Wednesday, December 28, 2011

where have you experienced deep silence?

Not so long ago I led a session at a multifaith conference on 'Silence in Religious Traditions'. Participants shared their experences but I won't forget a comment made by a Swedish woman who said that her experience of deep silence came from being in the forest in the snow.

I too have experienced deep snow and there is no doubt that a landscape takes on a more silent quality as sound is muffled. Two years ago staying at Valamo monastery in eastern Finland it was such a joy to explore the birch forests. I almost expected to meet St Seraphim of Sarov in that setting and somehow solitude, the encounter with holy or sacred places where people practice the discipline of silence seems to deepen and focus the experience.

I am entering this new week with a greater sense of personal refreshment after leading a Mindfulness Meditation Day at the delightful setting of the Avocado farm at McLaren Vale. We spent the day in silence, without conversation, the only speaking at the feedback sessions after practicing a meditation and the experience was profound I think for most of us.

A day without speaking means that our energy is drawn to our immediate experience and into our sensory awareness. A community in silence must pay attention to every person but there is no requirement for small talk and conversation where we are constantly seeking to respond and adjust. Our silence at the retreat day brought extra respect into our interaction.

Can we remember an experience of profound and healing silence and in our imagination revisit that time and bring some of that memory to refresh us especially when surrounded by stressful soundscapes that we can't readily escape?

The Perfect Soundscape

Reader, come with me in your imagination and enter the Belair National Park early on a summer's day with a loved dog padding along by your side. The wind caresses the gum trees like the hiss of the sea, there is the grating call of the Wattle bird, the carolling of Magpies, the screech of Black Cockatoos, distant birdsong and maybe even the grunt of a Koala. For a human being this is the perfect soundscape and also restful for the whole person, being in nature, the subtle palate of colours and too early to require sun glasses. Vigilance it is true, is required for sleeping brown-snakes but all in all such a pleasure and a privilege to live nearby such a special place.

Why is it then when the soundscape is perfect - since in our ancestral memory birds singing suggest no predator is nearby, and the wind is not so strong that it upsets our equilibrium, - that other human beings walk with eyes to the ground or jogging with headphones or ear buds firmly attached. A friendly greeting receives no reciprocal smile and greeting because these people do not hear anything apart from their music.

Granted when sitting in an aircraft, or driving a car or in a noisy place like the gym I stuff in ear plugs to protect my hearing and to lessen tiredness from the low drone of engines, but in a natural place why do others shut out the natural world? This makes no sense although I imagine people listen to music they love but distraction by nature if one slows scans through sounds, feelings and visual clues, not to mention smells can be a life giving meditation that moves the being away from the internal noise. In fact the perfect soundscape is like a full sensual experience cleansing what William Blake called 'the doors of perception' from the pollution of noise and other over stimulation that is so dehumanising.

Shape Shifting

I shared the Selkie image with a colleague who lives in a hut in a remote part of Tasmania who told me that she was very taken with the legend. In general what lies behind stories of a secret identity can be seen as a kind of spiritual longing, a feeling of not being at home where we are in this world amid the everyday, weighed down with responsibilities and feeling caught in the identity trap of simply being a consumer, a statistic and a sense we are lost and searching for something more.

The husband/wife, male or female who hid the skin was motivated by love or fear, the inter mixture of possession and control. The true home of the Selkie was where the 'human' partner could not venture. So maybe the Selkie hints at a duality within the individual, lying to onself, denying part of ourselves or putting off what Bede Griffiths called the 'return to the centre' the journey that demands not less than everything. Maybe the whole concept of shape shifting, the interplay between dream world and waking world is also an interplay on the shifting grounds of our loving. The Selkie legends seem to have a strong erotic, fantasy element to them. No wonder the seal skin was locked away or hidden in the roof space.

Plotinus, the Sage might well have identified the Selkie legend with the cry of the soul to return home to the fullness since for him we have fallen from the One into the material world of time and space, of change and of memory but there is a desire with us for the Light of Wisdom. For the neo Platonists material was not evil but part of the emanation of the One but to believe that the material world is all that there is and to be immersed solely in this one dimension is to turn to darkness.

Tending the soul, sculpting our character through cultivating virtue and practicing spiritual and philosophical exercises means that we begin to see our bodies as being like homes we inhabit gratefully from our maker.  Just as we shape our dwellings to suit our taste and interests so the body is shaped by the soul. It might also be added that how we feel is often shaped by the built environment.

It follows then that we are spiritual amphibians (a term that comes from Don Cupitt criticising an overly literal Platonism). When we search for the skin we have lost or others have hidden we are being called by depth and by mystery. This is congruent to swimming in silence and experiencing sometimes that sense of losing any sense of skin as we seem to be simply one with the flow of moments within time and space and yet still deeper in stillness.  Since for Plotinus and for other mystics, silence is God's primordial language being a selkie is an entirely appropriate metaphor.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Silence is like free diving

I remember the joy and excitement of snorkeling as a teenager off the stony and steeply shelving East Beach at Selsey. It is a stormy coast and hosts a lifeboat which when summoned slides from its boathouse on the end of a jetty to rescue 'those in peril on the sea' on the often difficult waters that lead in to the ports of Portsmouth and Southampton past the Isle of Wight. I can visualise those grey skies and seas now and the bite of the pebbles on calloused teenage feet.

Launching from the groyne and staying down as long as possible until the air burns in the lungs it was often possible to surprise bass and other fish taking cover from the strong current and then chase them through the seaweed as seemingly effortlessly they sped away into the green murk churned by the waves and then blowing out the air from the snorkel and resting on the surface.

