Rest in Silence
written by Keith Porteous
Mundaka Upanishad, 2.4:
AUM is that bow,
The Self of Consciousness, Reality, Love is the Arrow,
Atman-Brahman its aim.
2.6: Meditate on the Self
Of consciousness, Reality and Love as AUM. Victory to you, dear friend,
That you may cross to the other shore beyond the sea of ignorance.
The Principle Upanishads, translator: Alan Jacobs,
OM HRIM HAMSA SO HAM SVAHA
Hrim: Syllable which correlates with the energy of the heart Hamsa: The Swan
So Ham: I am that Svaha: Offering
I am the energy of the heart, the bridge between the individual and universal; to this end, I offer my efforts.
(Interpretation by Keith Porteous)
We live in a loud world. In medieval Europe, when there was an emergency, the local cathedral’s bells would ring. Everyone nearby could hear the ringing, get the message, and choose how to respond. In our post-industrial age, we have turned up the volume in ways that merit attention for our mental and physical health. Science has shown that sounds at 85 decibels and above cause damage to the human ear. Every 10 decibels is a doubling of the volume, so 95 decibels is twice as loud as 85, the level when harm begins.
When there is an emergency in our time, an ambulance’s siren sounds at 120 decibels, a level far above the onset of harm, but a level that is needed to get through to us as we drive in our cars while we listen to music or news, participating in the everyday cacophony. What could be the effect of long-term exposure to heightened sound? How do the yoga teachings discuss sound, and what would they prescribe for our day and age? The teachings on nadam, or inner sound, show us that through specific uses of outer sound, we can bring about states of deep calm and Self- knowledge. With anxiety and other mental health issues on the rise, these teachings provide simple medicine each of us can access if we are inclined. This month, you are invited to mindfully select the sounds you allow into your system. Give yourself permission to rest in silence.
After a series of festive, musical weeks in New Orleans last May, I prepared to switch gears, many gears, to go on a silent retreat in Santa Fe. I had practiced silence before in other settings, and always found it difficult at first, though this feeling was always followed by an immense feeling of relief. I remembered how, in a past retreat, I felt more connected to the people around me when we were relieved from the unspoken agreement that we needed to speak to connect. This seems curious because I love sound, live in a relatively large family with children and animals, and love to connect through conversation and singing with others.
Going without sound is strange for me. To prepare for silent retreat, I tried to go without any of my usual sound companions in the car: no music, no news, no dharma talks, nothing. It was awkward as I am so accustomed to consuming sound. It was also strange because I had no idea how loud it is, just to drive down Canal Street, or Magazine Street, and hear the sound of my car, or other’s cars, and the general din of a city to which my calloused ears have become accustomed.
As I flew into Santa Fe for the retreat (in May), I got a surprise, as life always delivers: I was wearing shorts and it was snowing. Silent retreats are hard, even if one has enough warm clothes. We did 3 hours of meditation a day, broken up into 20 minute segments after asana. At times, my inner toddler was screaming “what’s the point of meditating again?!!” But because of the presence of my teachers(1) and peers, sit and sit again I did. In the end, I had some of the deepest meditations I have ever experienced.
Once a day we did walking meditation. Walking meditation asks us to move slowly and resist our urge to move quickly. Speed and consumption go together, as do appreciation and stillness. I saw the beauty of the landscape like never before, the red of berries, the white of snow, the smell of piñon, all of which I might have missed when moving in sync with my mind, which is always racing ahead to the next thing.
Silent retreats are also challenging because we have to encounter ourselves without the constant distraction of consuming more sound, more images, more anything. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism, Life is Suffering, begins with the first aspect of suffering being pain, the second aspect the suffering of change, and the third aspect existential suffering, or deep discomfort within oneself, which is part of human nature. Many of us will do anything to keep from feeling this essential dis-ease. There is always another TV show, another song, another coffee, anything to keep from touching that aching open space.
