In the spring of 2009 I traveled to Rishikesh, India, with friends. As part of our stay at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama Ashram we undertook a two-day silence practice. It was a satisfying experience and left me wanting more. So, in the fall of 2009, I returned to the ashram alone to undertake a longer practice. This is a recounting of that second silence experience, based on journal entries I made at the time.
I have allocated 3 days for planning and preparation. Planning will consist of working out goals and a daily schedule with Ma Radha, the Education Director. Preparation will include making travel arrangements for my return trip home, cleaning up my email, and stocking the cottage with a supply of tea, fruit, and other snacks. I will also need to buy a small note pad for jotting down things that need to be communicated while I am keeping silence and a small notebook I can use for journaling. I will make one last trip into town (Rishikesh) to the travel agency and will do some shopping on the way. It will be nice not to have to think about such things in the next week or to break silence to deal with them.
I had a planning meeting with Ma Radha today. We agreed that I would attempt a moderately strict silence practice with no reading (except for a few articles on silence) and a minimum of CD listening and video viewing. I had entertained the idea of doing some karma yoga (volunteer work) during silence, but we decided that might be too much of a distraction.
I watched a Swami Rama video this afternoon along with other ashram visitors. As I approach my silence practice, I wonder if I have made a mistake by assuming this is going to be easy. Last spring, my two-day silence practice went smoothly enough, but I was in the company of friends and there is quite a difference between two and seven days.
How will I handle 7 days and nights which, for all practical purposes, I will spend totally alone?
I had my final planning meeting with Ma Radha today and received my silence materials: the schedule we worked out for my daily routine, three CDs to listen to during the time set aside for that, and a few reading materials. Also a sign (lanyard) to hang around my neck that bears the word SILENCE in bold letters. I will be meeting once daily with Ma Radha if/as needed and I am hoping there will be a meeting with Swami Veda, the founder and spiritual guide of the ashram, at some point. He likes to meet with those keeping silence when his schedule permits.
To the best of my knowledge, I will be the only guest or student keeping extended silence for the next week. What will that feel like? Will I be an object of curiosity?
I attended the afternoon guided relaxation class today and got a refresher on the “31 points” relaxation technique. Tomorrow I will return to the same class for a refresher on the “61 points” technique. In the following days, I will replace the guided relaxation with one of Swami Veda’s yoga nidra CDs (a deep relaxation sometimes referred to as “yogic sleep”) which I will listen to in the privacy of my cottage. I plan to make listening to the CD part of my daily routine. Journaling will also be part of my daily routine. My schedule calls for me to journal once each day in the evening. But I am guessing it is going to work better for me to jot down thoughts and insights as they arise.
Overall, I am more at peace now about how this will go – if still curious and a bit apprehensive.
I am talking to myself a lot, often making comments as I might to a companion:
“Don’t forget to mail the post card”
“Shut the door”
“I wonder what time it is”
“I’m really hungry…how am I ever going to make it to supper?!”
Do I normally talk to myself this much?!
My most obsessive and distracting thoughts today have been
Thoughts about relationships
Thoughts about hunger and food
I have begun a meditation log with these column headings:
Malas of personal mantra
Malas of gayatri
Time spent sitting in meditation without mala
When I am out and about the ashram, most notably at meal times, I am finding that I enjoy not having to talk or interact with people. For much of my life – at work, with family, and in social settings - my problem has often not been wanting to speak, but wanting to be silent and having to speak. I wonder if perhaps silence has always been my natural state.
The first day has gone well. I am having fantasies of becoming a great meditation teacher!
From one of Swami Veda’s Silence CDs, two simple but powerful ideas:
“Speaking or not speaking has nothing to do with silence” (in other words: silence of the mouth does not equal silence of the mind!)
“Silence is not the blanking of the mind: you must fill the mind with something”
Is it my imagination? The ashram has suddenly become a VERY NOISY place! Two-week Teacher Training began today. The ashram seems to be bursting with people. In addition, there are preparations being made for the Indian “Devali” holiday. For about one hour this afternoon, a group of students settled just outside my window. They were laying out candles on the ground in intricate formations. They were in a festive mood and having lots of fun. But they were loud and I struggled to tune them out. Also, throughout the day, there was a constant stream of visitors to a cottage near mine who (it seemed to me) engaged in unending conversations on the cottage front porch.
It is really difficult to sit in my cottage trying to meditate with the world spinning loudly all-round: I am doing a lot of anger management!
Coincidentally (was it?), there was this from today’s CD lecture by Swami Veda: “When you feel angry with another, the problem is not with the other person, it is in you”.
I am a long-time student of the Himalayan tradition. I met Swami Rama in 1973 and received my mantra soon after. I have had a regular meditation practice since then. As I observe other long-time students of the tradition arriving to participate as instructors in the Teacher Training Program, I find myself comparing myself to them. They seem so much more advanced, so much more accomplished.
Envy and despair have replaced my fantasies of greatness!
Evenings are the hardest times: At home, I am used to relaxing with a good book, a movie, or a favorite program on TV. But upon returning from the evening meal and taking my evening walk, I find myself alone in my cottage with “nothing to do”. No radio. No TV. No computer. No one to share the day with. Can’t read the novel I packed for the trip either (although I am tempted).
I am also used to eating a fairly generous evening meal and am often extremely hungry by the 7:00 PM meal time. I struggle finding a compromise between eating enough so that I am not obsessing all evening about how hungry I am and eating so much that I feel uncomfortable going to bed only 1-2 hours later.