Free diving seems more risky, expelling the air from lungs and plunging as deep as one can to the verge of drowning. I have never done it. However I have tried the technique of breathing out all the air from the snorkel before diving to reduce buoyancy.  The thrill of this is that if anything goes wrong you have sunk yourself.

Swimming below water can be noisy but there is that silence that surrounds it, the silence of concentration and the feel of the water pressure on the body. With practice and young lungs it possible to swim for longer under water.

Silence is like this too as with attendance to the body and breath one sinks into a new realm and sometimes a wordless, attentive still inner silence can be entered into for long or short periods and in this time is often telescoped since sometimes time seems to stop still and sometimes one surfaces to discover hours of clock time have passed. Just as when one is under water, sound recedes or is changed and becomes less immediate and more remote.

Silence is like that elusive grey fish that swims away through the seaweed.  For a few moments I am a seal, a dolphin an adolescent young man. I am one with the water, a selkie in spirit.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where do you experience great silence?

Jessica who used to bring such great reflection to the Philosophy Cafe here in Adelaide and is now residing in the Netherlands composed this piece about the experience of silence. It's a reminder that the lived expererence of silence and stillness may well differ from the concept of measuring sound levels and movement.

Jessica says _

I have an experience of silence (and – paradoxically – stillness) when I ride my bike. – When I ride I find my thoughts disappear, as I am caught up in navigating and maneuvering my way through a landscape, or cityscape, as it may be. Like you, I sometimes have the sensation that the wind is blowing right through me. And the rush – the movement – gives me quite literally the feeling of just passing through. I am but one feature in the scenery, and a fleeting one at that.

Whilst this is movement, I have more a sense of gliding along through it all, as it is the wheels of my bicycle that make contact with the earth; in a way I myself am stationary whilst being transported, and there is a stillness in my mind-body; only my legs are engaged in the fluid and seemingly endless motion of peddling. The physical exertion draws me into my body, and my mind is free to simply contemplate the world I am passing through at this very particular pace, detached, and, I find, inevitably content.

For me, silence and stillness hold profound power in relation to the usual cacophony and (co)mmotion that is one great demand of the modern world. Cycling is a beautifully balancing activity for the way it combines stillness and motion. – And also for the way it reveals the silent will and work of our bodies that so faithfully carry us through life.

Another form of perfect silence for me is the silence of the flower. I like to imagine what it might be like to be a flower, taut and upright in the air all hours doing nothing but exuding beauty and perfume. And lately I have found that even when I am quite literally running down the street to catch a train, or swept up in some other senselessly busy affair, on impulse I can’t help but plunge my nose toward some beautiful, unsuspecting rose in someone’s front garden. For one small but full moment, at least, all my attention is arrested by the fragile beauty of the flower, its silence as intangible as its scent.

sound waves

The reason why high sound levels can be damaging is that our sense of hearing can be permanently damaged. I damaged my hearing through carelessness by going to lots of rock concerts as a university Student at the Southampton Gaumont. During concerts by such groups at Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy, not to mention Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark you would feel the music vibrating through your body and indeed the building shaking with the sound.  For hours after the concert my ears would ring and I suffered temporary deafness. The reason why sound can be so damaging is that even if the person in an area of high sound is wearing hearing protection or is deaf or hearing impaired is that the vibration from the sound waves can cause harm given duration and strength.

I believe the reason why we may fast from sound, from talking or even electronic communication is to listen more intently and with greater discernment. The more we insulate ourselves from noise by MP 3 players or devices to lower the noise level for the individual the more permission we may seem to be giving to make high levels of noise acceptable in our society.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cage on 4"33 - is true silence impossible?

John Cage explores the aesthetics of silence and sound. Silence is the touchstone of his writing and the meaning frame is intimately connected I believe with his connection and study of the Zen form of Buddhism. From his writings and his performance I suggest we encounter paradox which blows away literalism and the attempt at exact definition. This coheres with my own lived experience of meditation where an experience of sound becomes separated from the habit of clothing that sound, or sensory experience with a naming, a patterning, a framing.  The sound is there and noted as such but since in this meditation there is no consciousness of past and future, just the ticking over of moments as sound or lack of sound is transcended. Of course deeply practiced meditators could not stay on track given a blast of extreme noise but there might for a brief time be a cushioning affect.

It is recorded (no metaphor intended) that John Cage spent time in Harvard University's anechoic chamber and discovered that absolute silence is impossible since in the absence of external sound we hear the noise generated by our own body, the beat of the heart, the sound of the nervous system is picked up by our ears. A meditator also notes these experiences and its surely an invitation to care and appreciate the body. At least, that's my experience of meditation. Lets come back to John Cage and my suggestion that this is a zen type of statement. Human beings after all exist within a 'window' of sound. Some frequencies are beyond our hearing and after a certain decibel rate our auditory system becomes damaged. High rates of noise disrupt our bodies and cause disease.  Enough noise directed at us and our hearts would stop. As so many writers have commented its not just our mental and spiritual health that suffers from levels of continual noise but our bodies suffer too. As a philosopher of silence I note how silence, noise and power are linked and often lead to violence.

Back to Cage again and his observation that silence is not possible. Well to take a metaphysical and platonic viewpoint the One, the Centre, the God is truly the origin of silence and in that One beyond all definition is the true presence of absolute silence from which the redemptive Word calls human beings not only to discover that sound has the possibility of beauty in speech, music and many sounds in nature but the very pattern of harmony as Pythagoras discovered is built into the universe and is discovered by us. Cage is setting up a paradox through which we may converse and discuss the context and the meaning of silence and sound.