My teacher(1) on this retreat spoke about the social self, that which is connected to networks, families, in person, online, versus the essential self, which is distinct from all of that. I think of the social self as horizontal, time bound, conditioned by karma, and part of a family narrative. The essential self is part of a vertical continuum which is being revealed through experience. Silence allows us to disconnect for moments, hours or days, from our social personae and rest in silence with the essential self – even if that self feels like a big question, or open space. My teacher(1) said that when we can reign in our energy and orient to the essential self, when we can go beneath the chattering mind, like going beneath waves of an ocean, we will find unconditional love. Beneath our personal narratives, we are all the same in boat wanting to be loved and eased from our pain. What an uplifting promise these teachings give us: that the source of unlimited love and space is within each one of us.
But getting there is not easy: we can’t get there using force, and we can’t get there without effort. The practice of meditation can take years or decades. Please release any judgment of yourself about this. The judging mind occupies just a small corner of the vast space within which the teachings are pointing us towards. In my retreat, often right after a frustrating sit, I would have an incredible, connected meditation. None of this was within my control at that time. I experienced spontaneous waves of forgiveness for others and myself during this short retreat. It was only four days, and in no time I was back to the airport. But I glimpsed a sense of true refuge through these practices, and perhaps moments of connecting into the heart center, whose power is giving and forgiving.
In every yoga class we sing OM. This aligns us with the cycle of all things: arising, abiding, and dissipating. There is a pause of silence between each OM in honor of the backdrop behind all experience; the changeless ever-presence within the cycles of change. Behind the chattering mind, there is an open awareness that is full of space.
They call it emptiness, or satchidanda, or ‘big sky mind.’ Sat-chid-ananda is a compound word meaning truth, consciousness, and bliss: the three inherent qualities of our being which are revealed through practice.
What would it mean to rest, rather than to be restless in silence? What could we hear if we listened deeply to our own silence? Would it be an aching void, or could the urge to fill eventually pass to be followed by an acquaintance with a deeper part of ourselves? The ancient yogis say that if we practice this enough, we will hear an unstruck sound, anahata, and nadam, the song of the inner body, which originates in the heart.
When we speak about silence within the context of the yoga practice, it is a silence which guides one to hear the innermost part of one’s own being. It is NOT an instruction to be silent outwardly in the face of injustice, cruelty, or any other ways we humans can tear the fabric of life. In Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.36, he speaks of the power of speaking the truth, which inspires positive action in those who hear such a speaker. The practices covered in this focus are to prepare one’s own mind to be that powerful, clear voice to help and guide others. Meditation and comfort with one’s own true being support that outer goal.
The retreat is months ago now, and snow feels far away from the weather patterns I know of September in New Orleans. But I remember the sound-insulating quality of snow, and how good it felt not to be over-exposed and overstimulated all the time. Like an audible echo, an echo of silence has reverberated within my weeks since those 4 days of silent, intentional practice, and that silent echo feels like relief. This month, take time, maybe as you drive through the city, pause to pray in the morning, or attend an asana class, to listen deeply to yourself and the world around you. Are we afraid of something we might find in silence? What could be behind that fear? What would it mean to truly hear yourself, without judgment? In an ever-faster world, weary with overwork, overconsumption, overly connected and yet disconnected, what could it mean to rest in silence, for ourselves as individuals, and for the greater community?
1 Surya and Tias Little
The Anahata, or unstruck sound, is more accessible when the thoracic spine is open. To open this region:
Back bending sequences:
• Plank with hands on blocks, engage core and coil shoulders back to move into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, (upward facing dog), engage core and move back to Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), repeat. Begin by keeping toes tucked the whole time, then flip onto tops of feet as you are more warmed up. Note the connection between the strength of the legs and engagement of the core in opening the heart.
• Ustrasana variation: With hips at the wall, place hands on sacrum and a bolster at the achilles. Keep hips at wall as you lift the heart. Keep the throat open in front and back. Coil the shoulders as in upward facing dog. Reach back and find the bolster. Practice deeper variations as long as you can keep the legs and core engaged. Bend at the thoracic rather than only the lumbar and stay open in the front and back of the neck.
• Urdhva Dhanurasana with hands on a teacher or friend’s ankles (to feel supported and to help with tight shoulders or if the wrists are compromised)
Thematic sequence for the Mundaka Upanishad verse:
Akarna Dhanurasana (The Archer). Ask yourself, what is your focus? What is your aim?
