Early one morning many years ago, my wife and I drove in darkness toward the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Maine. We headed for a place where we had been told we could witness the first rays of sunlight reaching the East Coast. After parking the car, we walked by flashlight to an open area and settled down on a blanket, waiting for dawn. But we soon discovered that the event was not going to be as serene as we expected. Many other would-be sun gazers surrounded us, and sounds of laughter and voices filled the darkness. Tobacco smoke hung in the still air, too, and with little space separating one set of sightseers from the next, we listened to conversations almost as if we were part of them. The voices kept increasing as new folks joined those already assembled. The mountain was buzzing, and it seemed that the mystical moment we had anticipated was being transformed into a noisy party.
Then it happened. The sun appeared. Rays of light broke over the horizon, and the landscape below us slowly emerged from darkness. As night shadows abated, a hush came over everyone. Cigarettes were snuffed out, laughter disappeared, and the drama of dawn played out in a space that we could now measure with our eyes. Bathed in growing light, the mountain became quiet, and a serene silence enfolded us.
Our minds frequently mimic the crowd gathered on Cadillac Mountain. Isolated, captivated by our habits and preoccupations, we wait rather absentmindedly for the appearance of a higher spiritual light. In the meantime, our minds continue chattering, our thoughts flung onto the screen of our awareness by passing emotions and desires.
Calming, refreshing, restorative--silence appeals to the heart, bringing relief both from the intrusiveness of outer affairs and from the incessant voices stirring within us.
Fortunately, this does not need to be how we live our mental lives. Despite the mind’s chatter, silence beckons us. Calming, refreshing, restorative—silence appeals to the heart, bringing relief both from the intrusiveness of outer affairs and from the incessant voices stirring within us. Periods of silence cleanse the mind’s palate, resting it and making it ready for new ventures, within and without.
During yoga and meditation practice, even beginning students notice a shift toward silence—their minds are relieved by a sense of quieting down. But first impressions of silence in yoga gradually lead to the realization that for lasting peace, many layers of mental activity will need to be digested.
Five stages of practice can help us acquire a deeper level of silence within:
Body and breath awareness combined;
Breath awareness alone;
Breathing combined with mantra;
Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.
The path toward inner stillness begins with asana work. Asanas help us reconnect with our body and start to quiet verbal chatter. They supply just the right combination of physical engagement and internal feedback to hold our attention. When our energies are collected and focused on simple posture work, the intensity of mental distractions is naturally diminished.
Postures create a subtle shift in the mind. No longer drawn from thought to thought by an unfocused chain of associations, asana sessions replace noisy thinking with the relatively silent work of stretching, strengthening, lengthening, aligning, and integrating. Like a musician completely absorbed in the sound of his music, asana work focuses the mind thoroughly, so that other levels of experience do not intrude.
The quieting influence of asana work is deepened when postures are linked to breathing. Lift your arms to the side and then overhead. You will probably find yourself inhaling. Bend forward even a little and most likely you’ll exhale. These and many other movements naturally coordinate with breathing. When awareness of breathing and movement are combined, distracting thoughts become less intrusive.
But some movements are too fast or too slow for a direct correspondence with breathing. For example, swing your arms forward and back to warm up the shoulder joints, and you’ll find the movement is too fast to link with breathing. Shift to very slow motion or hold postures still, and again your movements will lose their direct correspondence with the breath. Despite this, you can keep both the body and breath in awareness. Breath awareness transcends awareness of the body alone. It acts like a thread that runs through every phase of posture work, quieting the nervous system and mind.
The process of observing the breath makes us aware of the subtle differences between involuntary breathing, voluntary breathing, and non-voluntary breathing. Involuntary breathing is breathing that is generally out of our awareness. It flows automatically. Voluntary breathing is the result of conscious control. We use it to speak, to hold the breath, or to whistle. Breathing impacted by pain, emotion, and stress is sometimes called non-voluntary breathing. Simple examples include the forced breathing resulting from anger and the tense breathing often caused by stress.
Breath work leads the nervous system and mind toward silence.
Fortunately, the deep effects of stress and emotional reactivity on breathing can be quieted. When you encounter stress in your breathing you can modify it—restoring calm, even breathing. In other words, you can reduce sensations of anxiety and pain by breathing deeply and smoothly. This is how breath work leads the nervous system and mind toward silence.
When you are performing postures, your efforts to coordinate body and breath contribute to a natural refinement of your mental focus and a deepening of inner quietude. During periods of relaxation and meditation, breath awareness transcends body work altogether. Metabolism slows and physical demands are minimized. Then, awareness of the body becomes transparent (the body barely intrudes our awareness at all), and the mind is filled almost exclusively with sensations of breathing. It is then that you will learn the art of effortless breathing.
Breathing flows involuntarily most of the time. But by becoming aware of the breath, shaping it, and then returning it to a relaxed and effortless flow, you can become the calm witness of your breath. This helps to quiet your mind even further.
During relaxation and meditation, outer distractions and physical discomforts are greatly diminished. The mind’s quiet is disrupted instead by memories, wants, wishes, and cravings arising from within. A steady, relaxed breath makes it possible to reduce the energy we give to these forces—and to remain less reactive in their presence.
Ultimately, however, the mind is not fully quieted by concentration on the body or breath. Postures and breath awareness reduce mental chatter, but they do not fully relax the mind. To accomplish this, we’ll need to meet the process of thinking even deeper in the mind.
This involves supplying the mind with a verbal focus, an internal support, in which to rest. In the yoga tradition, this is accomplished through the use of a mantra. Most meditators begin with the mantra soham (pronounced so-hum). This mantra is said to be the natural sound of breathing and means “that pure and infinite Self within—That I am.” By reciting the mantra in coordination with the breath (so on the inhalation, hum on the exhalation), the mind reaches a deeper level of self-awareness.
But the idea that the mind can be quieted by the recitation of a mantra may appear at odds with itself. How does the recitation of a mantra lead to silence? The answer to this important question has two parts. First, a mantra quiets the mind in the same way that all forms of relaxed concentration reduce mental noise. It replaces distractions with an object of concentration. Since this object supports the mind’s efforts to become quiet, it is called an alambana in Sanskrit—a supportive factor. The mantra focuses attention deep within the mind, at the place where thoughts arise, rather than at the levels of body or breath. With this core level of support, meditation feels especially quieting.
When your attention rests in the gentle pulsing of a mantra, and even your breath has become a distant awareness, a more refined level of silence awakens within. (This answers with even more clarity the question, “How can the mind be silent if it is reciting a mantra?”)
Silence is an experience of being.
Silence is an experience of being. When the everyday mind, the mind of thoughts and sensations, is restfully focused, a transformation occurs that engages us with this experience of being. We become a witness, an observer—most importantly, a silent observer. We see the mind resting in its focus. But we do not speak about it, even to ourselves. We enter a realm of silence that exists unceasingly within us, uninfluenced by passing thoughts and desires.
A mantra is a sound that leads to silence.
This experience of silence is amplified by concentration. Conversely, when concentration is abandoned, silence is diminished as well. A mantra, then, is a sound that leads to silence. This silence, gradually acquired through an awakening of the inner observer, is both transforming and lasting. It is the culmination of a climb to a higher place—a place that, like Cadillac Mountain, gives a breathtaking view of a dawning light.