Cage's work 4"33 begins with the pianist coming to the piano but no music is played. The musician remains at the instrument while all may listen to whatever sound scape happens to be present. The work is a window but also like all art a demonstration and an exploration, an invitation to reflexivity about performance, our subjective experience and our expectations about expectations. It seems like the kind of subversive koan shared by a zen master. Zen monasteries after all are 'emptiness' surrounded by ritual, by art and by performance and speech, a series of paradoxes.

Whatever the intention of Cage, for me, having never witnessed his art, silence is neither possible nor impossible, its a subjective lived experience as well as a measurable level of presence or absence of sound. Yet behind it the metaphysical objectification of silence and sound takes the discussion deeply into the realm of philosophy, religion, spirituality and of course all forms of artistic expression.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why does silence fall?

Sometimes in a conversation silence will fall. I sit there with the other fully present to the silence. The silence is a space for thought, for rest, for appreciation or when the subject of the discussion evades meaning making. There can be an awkward pause especially at an occasion such as an interview when the recipient attempts to orientate to what he thinks is is being requested of him (or her) or to plumb the unspoken assumptions behind the question. At a recent interview I found it hard to answer since the context was not clear to me. Sometimes a smile can break the ice, an unspoken communication that attempts to build rapport. I particularly like the pauses that follow when I offer an extempore prayer with someone, or they pray with me. Eyes are opened slowly, heads are raised, eyes meet and a smile and simple thanks make the liminal step back into the every day.

Silent pauses can be leaden with awkwardness, golden with meaning, silver with gratitude and perhaps platinum, not platitudinous at moments of sheer aphoria.

Silence falls and somehow this metaphor appeals and rings true, yet sometimes silence rises to greet us.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Walking silence

When I walk through noisy city streets with the occasional siren, the roar of traffic, bells from trams and squeal from flanged wheels, noisy conversation I find it quite easy to achieve an inner silence. Using the analogy of Pythagoras I become an onlooker to the threads of busy interwoven lives. I can feel silent, walk mindfully feeling the move of body and noticing the interplay of light and the varied tones and timbres of the ambient noise. In a cafe i might strain to hear conversation but noise can be diminished.

By contrast walking in the silence of the Belair national park with the dog or quiet suburban rainswept streets my thoughts plague me like white noise, truly aggravating as worries, fears and desires crowd my awareness. In the city the noise holds my internal silence. In external silence my internal noise seems to shriek out. Good to note, good to reflect upon and another opportunity to investigate the lived experience of noise and silence within my subjectivity.

Haiku for a cold winter's morning

This winter Sunday,
Hard rain gives way to soft sun,
A steamy homage

Sunlight inter sects,
Curling strands of translucent clouds
Like wispy garments

Voice of rain demands
That we attend to her commands,
Falling cold on steel.

Silence breaks out
Of cold insistent embrace
This prison cell

As she now steps out,
Dripping from the eaves of my house
Magpies find their voice.

There is a silence
Beyond the deepest silence
A true homecoming

Sunlight's pale touch
Wipes gently away the chill
That pervades soul.

Weekend weariness,
Driving through the wet from church
Eucharistic faith

Drinking hot coffee,
Gazing through my damp window
Deep silence within.

Tomorrow I face,
A meeting that may well shape
a season of grace.

Sunlight or cold damp,
The inner fire of holy faith
A Heracletian flame

Time to drop down deep
Into the silent still pool
The silence of being. 

The discipline of haiku,
Written on the hasty run
No perfection here.

Thinking of family,
All far away from my aloneness
This morning's prayer.

Steamy mist rises
Like smoke from fragrant incense,
Bowing to the sun.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


There is a question used among Christian Ministers, 'Is she sound?' The use of the word 'sound' in this context suggests that the person in question is orthodox in faith. Even to use the word orthodox is in itself questionable since the word means 'right worship'. It comes from the old sense that when we pray in a healthy way then our beliefs will be structured in a way that represents the Tradition. 'Sound' as a token of approval or disapproval, failure or success may owe its origin to striking a piece of woodwork and being able to tell from the echo that there was no rot present. In a similar way 'sound' can be a measure of depth. This is the metaphor invoked over this blog. Somehow it offers a paradox, how is silence to be measured and how do we find a way in silence?

'Sound' in this interpretation may have an analogy with 'true' signifying a right measurement or alignment. Why is so much sound unsound? Sounding implies a caution an acceptance of limitation, a feeling ones way in the dark and an understanding that we have to discern if words which come cheaply in our noise riddled world are indeed true.

By being more careful with our language and the amount of words we throw out perhaps sound will become sounder, a more reliable way of discourse. In the meantime rationing our words may increase their value. The more sound and true silence the more sound and true speech.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Falling into Silence

Recently I was privileged to be the invited padre at a couple of services to commemorate Vietnam War battles. These were held next to the old parade square in Adelaide.

I remember as a child in the 1970s hearing news of the war and here before me were people who tell the stories and carry the memories because they were there. As a song by a Vietnam Vet says 'the war goes on' for many of these Vietnam veterans.  Although I was not living in Australia at the time I knew many of them returned to an Australia deeply ambivalent about the war and I feel that many were made the scapegoat - the bearers of a communal shadow.

I was pleased that the compilers of the service had allowed me to include an open and inclusive prayer which prayed for the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia today, for people of Vietnamese origin living in Australia and also for those who bear the scars of war. This had to be vetted by the committee and after the service I was deeply moved to receive thanks. The war goes on and we go on remembering.

