Silence. How and Why.

Please note that meditation and silence are not advisable if you are under extreme mental stress or emotional distress.

[…] Those with agitated, uncontrolled minds cannot even guess that the Atma is present here within. Without quietness, where is meditation? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness? Bhagavad Gita 2:66

Cultivating silence is gradually becoming part of my yoga practice. It can be for a short period of time like some hours during a day, or in the form of one to several days retreat where I spend time on my own.

The way I see it, spending time in silence is like an extension of my daily sadhana which is basically doing simple breathing exercises for ten minutes, and sitting in silence between 10 and 20 minutes. I sometimes write for fifteen minutes instead and sit in silence for five minutes. The purpose of sadhana is to get into the habit of calming the mind, and the more I practice the easier it becomes to keep a calmer mind in my everyday life. This doesn’t mean that when I sit, I don’t think. More often than not, I engage in planning, evaluating, analysing, ruminating, etc., but when I notice that I’m engaging in my thoughts, I slowly and gently let the thought go and focus my attention on my breath.

Why cultivate silence? I have noticed, since the very first time I was in a silent retreat with my teacher Prasad Rangnekar, that when I go into silence, my body starts slowing down and this has an effect in my nervous system reducing stress. When in silence, I am also able to observe my thoughts easier. It is very useful to know what is occupying my mind and work with it either practically by making some adjustments in my life, or by letting go of thoughts that don’t serve me and only create internal noise or even distress.

Most of us live quite busy lives with work, family and other obligations. This keeps our mind going on all the time. Then, when we have some spare time, what most of us do is to “relax” by going into our phones, reading a book, watching TV, meeting friends, etc. None of these activities are bad but they do not allow our mind to relax completely.

In the yoga practice, it is known that a relaxed mind is a clear mind. Cultivating a calm mind is the means of the yoga practitioner towards self-realisation. Seen it in a more practical way, when we take time to quiet the mind, to observe our thoughts and emotions, we gradually get a better understanding of how we function, and we are able to make adjustments to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Thus we live a more skilful and harmonious life following our real priorities and not making decisions by impulse or because everybody is doing the same.

Going into silence can sometimes be unpleasant because as we finally slow down we might be confronted to difficult thoughts and/or emotions that we have been pushing away in our business. It is important in this cases to receive these thoughts/emotions with an open heart, with a calm attitude, observe them and not try to push them away again or run away from them. It is also important not to engage with them either. This means that we allow them to come, but refrain from analysing, justifying and/or judging them or ourself for having them. When we try to cultivate stillness, we avoid solving problems, otherwise, we are engaged again in too much mental activity. This said, I have experienced that after a period of silence, solutions to problems come almost by themselves precisely because my mind becomes clearer.

There are different ways to cultivate silence, one doesn’t necessarily need to go hide in a cave. The simplest one is, as mentioned at the start of this post, to create the habit of sitting down in a calm place for some minutes and do nothing other than breathing slowly and deeply. When you notice you’re engaged in thinking, gently let the thought go, and go back to your breath. It doesn’t need to be for a long period of time. You can start with two or three minutes and as you get used to it, increase the time.

Another way of cultivating silence is by being aware of all the sometimes unnecessary noise we bring into our life. Maybe next time you sit on the couch to catch your breath after a busy day, you just do that, sit and observe what happens with your mind. Or whenever you are doing some chores where you usually would turn on the radio, turn on the TV, listen to a podcast, be completely present with what you do instead.

I had the habit of listening to music when going for a walk or a run. I still sometimes do, but I often chose not to, so I can try to be in silence. This one is very challenging because I always end up engaging in some mental activity, mainly planning ahead. But I’m working with it. Whenever I notice I’m again mentally “busy”, I try to let go.

