence

Practicing Silence

An excerpt from The Crazy Thing by Carl Lehmann-Haupt

Spiritual teachers speak of silence as the beginning and end of all meditative practices. This would be uncontroversial if only one kind of silence existed. But there’s another, and while one is golden, opening doors that too much talk keeps shut, the other is leaden, muzzling speech and suppressing natural questioning. The first is liberating while the other is an instrument of domination and repression. It often happens that the same teacher advocates both. He advocates the first in meditation exercises because a quiet mind serves as a portal to another quality of consciousness, but, being human, he also outlaws certain kinds of speech that might challenge his authority.

Only the pupil endowed with a critical mind can obtain the benefit of the first without falling prey to the second. As for the rest of us, years can go by before we understand the difference.

When in silence I withdraw from the chronic flow of inner talking in myself, a freeing power of insight is momentarily bestowed; I can see in two directions at once. I see my absorption — in an opinion, a dislike, or a reaction — and in that instant I also see behind me a wealth of feeling and intelligence that had been occluded by my limpet-like attachment to my opinions and judgments. If I persevere in this work of disengagement, the silence spreads and the things I see are now felt in the innermost chambers of my heart. The silence isn’t mute. In it I hear voices that desire to find expression, as if another mind than mine were trying to speak through me, but with words too huge to emerge. Each syllable is the size of a boulder and each sentence as long as a mountain range. The rare person who can translate this more-than-human speech is able to evoke that procreative silence in others.

The way of silence is a dark path and leads through all the darkness of the human race. To arrive at actual silence, one has to pass through that night and see for oneself the role that cruelty, ambition, self-interest, and indifference play in our everyday lives. Though one shrinks from it, it is, in the end, a healing journey.

I formed a group with my philosopher friend, D — a group of two that grew in time to number six. I wanted to rethink silence and attempt to articulate the voices I heard speaking in it, an impossible task since the voice that my friend calls “the other” is untranslatable, at least in the impoverished vocabulary of contemporary speech. But I couldn’t accept the standard solution, which is to pretend that the experience I’m looking for is ineffable and can only be expressed with the same handful of clichés that spiritually-inclined people pass down from one generation to another. I gave myself permission to speak nonsense in our group, in the hope that some of it might turn out to make sense in the end.

So I keep a notebook at my side when I sit and search, not for silence, but for the electrifying proximity of language that exceeds my understanding. There is a holy mystery that circulates, and it bestows its gifts according to a logic all its own.

My prayers are vain; my will, inoperative. And yet, when the green maiden sings in my ear, the air is charged and I am overwhelmed by an encompassing softness. Reverence erupts in my heart; and suddenly I’m free because I’m able to suspend the sovereignty of my will.

The presence of others is enabling, so I meet with my colleagues each week. As we sit together in a circle, the façade of each one’s personality almost instantly falls away. We are exposed: six candles blowing in the wind, six deep wells of meaning, six voice boxes giving approximate utterances to a deep and abiding mystery.

Excerpted from The Crazy Thing by Carl Lehmann-Haupt. Published by Codhill Press. Reprinted with permission.

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