Saturday, March 28, 2020

Silent Knowing III

Now that we understand a little about how silent knowing comes to be, let’s talk about being silent. It should be clear from what has been said that entering into silence and becoming silent involve both kenosis and death, and that is why it is so frightening for some people. The kenosis is effected in setting aside our normal preoccupations and seeking for perfect attention, or, as Julian of Norwich says, ‘Seek into the beholding,’ which I think is a much more accurate description because it references the incarnational exchange of being between human and divine that is taking place. 
The death comes in that if we are doing this we are leaving our self-consciousness behind—and we wrongly think that our so-called ‘true self’ is our self-consciousness (the so-called ‘true self’/false self dichotomy is a static, destructive, and gnostic dualism, and we do not have the perspective to judge which is which; this is God’s business, not ours). Paradoxically, when self-consciousness is elided the dynamic and ever unfolding truth of the self shines forth. When we say to teenagers, ‘don’t be so self-conscious; be yourself’ this is what we mean. 
Moving into the spacious unknowing of God and allowing our self-consciousness to fall away into the background, we progressively move into the vastness of God’s idea of us, some of which will leave traces that will emerge in our experience. It is not too much to say that the goal of the spiritual life is to become more and more self-emptying, more and more willing to root ourselves in unknowing, or, better put, less and less self-conscious—which, casts so-called spiritual direction as it is practiced today (which is not the way it was practiced in the ancient world) in an unfavourable light because it only makes people more self-conscious. Having read Ian Stirling’s thesis, this problem is very similar to that he has encountered in hospices. I am sure he will be telling us about this. This does not mean that we should not have companions on the way, but the relationship should be more like that of Augustine and Monica at Ostia than the professionalized and institutionalized process we have today.
Of course becoming silent is not always, or even frequently, a seamless process. The process of taming our attention may make us self-conscious for a brief time, but this is another paradox: we have to gain control to lose control, that is, to focus our self-consciousness so that it no longer constrains our deep mind. In this process, unwanted thoughts may intrude as we try to focus our attention, sometimes things we’re not ready to deal with. While eventually they will be, must be, ‘dealt with’ not through confrontation and struggle but through the repeated practice of letting go, there are a lot of ways to banish them during the practice of meditation that leads to silence. One is to let them go with the exhalations you are counting for your meditation (up to ten and then repeat). Another, as Evagrius tells us, is to push one thought away with another. A third, Buddhist method, is simply to stare neutrally at the thought until it dissolves. A fourth is simply to return to the mantra or prayer-word as soon as you realise you’ve been distracted, if you’re doing that sort of meditation. Another is to ask yourself, ‘why am I clinging to this thought?’ and nine times out of ten it will vanish. 
It often feels that absolutely nothing at all is happening in meditation, but don’t be fooled: the breath-counting, or mantra, the repetition of a prayer word, or object you are meditating on is tying up the focus of your self-consciousness, giving it just enough to chew on, so its interference is out of the way and the right hemisphere can get to work out of your sight. Walking in nature is also a good way to set aside self-consciousness and allow insight to flow. In walking you don’t have to do anything but walk: the self-conscious mind will blur in and out. Gradually those who practice silence realise that profound changes are occurring out of sight, and that the most important work is, figuratively speaking, to keep your hands off and stick to the meditation. Occasionally in meditation time will spontaneously ‘drop out of mind’, which we can recognise only after the fact, but such events cannot be forced and cannot be sought, because—the paradox of intention again—the more you pursue the suspension of self-consciousness, the farther away it recedes and the more one is locked into his or her self-consciousness.
There is another practice of silence I want to mention, perhaps one of the most important, and that is learning to sit perfectly still for half an hour, perfectly relaxed mentally and physically, not meditating or doing anything with the mind except allowing the silence to seek it. This can be done, like learning to meditate, in increments. Even if you only manage to do this once for half an hour it is life-changing. It gives you a resource you can draw on at any time, especially when things are fraught. 
Gradually, over time, again without your knowing why or how, silence will seat itself in you, in your core, and you can access it with increasing fluidity. In fact eventually you will be living from the wellspring of silence instead of having silence as something you seek. It will come to live in your core.
Silence is ecological, our natural habitat, not the world of noise that surrounds and stresses us. It’s no wonder that so many people are subject mental illness. When humans first emerged on the savannah they learned to communicate, yes, but if they were not to get eaten, silence had to predominate. Let me illustrate what I mean. I have spent a lot of time in Alaska, out in the wilderness alone, traveling by kayak. You have to save your VHS radio for emergencies, so you count on your skin’s sensitivity to humidity and barometric pressure to let you know when a storm is coming. Or, in a not so isolated situation, once, not far from the Arctic Circle, I was picking blueberries from a group of tall bushes at the top of a hill. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I got out of there, fast. 
When I reached the bottom of the hill my friends were hugely relieved because a very large grizzly bear had also started picking berries on the other side of the bush where I couldn’t see, hear or smell it. But clearly my body had picked up his presence. Perhaps another example of the entanglement that reveals itself in silence? I would not be here talking to you if I hadn’t been picking berries in silence
The same is true of fishing. Some young people take radios out on their boats when they are fishing, but they aren’t the people who catch the fish. Those are the old timers who will tell you, ‘I don’t know what I mean but the only way I can say it is that I listen for the fish.’ These are very practical silent ways of knowing that we have forgotten to our detriment and that of the planet. But all is not lost: it is possible to take the most die-hard city slicker out into the wilderness of a place like Alaska and these subtle senses that are out of sight of our self-conscious minds, will come alive. But you don’t have to go all the way to Alaska to practice silence. It can be done any time, any where, even in the noisiest contexts. I knew one novice-mistress who used to take her novices to the airport and the subway to teach them this.


Anonymous James said...

Thank you for these posts Maggie. The encouragement for all to live 'from the wellspring of silence' will be all the more important for those who have found themselves living in isolation and those in houses full of noise and people. This is a truth too often forgotten: that God is not 'out there' found in activity and busyness. He is found in stillness, the beginning and end of all things.

11:24 am, March 30, 2020  
Blogger Ellen Dooley said...

Thank for these posts. So grateful to "hear" from you during this time of global crisis. Glad you are well and staying safe.

7:07 pm, April 04, 2020  

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