At some point in every human life, pain threatens to unravel everything that matters. For some of us the day comes in childhood. We may suffer the death of a parent, unspeakable trauma, or simple grinding neglect. For others life feels fairly comfortable until adulthood, but sooner or later fate steers us off our desired road into threatening territory. Perhaps a child gets sick, or a marriage ends, or a career fails. Maybe illness strikes and the end of life comes into view. Grief, failure, and injury shatter our peace, so we begin to seek answers.
At first, we search in all the usual places. We ask our close friends and trusted relatives for advice. Some of us consult therapists or psychiatrists who guide us back into our past or write us prescriptions. Some of us enter houses of worship or meditation in hope of enlisting the help of profound mystical or mental forces. We pray and meditate, desperate for answers.
Even with all this exploration, solutions seldom come. All too often, life deals ever more hardship as we scramble to find a lifeline that will help us endure the escalating pain. We may begin to waver in our resolve to continue; we begin to question whether life offers enough enrichment to make its difficulties worthwhile. We wonder why, as we try so hard to solve our dilemma, we feel no better.
These despairing moments are fertile. They mark the ego’s looming defeat and the foundational collapse that allows deep wisdom to develop organically. Because the problem is exactly that we are trying so hard to find answers, but we do not need answers.
What we need is to break free from all seeking, all efforts to understand, and all analysis. What we need is to quell the mind’s ceaseless efforts to make sense of life, its endless construction of models, and its doomed dream of figuring out how to extinguish the inevitable pain of existence.
What we need is silence.
The first layer of silence is a respite from constant mental toil. We enjoy a break from churning our complicated facts, important memories, and worrisome predictions. We open to peace of mind. This is the introductory gift of learning to quiet the mind’s chatter: a chance to rest. In a spacious moment of stillness, we begin to appreciate how struggling to solve life never leads to solutions, only to confusion and exhaustion. A boundless relief comes with abandoning, even for a moment, all our strenuous, futile striving.
The second layer of silence is the recognition that verbal reasoning is only a shadow of life, not life itself. Before we get to this stage, we believe the stories we tell ourselves. For instance if we think, “I can’t continue in the face of such pain,” we believe our mind’s dire prediction and become paralyzed. As we wait for the sorrow to lift, or the fear to abate, the stasis that results simply worsens our mental anguish. But as we learn the value of quieting inner dialogue, we begin to see that these strings of words have no solidity. They are tokens of interpretations of models of our lives. Neither the tokens, nor the interpretations, nor the models are life itself. As we begin to quiet the inner verbiage, we recognize it to be arbitrary and unhelpful. Instead of thinking about what’s going on, we experience life as it is in this moment. Nearly always, life as it is entails far less pain than life as we think it is.
The third layer of silence is beyond description. It is simple and unalloyed bliss. This essay I’m now writing was inspired by a quote my aunt sent, taken from Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner. The theologian provides a good description of this final gift of inner quiet:
I have been conscious but not conscious of anything, not even of myself. I have been surrounded by the whiteness of snow. I have heard a stillness that encloses all sounds stilled the way whiteness encloses all colors stilled, the way wordlessness encloses all words stilled. I have sensed the presence of a presence. I have felt a promise promised.
Buechner’s words come as close as words can to capturing the ultimate fruit of stilling the inner dialogue.
It is important to recognize that quieting the mind’s verbal stream yields benefits at every stage. Early on, we are granted rest. A little later, we gain insight into the emptiness of words. And finally, we discover what we were hoping for all along: an unshakeable foundation for peace of mind.