Dhanurasana (The Bow): Try this pose with a bolster in front of the solar plexus and lower ribs. Breathe into the manipura chakra and exhale out the mouth to release excess pitta / fire
Visshudha Chakra Sequence: To support inner listening:
• Shoulder stand, Halasana, Karna Pidasana
• Practice longer Savasanas. Use sandbags to weigh the body down and bolsters to provide support. Contemplate the sound of OM, and the significance of this pose with the sound of OM (See the Bhagavad Gita 8.12 below)
• Viloma practice: Inhale to 1/2 full and pause, inhale all the way and pause, release completely. Breathe in a rhythm that is right for you. Do not rush. Practice listening during each pause.
• More advanced viloma is to do the same sequence above, but partition the exhale into 2 or three steps. Please have the support of a well-trained teacher if you choose this variation. Also, see Yoga Sutra 1.34 below
Specific Classes and Events:
Attend a SoundBath, Yin and Nidra, or Slow Flow and Sound Therapy class.
Chanting: Yoga Sutras 1.27 and 1.28 and a mantra to honor the vibration of the OM HRIM HRIDAYA SO HAM, SVAHA
Shanmukhi Mudra or ‘Closing the six gates’ from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
In the early morning or at the end of an asana class, practice meditation. Focus on the exhale if the nervous system is agitated. Focus on the inhale if you are sleepy. Choose a simple object you can work with: the breath, or a simple mantra like SO HAM.
Thematic reflection questions:
• How comfortable are you with silence?
• Do you ever feel the need to fill silence either with sound or talking?
• Check-in with levels of ‘thirst’ for more audio or visual media. Does this hunger / thirst get satisfied? If so, for how long?
• Where is the quietest place you have ever been? How did it feel?
• Could you create a silent time during your day? What might be lost by doing this, and what might be gained?
• Reflect on aspects of the social self and the essential self within your persona. Which one do you give more of your energy to? Is one aspect neglected? Why? How do you feel when you protect time for the essential self?
• Reflect on the speed with which you move through your day, and how your levels of stress correlate with speed. Could we address stress by working with pace itself, which is easier to grasp, rather than trying to enter and reconcile the myriad worry-webs of the mind?
A. Mundaka Upanishad
B. Bhagavad Gita
C. Yoga Sutra
D. Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
A. From the MUNDAKA UPANISHAD:
2.4: AUM is that bow, The Self
Of Consciousness, Reality, Love is the Arrow,
Atman-Brahman its aim.
It is to be loosed by a man or woman Who is intelligent,
Then the arrow becomes one With the target,
He or she becomes one With Atman-Brahman.
2.6: He moves, Resting in the Heart Where arteries meet, Like spokes in a wheel
Fastened firmly to its nave Meditate on the Self
Of consciousness, Reality and Love as AUM. Victory to you, dear friend,
That you may cross to the other shore beyond the sea of ignorance.
– Translation: Alan Jacobs, The Principle Upanishads.
B. From the Bhagavad Gita:
BG 6.3: “Tranquility is the means for one who is mature in discipline”
BG 6.15: “Disciplining himself, his mind controlled, a man of discipline finds peace, the
pure calm that exists in me.”
BG 8.12: “Invoking the infinite spirit As the one eternal syllable OM,
Remembering me as he abandons his body, He reaches the absolute way.”
BG 9.17: “I am the universal father, mother, granter of all, grandfather, object of knowledge, purifier, holy syllable OM, threefold sacred lore.”
BG 10.25 “Of words, I am the sacred syllable OM.” BG 10.38: “I am the silence of mysteries”
– Translations: Barbara Stoler Miller
C. From the YOGA SUTRAS:
Yoga Sutra 1.27: Tasya vachakah pranavah
The sound of OM is a means to connect with that which is shared by everyone and everything, the creator behind creation, the listener behind listening, the life behind the vicissitudes of life, that which cannot be destroyed. – Interpretation: Keith Porteous
“Isvara is OM, supreme music.” – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
– The Textbook of Yoga Psychology
Swan commentary (by Keith) on YS 1.27: The sound OM is a portal to the divine. If repeated again and again (which is referred to in the next Sutra) it’s meaning will be revealed. This takes patience and dedication. It is easier when sounded with others as a ritual. At first, the sound simply announces your practice. Later on, its meaning will deepen. This practice is difficult for the ego which is hungry for novelty and complexity and might prefer to hear the thoughts of the individual rather than a vibration shared by all of life. By sounding OM, we invite in a frequency which aligns us with what is true, with what is beyond the highs and lows of our lives: all our likes and dislikes, our stories and our fears. It is a way to go beyond the small self to connect with others. More than anything, it is a way to reach out to the divine, and over time, to find the divine within.
