[Words, words, words]

Dear Donagh,

….I was invited to attend a meeting of a meditation group…. I was expecting a lot of silence, but lo and behold they seemed unable to stop talking.  The leader talked for ages at the start, and when eventually it was time for meditation proper they played soft music.  The minute it was over they all burst into talk again, about anything and everything. Is this common among meditation groups now, or was I just unlucky?  Deirdre

Dear Deirdre,

You were just unlucky.  It’s not common for meditation groups to talk much; nor is it normal to play music during the time of silence.  There may be some brief teaching at the start, if there is a teacher present; and there may be practical matters to mention at the end, but meditation is essentially silence.

Silence bores many people, and it terrifies some, so it is not surprising that we tend to run from it.  What better alibi than exhortation, or readings from famous teachers, or listening to sacred music…?  There’s an important place for all of these, but sooner or later we have to come back to silence, pure and simple.  We will never know what is going on with us until we stop talking. 

It’s true that the Christian faith puts a strong emphasis on the word: the incarnate Word, the biblical word, the prophetic word, the kerygmatic word…. “In the beginning was the Word.”  Yes, but our words are a bit of a caricature of the Word.  “And the Word became flesh,” while ours tend to give rise to millions of other words, to stay airborne, and even to become substitutes for flesh (so to speak) – substitutes for engagement with the stuff of our life.  

But (I imagine you asking) doesn’t ‘engagement with the stuff of our life’ draw us away from silence? 

It depends on what you mean by ‘engagement’.  It can mean thinking about or analysing your experience, or such.  But there is a more basic kind of engagement.  It is when you are aware of what is going on in you, but you neither analyse it nor run away from it.  Someone once said that opera is where someone is stabbed and instead of bleeding he starts singing.  Well, meditation is where you do the more natural thing, you bleed; you do what flesh does, not what the mind does.  

I think this is the key: add nothing.  You are sitting down, having stopped what you were doing.  But many processes continue by themselves: the circulation of the blood, etc., and breathing.  Among all these processes, breathing is a little unusual.  It continues by itself, but we have some short-term control over it (you can hold your breath for a while, if some occasion demands it).  We are unconscious of all the other processes, but breathing is just on the threshold between conscious and unconscious.  So then, you are sitting down, breathing and conscious of it.  That's all.  It is you who are doing it, but it is an impersonal process.  In other words, you are conscious of something going on in you that is not from your ego.  That makes it very special – while still being perfectly ordinary! 

Why would anyone want to be so passive, so silent, so apparently ineffective?  The irony is that it is our efforts that prevent us from really seeing into our true nature.  But if you stay quiet enough for long enough, it will show itself briefly, like a very shy animal.  Be prepared to wait and wait, with no agenda, no conditions, no time-table.  Any mental movement on your part, and it vanishes again. 

When they first take up meditation many people have the feeling that it is not ‘holy’ enough, so (perhaps like your friends in that group) they add holy words…. This doesn’t make it any holier.  The holiest thing in our life is our true nature, which is the Christ-nature, mostly invisible to us because it lies buried under a hardened sediment of words and fixed ideas.  If we are silent enough for long enough we may get an occasional glimpse of it.  (But it won't be what we expect, because our expectations are limited by our words.)  Then you won't be all confused about how to change your life; it will change it for you.  (I used a relevant passage from St John of the Cross in this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’.)

In this connection I always remember the words of St Ignatius of Antioch (1st-2nd century): “If you are to hear the words of Jesus you must also hear his silence.” 

When there are words with no spaces between them – no silences – it doesn’t matter what is said because nothing is heard. 

Deirdre, just tell them nicely to shut up!


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