Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to be Quiet

Theo asks: 'Hello again, Maggie, Could I trouble you to say a little more about blocking out the static and exercising care about what we expose our minds to and what we put into them that feeds the static.'

Theo, it entirely depends on the person. People are so very different; rules are dangerous because they tend to become ends in themselves. Common sense is the best guide—and a sense of lightness, of play! (See Hugo Rahner's God and Man at Play). The Cloud-author writes of 'good gamesumli play'. However, here are some of the things I am careful about—a scattershot account, I'm afraid, as I am still knackered from the conference (one reason I so rarely go to conferences is that I get overstimulated):

The body is the best starting place: avoid junk or processed food, e.g., ready meals. Eat simple, good food, simply prepared, in moderate quantities. In my view, sugar and white flour are poison, even though I eat them now and again (at Christmas, for example). Drink tea instead of coffee. The body needs exercise: walking can be a great aid to quiet and clear the mind so that insight can arise. Have contact with nature through walking, gardening, or deliberately going to wild places to be quiet. Much of the problem with noisy minds is that we are cut off from our proper context, which is nature. Get enough sleep: 7-8 hours a night. If you are overtired, your brain can get stuck in high gear and there are in my view fewer more unpleasant sensations. Use whatever sleep aids work: I put a warm, not hot, hot water bottle at the foot of the bed on cold nights, and have (granary) toast and milk just before I go to bed if I'm having trouble sleeping. Soft classical music can also help (avoid flutes). Avoid alcohol: an occasional glass of wine with friends over a meal may seem harmless but realise that alcohol both stimulates and depresses, and that the effects can be so subtle that we think nothing is happening—but it is. Slow your breathing down and breathe deeply from the diaphragm. Have a minimal structure to the day without being rigid about it, e.g., times of waking and going to bed, mealtimes.

Music: music activates a very primitive area of the brain. One of the purposes of singing the Office was so that psalm verses and the melodies assigned to them would take on their own life in the deep mind and continually well up during the day as an accompaniment to whatever was going on; but since no one sings the Office any longer, we have to find other music to fill that void. It is still true, however, that 'who sings prays twice'. The musical wellspring can warn as well as accompany: when I sense danger, for example, 'He trusted in God that he would deliver him' from the Messiah often wells up. The Spirit has a sense of humour, so sometimes the upwellings can also provide comic commentary. Classical music such as chant, renaissance or baroque music are good to absorb. The more 'pop' one gets, the more 'easy listening' or even what I think of as 'noodle music'—that is someone fooling around on a piano that's sold as meditation music but really has no structure, depth or melodic value—the more one activates and agitates the superficial, self-conscious mind. Boycott shops that have muzak thumping away and if it is a shop you need to use, be sure to find a manager and tell him or her politely why you won't shop there, pointing out that thumping, caterwauling muzak adds to everyone's stress levels (there are plenty of scientific studies to back up this claim). Take the quieter route: if you have to walk through a noisy part of town, take an alternative route even if it means that you take longer to get where you're going.

Avoid media. Forget the newspapers, throw away your iPod, don't watch television (exceptions: nature programmes, programmes on art, dramas such as Pride and Prejudice). Avoid all images of violence, carnage, betrayal, humiliation. Sometimes, however, banal TV can help quiet the mind down; I'm thinking of reruns of early Law and Order (but not SVU). But TV is insidious, and the images go far deeper than you realise, and tends to overstimulate. It's better to read magazines or books than watch TV, The New Yorker or nonfiction or a novel. Avoid novels that have too much suspense, violence, sex. Again, the images we take in go far deeper than we realise. This may sound like there's not much to read but in fact there's a lot: at the moment I'm reading Gunter Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion; I just finished Robert Bringhurst's Tree of Meaning. Avoid 'spiritual' books that tell you how to shape up your life with exotic practices or special language (jargon), or that separate out 'spirituality' from ordinary life.

At the conference I heard two wonderful papers on Eckhart, whose point is that if you are doing anything special that you mark as 'spiritual' you are going in the wrong direction: this from a Dominican friar. (It's the same reasoning behind my opposition to so-called spiritual direction). It's the same principle as the Ox-herding tale: at the end, the man comes back into the village, covered with mud, riding his ox, and laughing uproariously. There were a number of terrific papers; there were also a few dreadful ones, and I came away convinced that the voyeuristic tendency in the study of so-called spirituality/mysticism is just another form of pornography. Avoid dependent relationships. Cultivate whatever helps you to immerse yourself so that you are self-forgetful. Crafts such as weaving or pottery are often helpful in this regard, eg., Carla Needleman's The Work of Craft.