And there are, of course, the retreats. If possible, leave for a place where it is calm or create that calm space at home. Decide how long you want to be in silence. Maybe it is a good idea to start slowly, with one day, and increase as you feel more comfortable with it. Tell those around you that you want to be in silence, so you don’t need to worry about feeling that you are rude. Slow down, try not to make much eye contact with those around you. Don’t talk. No reading, no music, no radio, no phone. Just you and the gradual peace that silence brings. It might feel very difficult, and that’s ok. Try not to engage with your thoughts. Thoughts will come all the time, the key is to try to let them go when we notice we’re engaged in thinking. It is very important not to be judgemental of your own process. If you feel your mind is all over the place, don’t add distress by judging yourself. Just observe with curiosity, and after the time of silence, decide what changes you need to bring into your life in order to help your mind quiet down. This is where one of the most important principles of yoga steps in: vairagya or detachment. The more we attach our thoughts to, the less our mind is calm. Find out what is it that you are clinging to that doesn’t serve you in life. What is it that you can let go of.

When I go into silence, I like to create myself a routine. I wake up at a specific time, I choose a time to do my asana (sometimes twice a day), I do breathing exercises and sit in stillness several times a day. I also go for walks, and since I am a Yoga student, I usually study the Gita under the guidance of my teacher. While in a retreat, I spend more time reflecting on how the verses I am studying apply into my life. I also write, and I rest. If I feel like taking a nap, I take a nap but beware of not falling into drowsiness, that is why the walking and the asana. If you’re not a yoga asana practitioner, just some mild movement of the body would do.

This is the stage I am at when it comes to silence. I guess the more you practice, the more you can sit in complete silence, and the less you do but remember, we all are where we are in life and we need to take that into consideration when practicing yoga. Often, what we want or think should do is not necessarily what we need or benefit from. If you’re in doubt, seek for some guidance.

Aversion, the other face of attachment

Abhyasa and vairagya are two very important principles for the yoga practitioner. Very simplified abhyasa means practice and this encompasses the daily sadhana, but also practicing the teachings of yoga at every moment in the practical life. Vairagya is often translated as detachment. The less we cling to, the less disturbances we create in our mind, the clearer we live our lives and most importantly, the closer we come to the core of who we are.

The principle of detachment really makes sense to me, and therefore during the last five years, I’ve observed myself, and tried to detach from what does not serve me in my spiritual path. I have had to be quite honest with myself and let go of what causes disturbances in my mind. I am constantly looking at what I do, what I want, and what I possess, and I ask myself if this is a priority, or if I can let it go. This can be things, activities, relationships, habits…

The idea of detachment is not that we stop engaging with the world, on the contrary, we engage maybe even more wholeheartedly but with awareness. Without clinging into it.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the other face of attachment: aversion, and I have discovered that this one causes maybe even more trouble in my mind and in my practical life. There are different levels of it, the highest probably being hate or resentment. When we go around thinking bad of others, we can physically feel how it affects us, our heartbeat increases, our body feels restless, we feel generally unwell. A dear friend of mine once said in one of her workshops, hate is like eating poison and hoping for the other person to die. It really eats us up.

Luckily for me, I don’t hate anyone, but I do have resentment towards things people have done that have hurt me. I have been aware of that kind of aversion for some time now, and I constantly work with it. It helps me to think that people act out of their own perspectives and needs, just like I do, even if this sometimes means that they hurt others, just like I’ve done.

When it comes to the ‘lower’ degrees of aversion, I know now for a fact that I have a tendency to panic in moments of unpleasantness, either created by my emotions, situations or people around me. This often leads to me acting impulsively to get out of the unpleasant feeling making things worse.

Reacting with aversion to unpleasant situations is, of course, part of our instincts, and it is useful when we are in danger, but let’s be honest, in our everyday life, how many times are we in real danger?

Form now on, I will observe myself in moments where aversion arises and try to work with it by 1) Not reacting impulsively to it 2) Being courageous and sit with the feeling 3) Trying to understand where the aversion comes from and see if I can make some small adjustments in my perceptions and life in general. My yoga teacher often says that it is the people and situations that challenge us that teach us the biggest lessons about ourselves.

To achieve this, abhyasa is a very important element. During my sadhana (=daily practice which for me is sitting with myself), I can practice sitting with the unpleasantness, by using my breath to calm the mind and not feed into the feeling with analyses and judgements. And for the rest of the day, remind my limited mind that it is ok, unpleasantness is not the end of the world, it is trying to tell me something about myself and the way I interact with the world.