What grips me at military occasions and also at occasions like the service last night to remember those who died while homeless is that we create at the heart of it all a pool of silence. The service for people who had died while homeless had a silence that permitted me to hear the freezing rain lashing the roof of Pilgrim Church, and the Vietnam service was preceded by the Last Post. Thoughtful and evocative words surround the pool of silence.

No where to go, nothing to be said, no meaning adequate to make sense ultimately of what we gather to remember. Silence here is a uniting factor and I call it a factor that amplifies. Perhaps only silence can call us to an authentic response?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God rings with an antique sound in our ears but it's a concept that runs like a deep and thirst quenching creek through the Gospels. The response of followers of the Way down the centuries have been to organise this transformative principle into institutions often indeed identifying the Kingdom with the Church.

Church and Kingdom are the same but yet not the same, as metaphors and ideas they never fully actualise in this level of existence and like the manna in the Sinai desert which Moses commanded the people to gather each day these indefinable experiences turn stale when we seek to capture them into the abstract or the institution.

Kingdom words flow like a fountain from the deep silence of Jesus.  In conversation he opens a space for encounter, for an uncovering of truth, the reflection of insight which distills into the transformation of deep abundant life giving enlightenment.

From years of silence and from nights in prayer and early mornings in solitude the Kingdom which is not of this world, but in actuality encompasses all of life breaths like a dream which always threatens to upset our easy certainties and desire for tidy, rational, packaged and systematised answers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

some winter thoughts at the turning of the year

Slender naked tree
With a few red gold leaves
Her winter modesty

The dusk folds early
On Moon's chaste bed of desire
Forsaken for her stars.

Dead leaves poet's walk
Their grave rest rustled awake
Now they must chatter.

Butcher bird possessing
Rusted strands of damp wire
Wise folly proffered.

Cold windy shivers
Hot coffee, siren seduction
Covered ears dog duty.

Prayer must be fitful
When the heart is neglected
Solstice his emotions.

As always above,
Below a mirror brightly
Frosty with knowing.

Lotus intertwines
This long dark night of his dreams
Dawn beckons Daemon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Choiceless awareness

When I sit to meditate on my stool on the old familiar rug I begin with offering this time to the One drawing all into unity, the still centre. I also offer this time to this collection of bits and pieces that is this illusory and fleeting me but which none the less I have a responsibility to cultivate for myself and those around me.

Sinking through the breath, a body scan and the slowing of the heart and to very shallow breathing I have the sense of floating with a relaxed body chugging like an engine in the background with occasional sensations shooting with a resulting thought or emotion that arises and passes away.  Like floating in very clear water with a high degree of alertness I can direct my attention to sounds outside, thoughts within, the ticking of the clock. The observer me, with a sense of clarity can note how irregularly time runs, how arbitrary these words that float around and how random and uncertain or the tendencies to predict, judge and identity as discrete objects are.

Coming back is both refreshing and re framing, offering me the opportunity to be more reserved, even doubtful but on the whole hugely more grateful for this strangeness of living and awareness.

Life is good, very good but the goodness is not to be grasped, merely appreciated with what one hopes is appropriate humility and grace.

All is emptiness and all is one and the Alone draws the Alone with and without the necessity to resolve the paradox.

Visiting a place of silence and sanctuary, the Adelaide Japanese garden

To stoop is to bow
At the worn wooden doors
Fingers trace water.

Himeji garden
Walled with clipped dark hedge
A different world.

The Deer warning clack
Interrupts water gossip
Sharply rebuked.

Each season new view
Always a calm  oasis
Walled garden of heart.

Wabi and Sabi
Tea House worn wooden slab
Looking at dry sea.

Zen gravel no monks
I bring my stone attention
Zazen to shape.

Deep pond stooping tree
No frog seen to plop poetry
No Basho sees.

Looking deep within
Goldfish of wandering mind
Not much discernment

To stroll kinhin way
Might draw stray commentary
Step with the breeze

Bowing thanking this place
Placing it in sharp memory
Gate always inviting

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Silence is primary for Plotinus

Is silence simply a lack of sound, natural or created? If we understand silence in that way it will always suggest that something is missing, an acoustic hole to be filled. In the same way we define ourselves be what we do and have and not by being.

For Plotinus (c204 CE - c 270 CE) silence is primary, just as thought precedes action. Our actions stem from being as he writes:

"As speech is the echo of the thought in the soul, so thought in the soul is an echo from elsewhere: that is to say as the uttered thought is an image of the soul thought, so the soul thought images a thought above itself and is the interpreter of the higher sphere." (Ennead 1 Tractate 2 para 3)

The 'One', the 'Absolute' the very centre of being and existence is silence and contemplation and everything is an emanation from this centre. The cultivation of silent contemplation is therefore a form of returning to the source.  From this source when words arise in a written or spoken form they are more likely to have some wisdom and insight about them.

The persuit of silence for me is a reminder of the superficiality of so much of my life and underscores poor choices or being ruled by the latest thought or by my emotional state. Words flow out creating a kind of trance or the illusion that life is as it appears rather than as the product of collective thought.  As James Hillman writes somewhere, we all live in a kind of fictional world with at least in part a kind of fictional identity through which we desire others to view and relate to us. We are carried along by the magic of speech and by making lots of unbeautiful noise the box of normalty is ticked.

Plotinus writes in tht same passage on the Virtues: "What could be more fitting than that we, living in this world. should become like to its ruler"

An authentic spirituality is to place 'being' at the centre, to refuse to be defined by our job, possessions, home or nationality for these are attributes, not an essential part of our nature. This is a challenge and a task for me.

