I made this little video SINK two years ago. It was right at the start of that first COVID lockdown that so abruptly collapsed the external structures of our lives and showed us just how fragile it all was. It’s a piece about silence and learning to be still, made in response to that very particular moment. It’s just five minutes of your time. I hope you like it.
I wrote about silence in another post a couple of weeks back, but here I am returning to the subject yet again. It seems important, timely and necessary. We need silence more and more as the violence and destruction and suffering of the world seem to keep gathering momentum. Sometimes I worry it’s an indulgence, and that we need to act more, say more, do more…But I’m trying to understand what it is about silence that makes it feel so very necessary right now.
It’s important to note that by silence here I don’t mean an external kind of quietness. We can be in a peaceful environment but drown it all out with so much inward chatter, worry, anger, fear, or doomscrolling that we are scarcely present at all. In the words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us…if we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who died recently aged 95, didn’t see this sweetness as a self-indulgence or a luxury. Indeed, he found the strength within his own silence to become a courageous peace activist in the midst of the Vietnam war. He then went on to become a lifelong advocate for engaged Buddhism and his teachings have resonated throughout the world.
His suggested practice is deceptively simple. Throughout the day, we just stop now and then, remember to come back to the breath and let our mental chatter fall quiet.
When we release our ideas, thoughts and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions and is so much vaster than our mental constructs.
There are moments when we think we’re being silent because all around us there’s no sound, but unless we calm our mind, talking is still going on all the time inside our head. That’s not true silence. The practice is learning how to find silence in the midst of all the activities we do.
It’s about finding that silence right in the thick of life, right in the middle of conflict. It’s a stillness and a solitude that are completely independent of external situations. Finding this, he taught, will free us from the reactiveness that sets up the oppositions of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and only perpetuates the hatred.
Just as inner silence does not require outer silence, solitude does not necessarily have to mean there is no-one physically around you. You realise the deep meaning of being alone when you are established firmly in the here and how, and you are aware of what is happening around you, but you also stay fully present within yourself, you don’t lose yourself to the surrounding conditions. That is real solitude.
That seems like something worth working towards.