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The Science of Silence

by Jamie Van Ess

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Silence is golden. Practicing silence is a powerful way to see ourselves more clearly and to observe the relationship between our inner and outer worlds with greater understanding. Time spent in intentional silence can go a long way toward revealing the architecture of our hearts and unfolding a life full of fulfillment and purpose.

Look deeply into most any spiritual path and you will find those who embody the highest aspirations of that path. It is they who have touched upon the inconceivable Reality that many spiritual teachings attempt to describe. It is they who act as intermediaries between the vast ocean of Divine experience and those who are trying to capture it with the cupped hands of limited awareness.

Usually, silence has infused the early spiritual strivings of these awakened ones, forming a fertile ground from which their realizations could flower. Those who are settled in the Divine reality express silence in the same way that fire expresses heat, by natural fulfillment. Silence is the natural state of one whose heart is absorbed in a consciousness that is too full of bliss to allow for the push and pull of thought.

On the surface, it is easy to see how the practice of silence helps us to disengage from the preoccupations of the ego mind and open up space to concentrate on our internal world. When we are left without the constant stimulations of work, relationships, and recreation, examining what remains becomes easier.

Silence is golden. Image: Pleasant Valley Sanctuary

Let’s take a look deep beneath the surface of the circumstances that have carried any given seeker into silent retreat. Deeper still than the various spiritual disciplines that they practice when they get there lies a universal melting point.

The ancient science of yoga—and the yogis who have mastered it—explains that stress, loneliness, anxiety, confusion, and suffering of all kinds arise when the pure consciousness of our true nature becomes disturbed by the ripples of desire and attachment. The two sides of the coin of desire are craving more what brings pleasure and aversion rather than what brings pain. The true nature of consciousness, on the other hand, is complete, lacking nothing and fulfilled by the bliss of its own being. It is content to witness the ever-changing flow of life without trying to cling, control, or change it.

Just as the moon reflected on the surface of a still pool of water becomes unrecognizable when the water is rippled, our experience of pure consciousness becomes distorted when its surface fluctuates wildly according to our emotional responses to the world around us. When this happens, the natural state of our consciousness is no longer perceptible. We are left with ever-changing, disconnected reflections of that pure consciousness, cut off from its self-sufficient bliss.

The result is a dependence upon this world perceived through the senses to make us happy and fulfilled. This is the core of our confusion and the essence of our suffering. Our intellects and emotions become so identified with the world of form and sensation that we suffer when faced with the cruel truth that nothing that we experience through the senses, in and of itself, can give deep and lasting fulfillment. Any experience or sensation eventually gets old, and if it hasn’t yet, we worry about either trying to get more of it or about losing it once we have it.

Take a deep breath. Image: Pleasant Valley Sanctuary

Every spiritual path, in one way or another, attempts to neutralize the alternating waves of craving and aversion in consciousness to once again behold the one true nature of being that is obscured by the many unique but dysfunctional ones that we have adopted as ourselves.

The cycle that most of us find ourselves in involves identifying with this ever-changing world of people and places, colors and sounds, successes and failures, while continually developing a binding relationship with it. We want one thing and don’t want the other. We maneuver one way to get what we want and maneuver another way to avoid what we don’t want. We like this and dislike that. The entire fabric of our lives can be reduced down to these threads with a little honest self-reflection.

The tools and methods to break this cycle are many and meditation is the most central. Silent retreats, for example, push us into the early stages of the same process that leads to deep meditation, where the beauty and power of silence lie. For many, the deepest regions of meditation are inaccessible. Time, restlessness, body troubles, and responsibilities all seem to stack up against a substantive effort to meditate deeply and regularly.

The process that both silent retreats and meditation (in a more condensed way) set into motion is that of breaking contact with the senses. The ripples in our consciousness, as discussed, are being fed by a continuous stream of incoming sensory data that we react to repeatedly until thought patterns and emotional habits are hardened into the false personas that we identify with.

In deep meditation, we learn to withdraw our energy and attention from the sense organs and let our consciousness just settle down for awhile, without being lashed into waves by the sensations that we have attached ourselves to. This is why meditation is such an essential renewal, it is cutting straight to the root of the problem... of every problem.

Silent retreats echo the same process. The isolation from stimuli literally begins to turn our nervous system inwards. We have no choice but to seek our fulfillment from something other than sensual experiences, a movement that will naturally carry us back toward the true nature of consciousness. The skill level required to switch off the sense organs through yoga techniques is high and rare, but silence is free and available to anyone.


Retreat with Pleasant Valley Sanctuary. Image: Pleasant Valley Sanctuary

Mere days into a silent retreat—which sometimes includes an intense internal struggle—the level of satisfaction, enjoyment and even bliss experienced by the simplest of activities can be mind-blowing. Tying your shoes can leave your heart melting in joy. This is the result of reawakening to the truth that fulfillment, peace and happiness do not come from circumstance and sensation. Fulfillment, peace and happiness filter through circumstance and sensation from their source in pure consciousness.

I have watched, again and again, sincere people without a strong meditation practice enter into silent retreat to experience a profound, vibratory detox and walk out the other side significantly more free, more connected to Spirit and more themselves than when they walked in.

Seek out silence and build a bridge to the silence within.

How often do you meditate? Have you experienced the benefits of the silence within? Go on a silent meditation retreat to go further with your practice. 

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