Every word, written and spoken, any sound we make and any music created or listen should remind the creator or the listener of its origin in true silence, the fountain of being.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An experience of silence when leading ritual

Today a delightful and memorable occasion for me, leading a ritual for a former colleague and her husband with their wider family and friends to celebrate a wedding after a legal ceremony in Europe.

In a lovely garden in a forested area called Kauipo forest south of Adelaide on a sunny autumn day we gathered in a circle for this ritual of welcome and incorporation, lighting a candle, the couple tieing a purple ribbon around their hands to symbolise their individuality and connection and then family and friends making an archway with upraised hands to welcome and bless the couple. This was not a formally religious occasion but replete with ancient and more modern symbolism.

In my reflection I spoke of Epicurus and his ethicl perscrition for a tranquil life, living simply and with appreciation and cultivating deep friendship with time, ability and commitment to deep conversation. Epicurus saw this as a remedy to the sickness of attachment to the pursuit of aquisition of more and more possessions, status anxiety and the influence of popular opinion and superstion. Epicurus' philosophy stems from his materialistic world view but one can commend the ethics without buying the foundational belief particularly for those too ruled by ideas of duty and commitment.

During the ceremony which for me was new ground both philosophically and geographically I noticed that as I was speaking, relating, community building with the people gathered around that at the same time there existed within me a ground of deep internal silence and stillness, a fountain of energy. There was nothing within objecting or criticising or questioning. The word flow is much overused but that seemed to sum up as a metaphor what was going on for me,
Sound, logoi, words flowing from the well of internal silence and stillness and experiencing deep connection from all surrounding me, land, air, people and plants all joined. I am grateful of course.

Jean Baudrillard on indifference

In his essay 'Conspiracy of Art' the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard writes this:

'For me [energy] came from a kind of indifference.  An indifference that was no longer subjective.  A sort of desert form, not a landscape or something found in nature, let alone from culture - an unidentified object.  It would be the same thing in terms of passion: some kind of apathy and apathetic form... a stoic form in fact.  Differentiating between what concern you and what does not, including in your own life. refusing to account for what we're being made to be responsible for. Refusal of that kind is strategic, a kind of tactical indifference'.

This is a quotation that appeals to me and it's written in one of my philosophical notebooks I carry around with me to dip into during the day as a therapeutic re framing of thinking following a counselling or coaching session.

What I take this quotation to mean for me is to cultivate detachment from the over stimulation within the visual field, the host of potentially interesting ideas and more particularly the overload of opinion.

To cultivate a desert awareness is not to turn away from the flow of bios or life but like the counsel offered by Marcus Aurelius the stoic to work from within one's inner Citadel and be strategic in what one responds to. Internal silence, a desert awareness allows for real choices. Here is space to consult the inner compass of values and faith and to focus the awareness.

Baudrillard has been labelled for his claim that the Gulf War never happened, that all people experienced was a stream of images carefully chosen and manipulated to such a difference that reality is too distant. His claim that people prefer 'sexed up' news, sensationalism, gossip I think has much to commend it. Perhaps the philosopher should counsel fasting from too much visual and auditory stimulation?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

the release of not speaking

A friend was astonished the other day when I was explaining to him that on the Mindfulness Workshops I facilitate each month that I ask participants to refrain from conversation with each other and if possible to avoid meeting the eyes of another participant.

I got the impression that he felt this was a big ask especially after learning that most of the people who rock up to my day workshops have never attended a retreat before. Afterwards I discover that for the majority the silence has been a powerful experience forming a foundation for their sustained investigation of self. Most say that they began by feeling apprehensive and even a bit resentful or anxious about the silence requirements framing it as a bit unfriendly or unsociable to other people or to the partner or friend they had brought along with them for the day. As the silence deepened they experienced it as a release and as profoundly restful as well as giving new energy.

Why is this I wonder? I sense that when a group of people come together and talk that put invest energy into creating a profile or 'face' for the other person or other people in the conversation.  What is it that we desire to convey to the other about our self and our interests.  We prove ourselves in conversation or by keeping silence we become absent from the gathering or perceived as being shy, inept or rude. Keeping a collective silence opens up a new way of relating, at least in potential.  Individuals are free to be with themselves, investigating and observing their breathing, or body scanning or whatever the exercise of mindfulness meditation is at that point, but must also be attentive to others especially at meal times when food is prepared, shared and bowls washed up and put away without speech.

Sometimes my reflection as the day progresses is along these lines. "Nicholas, when you were young you desired to be a monk and stayed in many monasteries moved by the powerful rituals, the simplicity and the silence of such places and imagined your life among books, sharing these rituals and being in community" The silent mindfulness days serve as a kind of secular monastic experience and although not religious they seem to take on a sacred quality and engender among those who come a sense of community. People are not conscious that the days have a monastic feel about them at all but released from the burden of speaking they seem to slow down, open up and behave in thoughtful compassionate and appreciative ways.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

bowing down

I find often that the best posture for prayer is prostration.  I lay flat on my face when I was ordained priest, flat on my face on Good Friday and during lent and at other times I make the ancient prostration with my head to the floor. Orthodox and Coptic practice preserve this anient form of prayer and how sad it is that it is Muslims that are more noted for this prayer before the great mystery.