Avoid people who wind you up, make you anxious or feel bad. If you have a toxic family, you may have to stop having any contact. This is very, very hard and sometimes circumstances mean you have to stay in a situation longer that may perhaps be wise or good, but in the end, tough as it is, breaking off toxic relationships is essential.

Be vigilant about distractions: an opportunity may arise that seems like a good thing, or a creative thing, but may be tempting just because it distracts you. Choose your social activities carefully and limit them. As to thoughts, read Evagrius' account of what to do about thoughts (www.litpress.org/excerpts/9780879073299.pdf). Evagrius anthropomorphizes his techniques in terms of 'demons' but he knew as did Isaac of Nineveh that all demons arise from the human heart (and are figures of its activities). He points to a number of helpful techniques. You use the word 'blocking' about mental static: this, it seems to me, is not quite right because blocking is a kind of fighting, actively engages the static. You want to break the engagement, to ignore it, neither attack nor defend, but turn away to 'reach into the dark'—an image I find helpful, but others may not. The desert fathers and the Cloud-author put this very simply: they say, when your mind is full of static, cry 'help!' or use a short phase such as 'O God, make speed to help me'. Some people find 'Behold' useful—it doesn't matter what word or phrase you use: whatever will break the cycle of noise and focus your attention elsewhere, yielding to, receptive to, the silence. The self-conscious mind has a strong tendency to lock itself into loops, hamster wheels, squirrel cages (the image depends on which side of the Atlantic you are on) and the point is to break open that cycle. Again, physical movement such as walking helps most of all in this regard.

The point is not to engage in some exotic practice but to learn to use whatever is ready to hand. When you wash the dishes, as Zen Buddhists say, wash the dishes. If the noise continues in spite of everything, then simply accept it tranquilly and focus on getting on with your life. If you ignore it, it's more likely to dissolve from lack of attention.

Finally, both laughter and weeping can clear the mind and bring you to silence.

Hope this helps.


The Place Where You Go to Listen by John Luther Adams (www.johnlutheradams.com/writings/place.html) (www.youtube.com/watch?v=akSaqUVbV00)

"Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.

When the words that we need shoot up of themselves, we have a new song."

-- Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder

They say that she heard things...

At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness. The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.

She listened. And she heard. But she rarely spoke of these things. She did not question them. This is the way it is for one who listens.

She spent many days and nights alone, poised with the deep patience of the hunter, her ears and her body attuned to everything around her. Before the wind and the great sea, she took for herself this discipline: always to listen.

She listened for the sound, like drums, of the earth stirring in ancient sleep. She listened for the sound, like stone rain, as rivers of caribou flooded the great plain. She listened, in autumn, for the echo of the call of the last white swan.

She understood the languages of birds. In time, she learned the quiet words of the plants. Closing her eyes, she heard small voices whispering:

"I am uqpik. I am river willow. I am here."

"I am asiaq. I am blueberry. I am here."

The wind brought to her the voices of her ancestors, the old ones, who taught that true wisdom lives far from humankind, deep in the great loneliness.

As she traveled, she listened to the voices of the land, voices speaking the name of each place, carrying the memories of those who live here now and those who have gone.

As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place -- how the snow falls here, how the ice melts--how, when everything is still -- the air breathes. The drums of her ears throbbed with the heartbeat of this place, a particular rhythm that can be heard in no other place.

Often, she remembered the teaching of an old shaman, who spoke of silam inua -- the inhabiting spirit, the voice of the universe. Silam inua speaks not through ordinary words, but through fire and ice, sunshine and calm seas, the howling of wolves, and the innocence of children, who understand nothing.

In her mind, she heard the words of the shaman, who said of silam inua: "All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid".

The heart of winter: She is listening.

Darkness envelopes her -- heavy, luminous with aurora. The mountains, in silhouette, stand silent. There is no wind.

The frozen air is transparent, smooth and brittle; it rings like a knifeblade against bone. The sound of her breath, as it freezes, is a soft murmuring, like cloth on cloth.