“Pranavah means that Principle which is eternally new and which brings eternal newness and freshness to meditators…One realizes that one has never found elsewhere such rest in life as when meditating on pranavah.” – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
A: manifestation U: maintenance M: dissolution
Swan commentary (by Keith, inspired by Shri Brahmananda Saraswati): Isvara (a form of the divine we can understand) is said to be OM because Isvara is ever present within the cycles of creation, maintenance, and dissolution. (Please remember Isvara can take a human form, the form of a deity, or can simply be a conception of Source or the Universe, whatever is an authentic form in which you can find trust and faith.) The silence at the end of each OM creates space for the next cycle. The silence is something we can learn to be comfortable with, and not afraid of. It is a promise that more is to come.
Pranava comes in two forms, that which is not articulated (silent) is called nadam. That which is sounded aloud is called OM. The repetition of the sounded OM creates the opportunity to discover nadam within oneself.
One can unravel the meaning of OM through repetition while focussing at the Ajna chakra. How do we learn? By repeating that which we seek to do with ease until we do it with no effort, and the practice of sacred vibration becomes a part of who we are.
YS 1.28 Tajjapas-tad-artha-bhavanam
Repetition of this syllable reveals its meaning – Barbara Stoler Miller
Swan commentary: Just like the asana practice, over time, repetition reveals a depth which is beyond us when we are just starting out. At first we learn physical alignment, which may take years or decades and the poses can feel awkward, disjointed, or out of reach. Over time, the alignment becomes familiar, then natural. Doors start to open for us as we come back again and again. After a while we no longer seek new poses, but deepen our practice of the poses we already have. The spaces in between the poses start to become interesting. After years of practice, just to stand in tadasana can feel reverential, as we acknowledge the beginning of an individual practice done in uplifting community for benefit that reaches beyond the physical. The same depth is available to us as we move from the outside-in through the portal sound of OM.
Yoga Sutra 1.34: Prachhardana vidharanabhyam va pranasya
“By expulsion and retention of breath one should overcome all obstacles, mental and physical diseases, and make (the) mind peaceful, happy, serene, and stable.” – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati, The Textbook of Yoga Psychology
Swan commentary: This sutra comes right after 1.33, which is the Sutra on the four kinds of love (maitri, karuna, mudito and upeksanama). In 1.34, Master Patanjali tells us that another way to reach serenity of mind is through the exhalation and retention of breath. This can have a deep calming affect on the nervous system, however, it is an advanced practice and can be ungrounding if done with force and without the integrity of other supportive practices in place. Consulting an experienced teacher is a good idea before bringing this into your practice. I included it because it is a pranayama which can help us rest in silence. Every exhale is a practice of letting go rather than filling up, and this emptying out process is crucial to experiencing the serenity of mind and hearing nadam. .
D. From the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Swan commentary: This translator (Mr. Bhikku). chose to translate “dukkha” as stress, rather than suffering, which is what is commonly used. Whatever the English word, I believe we can all connect with the essential meaning. Note that he uses the word craving below as the cause of stress. One could interchange the words grasping, thirst or clinging here. The later Mahayana Buddhists beginning with Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) shifted to define ignorance or avidya as the root cause of suffering. Again, whatever the words chosen, the point is that there are ways we can clear our minds that will help us navigate through the suffering we have caused, to restrain ourselves from causing new suffering, and co-create a future of greater peace, connection and purpose. I have this translation of the original Pali text thanks to the Contemplative Studies Institute.
These concepts relate to our attention of sound and media this month, as we look at how ‘thirst’ or desire drive us yet fail to fulfill us in the ways we expect they will.
The Four Noble Truths: Truths 1 and 2
“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non- becoming.