I stand, I bow low, I prostrate and then I stand up again.  This, when words dry to ashes in my heart brings an experience of liberation.  This prayer with the body is I feel a form of profound silence.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

the empty heart

The great emptiness at the heart of every perspective I seek to take
There have been moments in my experience in which reality seems to have shifted. Rather than life ticking over in its usual way time has seemed to open up, so that I seem to be looking through life rather than at life. I suspect that this is not very uncommon given conversations which turn in this direction and the hints and suggestions that sometimes enter the flow of words. An analogy which I find useful is when a DVD is run slowly or backwards resulting in the insight the illusion of a constant stream of images is exposed as a series of individual views. Why is it that mostly we are caught in this trance like state into believing that the world is as it is rather than as a kaleidoscope of possible interpretations where the appropriate response is to be tentative and search for the plausible?
Dropping into silence, seeking silent places, stilling the mind can create the conditions in which we may catch a glimpse of this other dimension which is not a dimension at all but a gazing into the great emptiness that pervades all things and weaves together all things.
I tentatively place the word ‘God’ into this reflection although I prefer the Jewish way of writing this word as G_d which helps me to avoid thinking about that which is by very nature totally removed from understanding and awareness. I don’t believe in the existence of G_d and neither do I believe in G_d’s non existence, since existence is a predicate that only applies in a material world. G_d is like the invention of zero. Without zero it would not be possible to type on this computer, since all computer programs and all mathematics are surely built on the predicate of zero. Is there a measureable zero; is zero something to be investigated or does it show up without at the same time being absent?

When I read the ancient Christian writers, especially the Cappadocian fathers I see this emphasis on the non definition of God.  Affirmation and denial sit alongside each other as a way of exploring 'the peace of God which exceeds our understanding' as the old prayer of blessing puts it. We are enabled to 'know' because that has been made possible for us but there is always more as our time bound view is met by an infinity of eternity which draws wonder and humility from me.

I find that often I am in flight from this deep 'full' emptiness.  I fear annihilation and I fear loneliness and loss of meaning more, so I go faster filling my days with words, concepts and stories just like someone running across melting ice that breaks under each step. Who is it that is running and who is it that is fearing because the identity of this being typing these sentences is really much more fluid, more emptiness, more ‘zero’ than the naive belief, that must be jettisoned sooner or later, in a fixed personality rather than a multiplicity of aspects.
 The Void and Emptiness are not the opposite of Being since these terms are themselves misleading us to think of a place where being and awareness are absent. That’s the way our brains work but yet sometimes it all drops away and we glimpse for a few moments the formless, the gaps in time and movement through which the fathomless depths are forever flowing.
Pyrrho of Ellis who I think of as a kind of ancient Greek ‘Buddhist’sage, (although what I call Buddhism here is the kind of agnosticism and scepticism that was alive and active in the ancient world). Pyrrhonism created through forms of meditation, internal dialogue and cognitive re framing the kind of conditions through which the practitioner might glimpse the underlying emptiness of flux and flow underlying the illusion of ‘life’.  All becomes convention from this perspective and thus one become free to live life without clinging to the concepts and beliefs that so many falsely claim provide a firm foundation for society and for individual flourishing. St Augustine drew from this ancient scepticism an understanding that this is the first step towards the One who draws us back to intimacy with the unknowable. Plotinus another influence on Augustine speaks about the 'One' at the centre, the 'Word' speaks from the eternal Silence and the Soul creates matter inhabited by soul constantly drawn back to the One, the Centre. Augustine saw the work of the Trinity and grace and mercy at work. The emptiness is 'lit up' to use Plotinus' terminology.

In an experience a year or so back out walking the dog suddenly I ‘saw’ myself from the other side of the road and I had a great sense of release at ‘seeing myself’ from a distance and then back in my own body felt as if the wind was blowing through me, that there was nothing of me anymore and that I was caught up and returned to myself by emptiness. At the same time I experienced myself as given an identity by this 'G_d' to return to this helpful way of naming.
It seems ungracious to claim this as a consoling experience or as some kind of grand insight but if I am able to make my home here in this place then maybe as I listen to people I can have the sense that their words and feelings are blowing through me like the wind. It’s not that I don’t care but caring itself is an idea too to which I can cling so easily and fashion into more building blocks to the task of rebuilding the tower of Babel as a monument to my over anxious ego.
One of the joys of the blog is that one is under no constraint to make ones writing’s clear, cogent or compelling and this author can only gently suggest that embracing silence, letting go of the practice of constantly judging of noticing the wanting and the not wanting the visits to the past or the future can be worthwhile for those seeking to unplug from the matrix.
The majesty and the greatness of the architecture of classical Patristic theology, a way of lived prayer and contemplation is in contrast to the 'tower of babel' which leads to empty nihilism and to spiritual death.  I’m over religion in the sense that I have moved through it to the other side where there is only emptiness, a place of eternal dimension.  In this dimension, (itself a misleading term) there is the emptiness of despair and disgust, the collapse of the created self that with grace moves into the emptiness and receptivity to that which is truly and utterly the mysterious, vibrant heart of the universe that which we term ‘God’, one is hell and the other heaven, one leads to misanthropy and the other into generous and compassionate living, life as a sojourner in a society based on illusion.  I see Jesus here as the great contemptative, his life shaped by his thirty years of hidden life. As Paul says the pre existent Christ embraced kenosis, emptiness to be born among us as fully human flesh and blood, mind, heart and emotions.  As Hebrews says Jesus experienced all that we do as human beings yet without turning away, as I have done so many times, to the pursuit of the ultimate. The Gospels are spoken words and descriptions of actions but deep within there is the silence of the One at the heart of the all.
Blessed silence, blessed emptiness, blessed freedom, nowhere to go, nothing to do, an eternity out of which I choose to act moved by compassion and grace since today I will be here and tomorrow i may be gone, one breath traversing the path between being and non being, the paradox of this strange life. I still feel in deep darkness, it’s not comfortable, I feel mighty depressed but I must not try to escape and take control.  Like the eclipse, like the weather it will come and go, all will pass.
I am released and made whole. I am bidden to the empty cross the empty tomb the empty sky, the great silence which is fuller and more present than any presence or any absence may be. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2011

an encounter in silence

A couple of years ago Anne and I spent a day in the town of Narita before travelling by train to the nearby international airport to return home to Australia. Most westerners stay around the hotels as they transit in and out of Japan, but we walked into the town which is a popular destination for Japanese people visiting the beautiful Buddhist temple. These memories are particularly focused for me as I think and pray for all those who have suffered so greatly, and those who have died in recent days in Japan from the earthquake and tsunami and for continued concerns about the safety of the nuclear power station.