The muffled wingbeats of a snowy owl rise and fall, reverberating down long corridors of dream, deep into the earth.

She stands, motionless, listening to the resonant stillness. Then, slowly, she draws a new breath. In a voice not her own, yet somehow strangely familiar, she begins to sing...

This piece has appeared in The North American Review (March/April 1998), and in Terra Nova (Volume 2, Number 3).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maggie,

Thank you so much for the encouraging, nourishing, and fulsome reply to my little comment. I think that I turned to silence in the end because there was nowhere else to go. I'm happy I found it (or did it find me?) and sort of felt 'it' had been just 'waiting' for me. I'd 'dabbled' before (possibly instinctively) but found myself giving up any practice of it after a few weeks/months. Then, about a year ago, I stumbled on centering prayer and felt that it fitted me right where I was.

I'm encouaged by your words in that some of the things you've discovered to be helpful I, too, have found helpful. I gave up drinking (there was no effort involved as it was 'right' to do so at that time). I detest most TV and movies. I've begun to look after myself/mylife a bit better. I'm culling my library and take more care not to read what corrupts and/or disturbs. The pain of the world comes in anyway!

I take nourishment from much of what you write about gently doing things and just enagaging with what is in front of me. And I cry for help throughout the day - and smile/chuckle at my failings!

I know, too, that there is more I need to do - and some of it is, as you say, common sense. I love pottering in my little garden, walking on grass (ie real ground) and do what I can to notice nature around me. As for toxiticity, I think I will need to change my job (social work) as it is draining life out of me all the time. This is as much to do with the context and the rampant managerialism, proceduralism and bureaucritisation as the contact with so much suffering and abuse. And I have found through my own experience that some relationships have to be let go of and others at least minimised, family included.

I so enjoy laughing and am glad that I cry now and again.

I could say so much more but I'd have to be too personal for a blog.

I hope your recovery from the conference goes well. I'm grateful for your comments. It is good to know that you are 'there'.

Every Good Wish,


8:57 am, January 17, 2012  
Blogger Stella said...

Thank you Maggie for such a comprehensive post. Like Theo, much of what you have suggested is already part of my lifestyle and again like Theo, I am trying to take more time to nurture myself.
As an aside, I was reading Pillars of Flame last night and found the Discernment of Vocation to the Solitary Life in Appendix B vey helpful. I recommend it to you Theo.
Thanks Maggie, and my very best wishes to you Theo.

5:37 pm, January 17, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Hi Stella,

Thanks for your comment. Actually I tried to get that appendix on the solitary life taken out of the book when it was reprinted because in my view the context in which I made my vows no longer exists and there is certainly no bishop (except Rowan) I'd recommend going to, especially if you're in the States. Bishops these days don't seem to know anything but power politics and ambition for preferment. A lot of them also have D. Min. instead of an academic doctorate and in my view people with D. Min. shouldn't be allowed to be bishops.

In fact, I think that solitaries should form their own networks, receive one another's vows, and bypass the institution, more or less; the most destructive bishop in this regard in recent years is the retiring bishop of New York. The canons in the USA and the guidelines in the UK are inimical to the solitary life.

Good luck!

5:48 pm, January 17, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Stella,

Thank you for your good wishes: I send mine to you. It is good to know thta there are pthers 'out there'!

Perhaps I should have added, Maggie, that I am married with a young child. So, 'solitary' has to be somewhat ... er ... nuanced!

I'd like also to add that I like centering prayer because it is almost a non-method! There is nothing to be achieved; no state to aim for; no experience to be sought.


9:26 pm, January 17, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Tyler,

You have good instincts. The Main approach is the more authentic one; do read both his books about meditation because what he says about the repeated word receding is very important. I can give you more background if you will send me your email in a comment flagged DO NOT PUBLISH (I moderate all comments). I am also in touch with someone else who shares your vision and i will write and ask him if he is willing for me to share his email with you.

Meditation, however, is only the first step in a much larger programme: you can meditate to become a better killer (I'm starting to sound like a broken record on this). But it's the focus of a whole life that's important; that's why the hiving off of 'spirituality' as a separate entity is so destructive, part of the 'having it all' mentality. And of course all the translations of the Cloud are wrong because they interpolate the modern sense of 'experience' when he means exactly the opposite.

