Drinking in the Silence

I’ve been very fortunate in receiving a lot of personal feedback in the form of emails, private messages, and even one-on-one “attaboys” from readers. Thank you, Diana, Heather, Percy, TJ, and Rita! Keep those cards & letters comin’!

Occasionally people ask me to talk a bit more about my sitting practice. I have to keep giving credit where credit is due: my entire sitting practice is basically modeled after the method taught by Charlotte Joko Beck and/or Brad Warner. That’s not to say I’m doing it “right”; just that I read their instructions and try to do it “their way.”

Not sure this is the "Middle Path" they courtesy Kashirin Nikolai, Flickr CC pool

What’s the benefit? I don’t know. There may not be one. About the only one I can really point to directly is that by the time my fifteen minutes of sitting and staring at nothing is done, I’m awake. I go from muzzy-headed “I can’t remember how to cross my legs” to an active and alert “Did I actually set the timer?

Where my head goes in between those places is everywhere. It goes to grief. It goes to self-criticism. It starts writing blog entries, and plans out the day’s activities. Sometimes it plots the next chapter in my novel, or reminds me of how much I need to start exercising. Sometimes it reflects on the night before, on the meal I had for dinner, on the coffee and journaling I’m about to do in the future.

Sounds like the path to enlightenment, right?

Back to Breath

Wherever it takes me, I come back to the same place: the breath. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. I used to do a five count practice:

  1. Breathe in while counting slowly to five.
  2. Hold the breath in the full lungs while counting slowly to five.
  3. Exhale while counting slowly to five.
  4. Leave the lungs empty while counting slowly to five.

The benefit of this is that when I’m focusing on the breath, it doesn’t leave as much room for the monkey mind (or the mice in the blender) to jump around and make noise. The problem with that method is attachment to the numbers: I become engaged with the discipline of breathing, attached to how well I am doing it, whether I am internally counting to five slowly enough.

Enough for what?  you ask. To which I say, exactly. Creating a competition within your own head as to how to breathe better is as unattached to reality as dreaming about that delicious tiramisu recipe that I want to try with a good cigar. Neither one has anything to do with being here now.

So when the monkey mind gets to chattering too loud, I don’t count, not if I can help it. The Breathing Discipline is only used on particularly bad days, when the brain can’t seem to help but go in directions I really don’t want it to.

Usually just a centering breath or two is enough to take me back to something different.

The Silence

Every once in a while, I find myself touching a place where it feels still. It’s not that the world around me stops (though I admit that helps). It’s when for just a moment I am able to let go of things, to touch a solid quiet place, larger than myself or my issues. It’s funny how difficult it is to convey this with language; the best I can do is give it the same term that I use in my head: the Silence.

It is not a terrifying or even remotely scary silence. It’s the sound of 5am in the woods after a half-foot of snow has fallen. It’s the sound of your daughter’s eyes in the moonlight as you feed her a bottle at 2am. It’s the sound that the echoes of a fine wine make in your mouth after you’ve swallowed. It’s the sound of your brain in those precious few seconds after orgasm.

It’s not pleasurable, exactly. It is, however, somewhat reassuring. Because when I manage to touch it, just barely grasp it with tenuous metaphorical fingers, there’s one thing I recognize immediately: it’s always there.

Noise gets layered on top of it. My mind gets infinitely distracted from it, and sometimes I can’t see it at all. But that place of silence is always there; so when I find it, usually while sitting, for a few seconds in between “Ow, my knee really hurts” and “I’m going to die someday, did anything really matter?” I drink it in, store it for those moments when the noise is loudest.

Dance, Don’t Scramble

I realize this sounds somewhat religious, and please make no mistake: I assign no benevolent intent or intelligence to the Silence. But I drink it in when I can find it, trying to store up the memory, the feeling of it, to bring out when the rabblement of life gets to be too chaotic.

See, I have this idea, that the only difference between noise and music is the silent spaces you put in between the notes. So maybe if I can insert some silences into the hubbub of my day, I can turn it from a cacophony into a symphony. Maybe I can find the rhythm, and turn the scrambling into a graceful parkour-like dance around, over, and through the obstacles.

Maybe not. But I drink in the silence, every morning, and try again. You never learn to play an instrument unless you take the time to practice.

photo courtesy Marisa_StMiste via Flickr CC


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