Anne and I spent a peaceful morning at the temple and were welcomed with great courtesy by the Japanese visitors. Sitting quietly in the temple while families visited and were blessed by the priests was deeply moving and then we decided to walk down to the lake through the beautifully tended gardens.

As we walked down a rather steep pathway we passed an older man being assisted by his wife and daughter. He was in some difficulty and Anne suggested I offer some assistance. I was uncertain given that I was a foreigner and being aware of the taboos about personal touch but I returned, bowed respectfully and offered my arm which was taken gratefully. We walked with some difficulty to the bottom of the path. It was a hot and humid day and I was holding this man with care as both of us were perspiring with the daughter holding her father's left arm. With bows we said farewell.

As I walked away I thought that this man was of an age to have fought in the second world war, perhaps my father from his Wellington bomber had flown over this man in Burma during that appalling war? This hot and sweaty stumbling has become a very precious memory for me, a small sign of reconciliation and hope.

Later Anne and I found our way to the Peace Pagoda in the temple grounds and climbed the stairs which looked over the extensive gardens and lakes. Soon it was time to make our way to the airport.

Like many significant encounters in our lives the meeting with this elderly man and offering him my arm, as I might have offered an arm to my elderly father had he not died so young, at the age I am now, took place in silence and there about it a lovely dignity, a respectful encounter in which I was the guest offered hospitality and offering hospitality.

Let us continue to pray and offer our generosity to the people of Japan with an appreciation of a nation that rebuilt itself with assistance after a catastrophic war and which has been most generous through foreign aid to nations in need.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

where have you experienced deep silence?

This can be a profound question. One woman at a session I ran last year at a Multi Faith Conference on the subject of 'Silence in your Faith or Tradition', responded by telling the group about being in a Swedish forest in the snow. As a European I resonated with that picture.

When in a noisy and stressful sound scape it may be possible for us to at least encounter an inner silence by revisiting places of stillness, silence and peace in our memory. Sound may be part of those memories, wind, birdsong, the sound of water but for most of us those sounds add to the silence rather than detract from silence.

I welcome visitors to this blog sharing their special silent places.

Monday, February 28, 2011

a time to keep sience and a time to speak

So writes the author of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures, a remarkable philosopher who invites his hearers to ask themselves, 'what is the shape and purpose of my life?' It's an invitation to put first things first.

In chapter 3 there are a list of 'times' including 'a time to keep silence and a time to speak' v 7. Keeping silence as surrender, as listening and as making space to reflect on what shapes our society and the powerful forces that allow only certain voices to be heard. These are voices that uphold the status quo.

One of the silences that must be broken is those who are silenced through violence and I am thinking especially of women experiencing violence in their homes as well as those adults that experienced violence, spiritual or mental assualt during vulnerable childhood years.

I remember a few years ago working with a woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a teenager in her foster home.  As we worked towards her talking to the police I took her out in her imagination another 10 years in the future. Her voice changed and became deeper and more confident and she shared with me what had happened in her life since speaking to the police. When we came back to the present her voice changed back to being hardly able to speak. Such silencing under the bondage of shame and secrecy is life destroying and life denying but she had found courage to go to the police and find her voice.

Philosophers of Silence create space for individuals to find their authentic voice and claim their place within the community.  The fruit of true silence is human flourishing and abundance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

sayings on silence

Here is short apothegmata on silence from Merton.

"It is not speaking that breaks our silence

but our unceasing anxiety to be heard."

Thomas Merton broke his silence to bring weighty and prophetic words.  His diagnoses strikes for me a chord of truth: Am a speaking from abundance, generososity and a desire to 'bless' or do I speak out of my fears, envy or sense of self importence?

Sadly those of us who have been or are ordained in a religious tradition often speak from habit or because we have unconsciously absorbed the message that holding an office gives us an authority to offer our opinion and be an expert on all matter of subjects.

As Thomas a Kempis somewhere points out, 'its only the one who has learnt to be silence who has the right to speak'

Monday, February 21, 2011

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

To discover the pre Socratic philosophers of the ancient Mediterranean region is both exciting and frustrating. Here are people who begin to step back from 'bios', from life as they had received it with every phenomena attributed to the gods or to magic. They think for themselves, questioning and looking for patterns and a natural explanation. They are like Thales, able to predict, measure and reason out solutions and they look within as they question what it might mean to be human. They practice silence and solitude, sharpening their senses and practicing an internal dialogue. One common metaphor that in one form or another runs from Pythagoras to the Roman Stoics is that of the philosopher being an observer at the market or gymnasium and therefore being able to draw conclusions rather than  be caught up in the emotional thrill of the herd. There is a frustration to a study of the pre Socratics as so much we would love to read has gone probably for ever. We have fragments and anecdote to draw upon.