John Main aside, these meditation movements in my view have become self-negating (and the so-called spiritual direction one has been from the start). Spiritual maturity is about self-forgetfulness, and these projects only make you pay more attention to yourself and encourage people to become groupies and think alike. Both have a ceiling, I fear. I'll be expanding this in a forthcoming book.

And yes, the state of education in ECUSA is absolutely dire. I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end.



Furthermore, we have made these exercises all too exotic. As Meister Eckhart says if you are aware of doing something 'special' in your approach to God then you have not even begun—and yes, he realised how subversive this sort of statement is to the institution.

3:37 pm, January 23, 2012  
Anonymous Tyler said...

Dear Maggie, Thank you so much for being a voice of silence, repose, and beholding amidst all the chatter. I am eagerly awaiting your forthcoming Silence: A User's Guide. I was wondering if you could comment on some of the different "methods" of contemplative prayer that are out there, specifically John Main's Christian Meditation, and Pennington/Meninger/Keating's Centering Prayer. Is there one you find more preferable than another? I am a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church currently in seminary in the US, and needless to say, silence doesn't play a role in our curriculum, and guidance in prayer is nonexistent outside of individual spiritual direction. Pretty discouraging. I'm interested in creating contemplative parishes, worshipping communities that spring from the ground of silence. In terms of how to roll this out, CP seems very popular among the laity, but I have some concerns about the "therapeutic" model of God that is proffered. John Main's approach seems more traditional in my estimation, but I could be wrong. Of course, both claim the Cloud as a primary inspiration, so I would be interested in your feedback. I began with CP years ago, but now practise a more regular use of the "little word" a la Main/Freeman--for me, there is something more simple, more surrendering, and less self-consciously evaluative about regular, gentle repetition come what may. I thank you again for your witness to silence, and wish you all the best. God bless

3:43 pm, January 24, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie and Tyler,

There is a lot in what you both say here.

Tyler, I would love to see your contemplative parish one day! I'm RC and despite all the traditions of spirituality around in our history nothing comes 'down' to the benches - I know that the vast majority of our clergy don't even have much of a 'spiritual' practice of any kind and we are taught/limited to what I would call throwing the mass at everything as often as we can! In the last 4/5 years I have heard 2 decent sermons on prayer. To be fair, my PP is open about not having had any instruction at all in prayer whilst he was in the seminary - shameful that they were all just left to sink or swim. You cannot pass on what you do not have. Keep going, Tyler, and don'y give up on that contemplative parish.

Maggie, I think spiritual guidance/direction can be helpful to people - depending of course on the humility and maturity of the person 'directing' (and I think 'accompanying' is a better term). Many people need help from time to time getting started in prayer and to keep going and to receive a little encouragement from time to time and to recognise the promptings to Love and Silence. As you know, it can be a lonely road and community support is usually conspicuous by its absence.

I share something of your concern about centering prayer and therapy. Perhaps everything depends absolutely on intention - if your aim is therapy that is probably all you'll get from any method; if you want God/Silence/Love let's hope that that is what you'll get. I'm slowly learning that intention is key. Any therapeutic outcome is, in my view, merely a byproduct of the surrender to God and of his inflowing. Yet I know it can be hard to live with myself as I encounter the same failings and fears and anxieties and self-centeredness as always. I can see why people would want (settle for?) the therapy bits. We're all weak; we've all pains to bear ....

I don't evaluate my prayer/meditation I just do it as I can. And I am beginning to learn how important is the life-orientation, even in small gestures to Silence.

Keep going, Maggie.


11:08 am, January 25, 2012  
Blogger Saskia van Uylenburgh said...

Maggie, what are the books by Main you particularly recommend? I say the Office and keep a journal as a type of meditation, but I would like to... approach silence is the least frou-frou way to put it, I guess.

Your books have helped me for the last 25 years, and your recent work is helping me a great deal as I try to find a place again in the Anglican tradition without letting the Church institution drive me crazy.

9:38 pm, January 28, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To M.T. Webster

Thank you for your kind remarks.

The two books are 'Word into Silence' and 'Moment of Christ'.

He was a wonderful man, far different than the organisation that is capitalising on his name.

Many blessings


9:58 pm, January 28, 2012  

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