Silence of Mind

By David O'Dowd

All but the brightest of stars are invisible from the environs of a major human settlement such as Greater Los Angeles. Outdoors, streetlights illuminate a low, hazy layer of cooler atmosphere, making it bright enough so that only the Moon and Venus, Sirius and Capella, and a handful of other bright natural lights shinethrough among the numerous airplanes and helicopters. Most of what one sees is entirely of human design. Millions of people have become comfortable with these manufactured circumstances, sheltered from the awesomeness and ancient wonder of a vast black and starry sky with its distant suns and dim galaxies. Even though our home planet is blessed with a fairly clear atmosphere through which it is possible to view the cosmos, our sights are all too frequently focused in upon things of our own making, matters of our immediate understanding and concern.

Only by escaping the metropolis can we once again directly behold our place in a much larger and more ancient whole: the edge of our wheeling galaxy becomes visible from the desert, the mountains, or the open spaces. The multitude of suns, the clouds of star-forming dust and gas, the planets -- our own star's family -- are all there before us. Attention is drawn away from the mundane; the heart is refreshed with awe and wonder upon confrontation with the infinite vastness of our natural home.

To a large extent, all but the most routine of thoughts, the commonest or the most provocative of emotions and desires, have become obscured by the constant mental and emotional activities required in twentieth-century metropolitan life. Occulted is much of the range and subtle depth of the human mind. We have become comfortable with the familiar mental and emotional routines which shelter us from the awesome and seemingly infinite depths of consciousness. Comfortable with what we can understand and deal with daily, we avoid going to the "desert" or the "mountains" of the mind where we have the blessed chance to confront ancient depths of reality within the self.

Like witnessing and pondering the immensity of space and time, periods of profound personal silence seem to satisfy a certain spiritual need. To sit in meditation is not even as difficult as driving away from the city for a glimpse into the night sky, though preparations must be made and a road followed. Such meditation is a time to halt the obscuring effects of constant doing, acting, thinking, responding. It is a time to release the tightly-focused awareness of daily concerns and partake of a peacefulness, wherein the whole natural "galaxy" of the higher self can be reflected.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outline one "road" of meditation suited to people whose intellectual activity is predominant over the devotional or physical. Patanjali lists eight steps which can lead to the "mountains" of the mind. While the Sutras do provide a solid insight into the process, meditation is typically transmitted as an oral tradition. The following Sanskrit words appear together in verse 29 of Book 2, and are rendered here in free translation as it is impossible to convey in English the seed-like conciseness of the original:

Yama, niyama: Leading an honest life in moderation and harmony with natural law;
Asana: Steady, comfortable posture with relaxation of effort;
Pranayama: The breath, and the flow of energy, naturally subsiding;
Pratyahara: Allowing the senses to let go of their objects;
Dharana: Gently confining mental activity;
Dhyana: Still mind;
Samadhi: Mind transcended.

The steps beginning with asana are generally practiced once or twice a day, for about half an hour. With repetition, one learns to spend more time in dhyana, where the higher self has a chance to reflect. This set of steps resembles the traditional steps of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. According to John Blofeld (The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind, rendered into English by John Blofeld, Grove Press, New York, 1959, pp. 7-13), dhyana practice was brought from northern India to a divided China in the 6th century AD, where it is pronounced "chan." It has since flourished in Japan as "zen," and as such has become familiar in North America. In fact, similar -- perhaps identical -- steps involving dhyana have been carried around the world through the ages, to those seeking to experience the all-pervading silence beyond the veils of sensory perception.

Today profound issues face all of us, ranging from the personal to the global, and it is certainly helpful to be able to retreat now and then to a deeply-quenching silence of mind, out of reach of all the bustle of city living with its attendant noise and pollution. We return refreshed and well prepared to take on our important daily issues.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992; copyright © 1992 Theosophical University Press)

Spiritual Path Menu

Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is -- is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything. It is in this sense that humility is absolute self-effacement.
To be nothing in the self-effacement of humility, yet, for the sake of the task, to embody its whole weight and importance in your bearing, as the one who has been called to undertake it. To give to people, works, poetry, art, what the self can contribute, and to take, simply and freely, what belongs to it by reason of its identity. Praise and blame, the winds of success and adversity, blow over such a life without leaving a trace or upsetting its balance.
Towards this, so help me, God -- Dag Hammarskjold, Markings