So most nights I do a bit of journaling and then sit for a session of japa (meditation with mala). This lasts only as long as I can keep my self awake, which is not long. Most evenings I simply don’t have the energy for meditation and go to bed early - all the better to get up at 5:00 AM the following morning!
Tonight was no different: I went to bed early again feeling a bit deflated after struggling and failing to meditate for more than a few minutes. After dozing off, I heard a knock at the door. It was Ma Radha come to invite me to a meeting Swami Veda had requested with ashram guests. I was pretty groggy but got dressed and found my way in the dark to the meeting. The room was packed with about 25 people, but I found a small space on the floor to sit, elbow to elbow with other students.
As he likes to do, “Swamiji” engaged every person in the room in conversation, one by one, asking a few questions about their lives and meditation practices and giving advice, sometimes uplifting and sometimes challenging, taking people out of their comfort zones.
When he turned to me, he asked when I had arrived at the ashram. Since I was “in silence”, I was not quite sure if I should speak. Finally, I did attempt to respond, but the words would not come. After four days of silence, I could not remember what day it was! In desperation, I looked at Ma Radha for help, and thankfully she was able to answer for me.
Despite that rocky beginning, the evening ended well. I had the opportunity to meet with Swamiji alone for a short while after the group meeting and received some guidance for my personal meditation practice.
I am beginning to understand the difference between inner and outer silence. I am also beginning to appreciate, more than before, how maintaining a meditative mind throughout the day can be helpful in achieving mental stillness. At first blush, that might seem like a contradiction. But, in fact, by focusing my mind inwardly, steadily, on the sound of my mantra, the jumble of disconnected thoughts and emotions I normally experience seems to be greatly reduced.
In short, I am experiencing, in a new way, the usefulness of mantra as a tool for achieving silence. It provides me with an emotionally neutral focal point. And, by maintaining that focal point as I walk about campus or eat my meals in the dining hall, my mind remains calmer and quieter. I am still able to interact with others, but from a place of greater depth and clarity.
The practical effect of this is that I spend less time analyzing the past and anticipating the future and more time simply being in the moment, the “Now”.
When all is said and done, I am beginning to wonder if inner silence isn’t the goal of all the meditative practices I have been taught.
I am finding that when my mind is truly silent and I am living in the moment, my breathing is relaxed and effortless. My navel area and diaphragm move absolutely freely with no compulsion or constraint. (Is this what the yogis mean when they say we need to re-learn how to breathe like a baby?)
In such moments, the future does not seem to matter; in fact, for all practical purposes, the future does not exist. And I realize that everything I need is right here in this moment. I feel no need to know or anticipate what might happen tomorrow or even to plan what I will do or say 10 minutes from now. I feel a deep trust that at the needed time and place I will know what to do or the correct solutions will present themselves. From this deep trust there arises a “letting go” of anything that is not here in front of me, which allows total, easy concentration on whatever that is.
And that gives rise to a state of mind in which there is no fear: when I am totally “present”, fear, like the future, does not exist!
I have a new confidence that, when I feel anxiety returning, I will have the tools I need to return to that inner silence, that present-moment awareness where my mind is once again clear and free and unaffected by “what might happen”.
Of course, most spiritual seekers know there is nothing new in these ideas. I suspect they must be the essence of all great spiritual teachings and the message of countless lectures and books (for example, Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now). But my silence practice has given them a compelling, new personal meaning.
In thinking about the past week, I am aware that I have gradually made significant adjustments to my daily schedule. As I began to settle into the silence practice, it seemed to me that some of the things in the schedule, like video viewing, CD listening, hatha, and walking for exercise, did not contribute that much to the goal of silence. They were nice breaks from an otherwise challenging routine. But it was the inner work - the deep relaxations, the japa, and the sitting meditations - that were the heart of the experience. As time went on, I began to drop those other things from my daily routine.
So, in the end, my silence practice has become a matter of immersing my mind in meditative pursuits as much of the time as possible.
As my last day of silence comes to an end, I am feeling some excitement in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.
I went to breakfast this morning without my silence lanyard. As people began to notice that I had broken silence, they were full of smiles and greetings and questions. And I, in turn, felt full of energy and enthusiasm for each new encounter.
For a while, I was able to engage each person effortlessly from that quiet interior place I had been cultivating for the past seven days. But soon I began to notice that some encounters triggered disturbing thoughts or emotions. The cumulative effect was that my mind soon began to fill with a clutter of things.
Later, I went to the Office to check email and the news on the internet to find out what had been going on in the world for the past 7 days, and I had a similar experience: I was keenly aware of the effect on my mind of each incoming stimulus, each bit of information, as it triggered new and sometimes disturbing thoughts and emotions.
This reminded me of the snow globes we had as children: with the globe at rest, the “snow” settled peacefully on the bottom. But a gentle shake of the globe would send a few random snowflakes into the watery “air”. To be followed by more snowflakes with each successive shake, until the air was filled with nothing but randomly interacting flakes and it became difficult to see where the quiet bottom had been.
The snow globe metaphor is a useful one for what I have experienced coming out of silence: When your mind becomes truly calm and quiet, you begin to see with great clarity how each thing you do or experience, in the ordinary course of your day, can cause emotional excitation and mental disturbance, pulling you away from your baseline state of peace. That awareness makes me want to be much more careful in choosing what I do with my time and how I focus my mental energy.
I know that my return to ordinary life will make it difficult to maintain that baseline of peace, the inner silence I have experienced. But these seven days have given me not only a glimpse of how rewarding that silence can be but also the tools I need for finding my way back.
By Jim Waeffler – Yoga Society of Milwaukee