Sunday, February 6, 2011

On the Value of Silence

Today about forty friends returned from a weekend retreat in the country (north of Seattle). This is an annual meditation and yoga retreat held in silence. Padma and I have led this retreat for some fifteen years. Each year some who come have never experienced a retreat, what to mention a silent one, but all, despite any prior concerns, report what a welcome experience and cleansing it is to be in silence. Silence here means not merely not talking to one another, but being mentally quiet, mindful and, according to one's temperament, devotionally focused within while walking in the woods, during meals, and, of course, during the meditation and yoga sessions.

Why is silence so reinvigorating to the spirit? Yogis such as Paramhansa Yogananda, have long compared meditation to the nightly state of sleep. Sleep refreshes us but doesn't have a lasting transforming affect because in sleep we rest in the subconscious mind. But everyone, upon waking, knows how he slept. The peace and enjoyment of sleep is due in part to the freedom we feel from the burden of the body, its compelling needs, ego identity, gender affirmation and so much else. In sleep, we return to a state where we are free.

In meditation we strive for the state of super-consciousness in which we not only retain but expand our consciousness even as we transcend the narrow confines of the body, senses, and ego identifications. Hence its affect is transforming because we can clearly remember this state and can consciously live in and draw from it intuitions, inspirations, and peace during our conscious activities.

Thus silence of mind, though not itself a superconscious state, nonetheless, brings great calmness to the emotions and nervous system, clarity to the mind, and opens the door to inspirations from superconsciousness and a blissful awareness of our divine, higher Self.

I selected for this year's retreat theme the suggestion to the retreatants that we practice the Presence by reflecting on the idea that God is watching us at every moment. Not, of course, in an invasive or nosey way but in a loving and wisdom guiding way. The image that prompted this inspiration comes from India where one sees idols covered in "eyes" or pictures of just a pair of eyes. Yogananda's beautiful poem, The Two Dark Eyes, is a tribute to Divine Mother through the eyes and form of his earthly mother.

Haven't you suddenly turned around on some unknown instinct to find yourself face to face with someone who is looking at you? Now, in human terms this isn't necessarily a pleasant thing, but that initial feeling wakes us up, as it were, to the presence of "Another." It is this feeling that I invited retreatants to hold, but in a divine way. That God, or guru, is ever with you, watching over you, ready to offer guidance, comfort, or companionship.

There is a recording of Yogananda's voice in which he tells the story of St. Anthony. The charm and the power of Yogananda's voice are impossible to convey on a blog, but it remains with me even as I write this. After Satan threatens to destroy St. Anthony and tries to convince Anthony that there is no God and that Anthony's forty years of prayer and fasting were for naught (if only Anthony would worship Satan.....), Jesus appears in the nick of time to banish Satan. St. Anthony asks Jesus where he had been all those (forty) years of Anthony's desert solitude, and Jesus says, "Anthony, I was always with you. I am the same with you always.”

God is always with us. It we whose thoughts and desires wander far from Him. A noted chemist once came to Swami Sri Yukteswar (Yogananda's guru) and insisted that there was no God. Sri Yukteswar commented, "So, you haven't isolated God in your test tubes?" Sri Yukteswar suggested the chemist try an unheard of experiment: watch his own thoughts for a full day and then he would wonder no longer at God's absence.

Thus it is on retreat or in personal seclusion that we have the opportunity to be mindful of our thoughts and to continually re-direct them in silent searching for the two lost dark eyes of Divine Mother. Try this for a week: imagine looking over your shoulder, or looking up, periodically, to catch a glimpse of One who is watching out for you, who is awaiting your interest, love and attention. Yogananda once charmingly put it this way: God has an inferiority complex because He thinks no one loves Him!

Throughout Yogananda's popular book of poems and "prayer-demands," "Whispers from Eternity," he uses poetic phrases to the effect that God hides behind nature, behind the smiles of friends, behind the energy of our activities, the intelligence of our thoughts, and the power of our emotions. God is the nearest of the near and the dearest of the dear.

As mental illness might be said to a fragmentation and discontinuation of our self-identity causing us to fail to act consistently and appropriately, so superconsciousness might be said to be the state wherein our consciousness remains unbrokenly self-aware. So, look again! God is right there with you. God is seated in your heart! Be a seer and see the truth that shall make you free!

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No longer (officially) in silence, Nayaswami Hriman