Heraclitus is one such enigmatic figure living from around 544 BCE to 484 BCE in the city of Ephesus, the city of the goddess Artemis. His writings on paradox, the flow of never ending change, the cycling of the universe between fires, the necessity of strife and tension to reveal the Logos or word, and the unity of opposites have been profounding influential for many philosophers and challenge us today.

Heraclitus is called the weeping philosopher or the obscure or dark philosopher encase his aphorisms and perhaps because of his character. Here was a man who chose not to value status or reputation. If indeed we live in a world of flux where a sense and belief that everything is permanent is the greatest illusion of them all it follows that either we will live fearfully grasping and grieving, or resigned to our fate or with a sense of joyful transience. Reason becomes the still centre of insight.

The Penguin Classics, 'Early Greek Philosophy' Edited by Jonathan Barnes is excellent but I also have also discovered 'Fragments' translated by the poet Brooks Haxton and published by Viking with a supurb and thought provoking foreward by James Hillman. This has the Greek and the English on opposite pages.

There is a single word aphorism 'ake' which means silence, lulling and healing. Amid the flux we can choose to be mindful and still. Like the moment after the exhalation we can rest knowing that our body is still active before the wave of the inhalation enters our body.

Practicing silence and solitude, creating a reputation as a misanthopic person, choosing the dryness of thought in a city awash, we may guess with emotion and centred around the goddess of love, may have been Heraclitus choosing to let his life be a witness.  By difficult and dark aphoristic languaging he was perhaps choosing a prophetic stance stepping away from herd thinking and behaving. Is that such a bad thing we may wonder? I like to think that he was not just a misanthropic person but chose that identity as a deliberate philosopher's cloak.

'ake' may be a watchword, a motto, the stone of silence we carry with us, as we choose not to speak, or be people of few words in our own obsessive, chatty, facebook world.

Ake may bring us to an inner centre of intense stillness, healing and peacefulness, a still calm cool in which the light of the stars of truth are reflected. Everything is in tension, constant movement but a mind that flows with transience wisely is able to see more clearly and with precision. As Heraclitus observes.

"The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known" ( p 31 Haxton )

Friday, February 18, 2011

Vistas of Silence

Bridges often serve as an icon for a city.  few years ago I walked the famous Brooklyn bridge into Manhatten and a conference in Sydney afforded me the opportunity to make a slow run across the bridge and back again. It was a warm, windless day of high humidity and in the light of dusk tourists lingered with cameras and flying foxes, (fruit bats) flapped slowly across the water. far below the Opera House was lit by the rays of the setting sun as a full moon brought a new perspective as light faded. Far below green ferries from circular quay carved arabesque characters with their wakes on grey green waters as they reversed in and out of the harbour.

Sydney Harbour bridge has been an icon for the city since it was completed during the depression years of the 1930s and I was enthralled to listen to a friend who was there at the opening standing on an orange box to see the festivities. It's a vast modernist construction of steel and sand stone and like the beam of an ancient temple gate it welcomes nautical pilgrims. Running on walking the bridge offers views of the steel work and vistas of land left behind and opening views of the land being approached as well as the ever moving water beneath.

Bridges are places of trysts and sometimes of suicide, targets during wartime and often in medieval times a hermit or priest would guard the bridge and travellers might stop briefly for a prayer. Even to secular people bridges often have a liminal sacred sense about them. they are everyday pathways for commuters and often the backdrop for special occasions. many are design statements, engineered for strength and flexibility, a sign of permanence often making implicit or explicit statements about the hopes and beliefs of their communities, playful yet serving a utilitarian purpose.

Silence too offers a vista allowing those who make the journey to see how landscapes of human thought and belief are interconnected. Practitioners are separate from yet participants in the flux and flow of life. The well worn exercises that permit us to enter deep and vivid silence are strong yet flexible constructions suspending us between speech and sound. Our practice must be strong enough to bear the storms of emotion and our hopes and griefs, yet flexible enough to carry the load of our inner journey. Like any bridge the practice of stillness and silence requires constant maintenance to protect it from the 'rusts' of a noisy and distracted world.

Silence is a view and a vista, it carries our everyday commute through the day as well as being a journey to be taken for sheer enjoyment or for the purpose of a spiritual tryst with other people in a zen group, a Quaker meeting or prayer before the monstrance in a Catholic church.

The raft is not the shore as Buddhists remind us, and silence will often take us to a new awareness, an unfolding truth, even a painful internal confrontation with oneself. Silence is a bridge, a view and a vista.

Changing the subject, one of the strangest bridges in the world is the Newport transporter and I am pleased to hear it has been saved from the scrap heap. I remember my father taking me on that bridge which moved us across the muddy Usk river in Wales.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Silence Sounding

It was written of one of the early Christian hermits Abba Agathon, who went into the deserts of Egypt to search for what is real amid the delusions of what passes for civilisation, that he kept a stone in his mouth for several years until he learnt to be silent. This may or may not be true but it carries a metaphorical implication of dedication to external silence and to the silence of the mind. If this seems remarkable to us today it was not so for the ancient philosophers many of whom practised silence as a 'spiritual' discipline. Philosophy today seems to be focussed on ideas whereas until absorbed or supressed by Christianity, many forms of ancient western philosophy employed practical exercises to embed learning and to close what we today call the 'knowing/doing gap' This blog will explore some of these ideas, review books on silence and philosophy, give notice of Meditation Days and Retreats, and share some of my experiences of 'sounding the silence'. I often carry a small pebble in my pocket as a reminder to listen carefully and enter into the silence which is always there to be experienced.