Updated: Sep 2, 2019
Tomorrow I enter into a 10 days meditation & Sufi Healing Training in Dharamsala, and as I am getting ready, I am remembering my 10-day Vipassana meditation course 2 years ago. A close friend of mine asked me what was most difficult about it. Was it to follow the strict rules? (No talking, no writing, no reading, no phone, no watch, no music, no eye contact, no physical activity, for the full 10 days.) Was it physically handling the 6AM to 9PM meditation – over 12 hours seated – each day? Or was it the fight of permanent random thoughts and noises inside my head? In fact, for me the most difficult aspect was to physically sit for hours and hours, days after days, without being able to move. But the most beautiful part of the 10 days, the most profound and powerful element of the transformation, was the total silence. I should say Silence, with a capital S.
Last week, I spent a night in the desert (all photos here). I was in the most remote location of Rajasthan, western India, in Khuri, only 150 km from the Pakistan border, the farthest you can go without a special permit.
Khuri is a very small, rural village, 50 km from the beautiful city of Jaisalmer (photos here), surrounded by dunes and wind turbines. Life is very simple there, and only a few families of farmers survive the harsh conditions of the desert and the lack of water apart from a few very old stone wells.
What I want to talk to you about today is that wonderful experience of Silence, the Silence of the Desert, which moved me and reminded me of my Vipassana training, and why we absolutely need to almost schedule silent moments into our busy agendas. I think we need Silence to heal us and we need Silence to guide us. When true Silence is created in retreats or monasteries, or when we can experience it naturally, a complete new dimension is created. A place that is usually very new and rare, where new essential sounds can arise.
One of the first thoughts I had when I was walking on the dunes with my Camel was about Antoine de Saint Exupery and The Little Prince. There is something magical in watching endless dunes, and I was expecting the Little Prince to appear somehow and come to talk to me about his rose, his sheep or the universe, in the profound Silence of the desert. When everything is quiet, when the noise of the modern civilization fades away, we can start to listen to a more profound voice inside us.
“I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” ― Chaim Potok, The Chosen
All spiritual practices, relaxation exercises, meditative practices, and religions value Silence before talks, Silence before music, to reach a quiet state of mind. The beautiful paradox is that it is only by first stopping all sounds that we can start to hear what’s truly important.
So why do we create silence or go to silent places? It’s not just to listen to the silence, which is the first element of that path, but to allow a much more subtle sound, a much more subtle voice, to be heard. Which one? The one spoken by our heart, and not by our head. This sounds a little “hairy fairy”, but if you ever tried any of those practices, or have ever been to a silent retreat or slept in the desert, you do know that a very unique voice arises inside you, carried by a profound sensation of serenity.
I love that quote from Woody Allen: “God is silent. Now if only man would shut up.”
It is surely not easy, when we live in a busy city, to go sleep for a few nights in the desert! But there are many things you can do to nurture such a moment and see yourself what you can gain by this practice.
First, it starts by reducing all input into our computer system, our brain. From news, to TV, to radio, to Music, to social talks, to reading, to any kind of stimulation that is adding information to our already overwhelmed hardware and software… This can be done permanently, such as deciding to not watch TV at all, or intermittently, by scheduling a specific point in the day or week where we set up a space and time for true silence, what I would call a Noble Silence.
It does not have to be a full day or many hours. I would recommend that you try one full hour, though two or three hours is much better for bringing about that special new sensation I described above. Weekends are a perfect time. Ideally do it when you are in a natural setting. Turn off all electronics, be alone, stop your music, do not pick up a book, and sit or walk in silence. Focus your attention to your breath, the physical sensations in your body, and to the natural sounds around you (birds, wind, branches moving).
There is this new “I” in you, the one we can call the peaceful, happy and rooted “I,” which we do not allow to speak, nor can we hear, when we are in the constant noises and distractions of the material world. Why is it important to hear that “I?” Because it has a unique energy, power and truth that none of our other “I’s” have.
Often we feel we lack clarity on which direction to take in life, which decision to make for professional or personal matters, what to do with a specific relationship, where to live, etc. And often to answer we add more information to the system. We read more, talk more, go out more, etc. The truth is that it is not in reading more or talking more that we will get more clarity. It is quite the opposite. We will have an immediate feeling to “know more” but it will only confuse us more and shadow the right decision. The one that is lying deep in our heart. It is in the guidance of the Silence that we will hear that answer.
“My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear — a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence. The "I" in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.” ― Kahlil Gibran
I know a few people who recently told me that being alone, or taking a full weekend on their own, in nature, far from anyone and with no connection to the outside world, was frightening for them or they would feel bored or lonely. A friend told me recently, “I don’t think I can just be with myself like that for more than five or six hours in total silence, so a day or 10 days sounds like hell to me!” This is an incredible insight into how powerful our Ego mind, the “I” that control our decisions and thoughts, has over our more profound and true nature. This “I” is scared. He is the anxiety and fear in us. And he is going to do anything, starting from dismissing what is said here, to never let you take that moment for yourself only, to make sure he stays in total control. It is the “I” that rushes to the computer when we are alone, the “I” that turns on the news or starts the music when there is a total silence, the “I” that goes us out to meet friends or see a movie when we are alone. I have it, we all have it. The goal is to get to recognize it, and give the other “I” a few hours in a 168-hour week.
I am not saying any of those social and distracting activities are bad and should be avoided! You can do all of them, even frequently, but know that they are simply self-medication if they are a response (most of the time totally unconscious) to our total dependence on outside stimuli – a way to avoid facing ourselves.
How do we know our social outlets are self-medication? Here are a few clues:
The less you feel able to part with them, the more the thought of total silence on your own scares you, the more you push away even the short trial of it, the more likely it is self-medication.
Another clue, very common in today’s world, is frequent “over busy and over social (surrounded by others in permanent interactions) behavior.” Think about it. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed or anxious or a bit lost and instinctively you added more stimuli to your machine: increasing social interaction, going to see an action movie, etc. What we often call “distraction and relaxation” in fact has a side effect that increases brain activity, making us believe that we are releasing tension since the activity is happening in a separate part of our brain from where the “issue” is. So, for a short moment, we feel better as those new brain waves are shadowing the problem.
It’s a little bit like an emergency patient who is bleeding, so you plug him with an I.V. and blood transfusion. He will instantly feel better even though the problem (the bleeding) is not resolved at all. So when the I.V. runs out, when again you are back at home without stimuli, the past sensations will rise again. Even worse, you might think that the solution is the permanent I.V. and might go for more. It is very frequent to see people “hooked”, falling into “over busy and over social” behavior, for months or years, without ever addressing the problem in the right way. This leads to long term depression, and is one of the increasing causes of global anxiety that our modern societies face, despite an overload of “fulfilled needs” from entertainment, to food, to travel…
The other element the social noise is disturbing is the belief that we are not alone. I love this quote from Antoine de Saint Exupery in The Little Prince:
“Where are the people?” resumed the Little Prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…” “It is lonely when you you’re amongst people too” said the snake.”
This is the paradox and the beautiful opportunity that the Silence is offering. Reconnecting or connecting more deeply with ourselves in order to regain true and meaningful connections with others. So are you ready to discover the sound of your Silence? How exciting is this? Scary? Either way, at the end of the day there is no growth inside the comfort zone...
Thanks for reading this today. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below. And if you really like this post, please share and tweet!
Until next time, remember to travel with your heart.