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“Does silence offend you?”

Silent contemplation

In the nineteen eighties there was a television comedy series called ‘Northern Exposure’. Set in Alaska, it primarily deals with a displaced New York doctor, and how he overcomes his conditioning. How, over time and with the, usually unwanted help of a trainee shaman, an ex gun-ho American astronaut, a hunter who now only shoots pictures, a Beauty queen, a silent Native American receptionist etc he learns to appreciate nature, simplicity, stillness, contentment, community and silence.

There is one character Adam (who turns out to be married to Eve), also thought to be a myth like Yeti), a reclusive man of the woods, who one day ends up in the truck with the doctor who just talks and talks and talks and it is now that, in his somewhat surly, direct and almost brutal way Adam passes judgement on the doctor and asks… “Does silence offend you?”

Do you find yourself, like the doctor, filling every available moment with chatter? Do you actually spend time listening to others or are you formulating what you want to say in return?

I have come to find silence to be one of our greatest tools in our spiritual toolkit. Indeed, if we are constantly filling every moment with mental or verbal chatter, mental or verbal subtitles to our experience, how can anything else ‘come in’?

Silence is not an absence of sound but the lack of a soundtrack or commentary. We might say it is hearing but without allowing our conditioning, judgements or ego to get in the way. It is our response to experience that remains silent not our receptivity.

It is generally accepted that only a small percentage of communication is verbal, that much more is said in other ways. Through body language, for example. Also speech is one of the ways in which we act in the world, speech is an agent of karma. It is for this reason Buddhists put so much emphasis on awareness of our speech and it’s potential to be skilful or unskilful, helpful or unhelpful. Speech is magic, it has the power to heal or to harm. As such, I would suggest, we take our lack of silence seriously.

It seems to me, that when I resist the loud voices in my head, underneath, is a subtler ‘voice’. A ‘voice’ not of the ego, a ‘voice’ not of reason but of wisdom, spontaneous, bright and free of attachment. A ‘voice’ that is always appropriate.

Below is an anecdotal teaching from the Chan/Zen tradition which also happens to be one of the most useful teachings I have come across and is, I feel, relevant in this context.

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring.

The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

“It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted.

“You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

Until, we train ourselves in silence we will only be aware of the enlightened perspective, if at all, through the mists, fogs and clouds of delusion. To paraphrase another Buddhist fable; we all have a diamond sewn into the fabric of our being but we are unaware of its existence.

So much of what is said is really unimportant, yet more is never heard. One thing I have noticed is that, often, I only need to hold something in my mind and usually, sooner or later, someone will say what I am thinking. Maybe the obvious doesn’t need stating it is those jewels we mine from the silence that are needed by all beings.

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