The Essence of Stillness

The Essence of Stillness

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Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that silence can be thundering, eloquent, and full of energy.

When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it.

Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.

There are moments when we think we’re being silent because all around us there’s no sound, but unless we calm our mind, talking is still going on all the time inside our head. That’s not true silence. The practice is learning how to find silence in the midst of all the activities we do.

Try to change your way of thinking and your way of looking.

Sitting down to eat your lunch may be an opportune time for you to offer yourself the sweetness of silence. Even though others may be speaking, you have the ability to disengage from habitual thinking and be very silent inside. You can be in a crowded space, yet still enjoy silence and even solitude.

Realize that silence comes from

your heart and not from the

absence of talk.

Just as inner silence does not require outer silence, solitude does not necessarily have to mean there is no one physically around you. You realize the deep meaning of being alone when you are established firmly in the here and now, and you are aware of what is happening in the present moment. You use your mindfulness to become aware of every feeling, every perception you have. You’re aware of what’s happening around you, but you also stay fully present within yourself; you don’t lose yourself to the surrounding conditions. That is real solitude.

Joyful Versus Oppressive Silence

Sometimes when we think of silence, we think of an enforced restriction, such as a dictatorship shutting down freedom of expression, or an elder lecturing that “children should be seen and not heard,” or one member of a household forbidding others from talking about a sensitive topic. That kind of silence is oppressive and only makes a situation worse.

Some of us know this kind of strained silence in our own families. If parents fight, there is often a painful silence afterward, and the whole family suffers. If everyone is angry or anxious, keeping silent can feed into an increasing collective anxiety and anger. That tense, simmering kind of silence is very negative. We cannot bear that kind of silence for long. It kills us. But voluntary silence is altogether different. When we know how to sit together, breathe together, connect with the spaciousness that’s always available inside of us, and generate the energy of peace and relaxation and joy, that collective energy of silence is very healing, very nourishing.

Suppose you sit outside and pay attention to the sunshine, the beautiful trees, the grass, and the little flowers that are springing up everywhere. If you relax on the grass and breathe quietly, you can hear the sound of the birds, the music of the wind playing in the trees. Even if you are in a city, you can hear the songs of the birds and the wind. If you know how to quiet your churning thoughts, you don’t have to turn to mindless consumption in a futile attempt to escape from uncomfortable feelings. You can just hear a sound, and listen deeply, and enjoy that sound. There is peace and joy in your listening, and your silence is an empowered silence. That kind of silence is dynamic and constructive. It’s not the kind of silence that represses you.

In Buddhism we call this kind of silence thundering silence. It’s very eloquent, and full of energy. Often we have retreats where thousands of people practice mindful breathing in and out silently together. If you have been part of something like this, you know how powerful a freely shared silence can be.

Have you ever noticed how much children, even very young ones, can enjoy silence? There’s something very relaxing about this. In Plum Village, children of all ages can eat together and walk together silently and with great joy. We don’t watch TV or play electronic games in our retreat center. I have one young friend who kicked and screamed the whole way to Plum Village the first time he came. He was eight years old. He and his parents had driven down from Paris and he didn’t want to get out of the car because he knew that when he did, he wouldn’t have any television or video games for a week. But he survived just fine, and made friends, and on the last day he didn’t want to leave. Now he and his parents come every year and he looks forward to it. He’s turning sixteen this year.

Excerpted from SILENCE by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright 2015. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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