The Virtues of Silence and Stillness: How to Be Quiet in Today’s Society
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"Silence is a source of great strength". –Lao Tseu
"All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a room quiet and alone" –Blaise Pascal
What would these philosophers say of our modern world, where posters, ringtones and other jingles compete for our attention? Where an increasing number of advertisements point at external objects as the way to happiness? Where the immediate and all-sided action is what matters most, and where we do not know what we want or where we are headed because we want everything? Advertisements do not fulfill their promises of happiness (how could they?), the desperate quest for pleasure only leads to deception and life itself becomes meaningless.
However, if instead of looking outside for a miracle cure we took the time to stay still and be here and now, we might finally find what we are looking for.
In daily life situations
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while they glance at their TV screen or type on their cellphone at regular intervals? Or with someone who overwhelms you with questions and starts talking whenever you try to answer? I think you have, and I also imagine that the conversation required important efforts from you, as well as patience and adjustments, unless you decided to give the whole thing up …
Surely you also have experienced being interrupted by a phone call or a text message when trying to focus on an assignment. Each time, you need to re-focus and make an additional effort to get back to what you were working on. It would probably be best to turn off your phone, but with our modern lifestyle, we are under the impression that we have to be active on all counts, just as an overworked CEO.
This world —and its one-sided values— turned toward external action, as pointless as it can be, is also a sick world. This is why we witness an increasing number of unhappy people. They are lost and confused, not knowing where to turn to, so they fly from one activity to another. Some even do the same with their therapies. Instead of making a wise choice and sticking to it, they will only comply with their impatience and run from a miracle solution to another, searching for a peace of mind that always seems to move further.
Everyday life is full of such examples, and we could bring hundreds of them…
During a Hatha Yoga class: look and thoughts
Being a yoga teacher means being able to observe those who give us their trust with a sharp and kind eye. During a yoga class, some students automatically feel at ease and internalize, sometimes with delight, while others do not. During meditation, they open their eyes to make sure they are still surrounded by the world as they know it, and when they are asked to stare at a point, their eyes start glancing here and there, unable to keep still.
Eye mobility betrays the inability to keep away the unwanted thoughts that invade our daily lives.
Discursive and intuitive thinking
It is important to differentiate discursive thinking, which is analytic and shaped by our conditioning and intuitive thinking, which corresponds to another level of awareness.
With discursive thinking, only partially controlled, ideas are entangled more or less harmoniously, while a desire for logic and coherence is kept in the background. However, ideas themselves follow paths that are contradictory and difficult to accommodate. We then try to make everything fit into the picture, ignoring inevitable inconsistencies.
Intuitive thinking appears in flashes comparable to revelations, be they large or small, but always appropriate. Logic does not necessarily have a place here, while irrationality often has. But irrationality might follow a logic that goes beyond human knowledge, at least in the current state of things.
While discursive thinking is very useful in everyday life, if properly controlled, it is not more important than intuitive thinking. However, the importance of the former is highly stressed while the latter is ignored, when not despised. In modern society, where attention is constantly called upon, we have to start learning again how to clear our minds find silence and turn to ourselves and to our inner sight.
Yoga Nidra: exhaustion and rejuvenation
Yoga Nidra sessions lead to similar observations. Yoga Nidra is the search for a state between wakefulness and sleep, the one we briefly experience when we wake up or when we fall asleep. For some practitioners, several weeks, even months of practice are necessary to reach this state. The most frequent difficulties are the following: either they fall into a deep sleep after an exhausting, energy consuming day, or they do not « let go », and keep on thinking. The latter escape is less common than the first, especially after a Hatha Yoga session, since stretching and other techniques allow relieving all tensions.
Silence and Stillness in Hatha Yoga
In other words, spending your energy on external activities is not only destabilizing but also exhausting. The meditative state inherent to yoga allows restoring an energy reserve by getting rid of these uncontrolled thoughts, creating mental space and turning observation inwards.
By the 18th century, Blaise Pascal already spoke out against the tendency to get distracted! .... He also suggested the following solutions: calm, stillness and isolation. In other words, have a one-on-one on our own and find peace of mind.
Hatha Yoga is in itself a search for mental stillness. Meditation is not the only way to find stillness. This quest is also a fundamental aspect of the original Natha or Hatha yoga. It is to be found on all levels of practice since all parts of a being are interconnected
- The physical aspect: Asanas (poses). Contrary to modern yoga styles, which focus on movement and on the fitness dimension of yoga practice, original hatha yoga postures focus on stillness. The entire body stays still, the limbs, the head, the back but also the eyes, which are maintained open and still in some poses, closed and converging in others.
- The energetic aspect: Breathing becomes still as you hold your breath in or out. During inhale and exhale, while a strong air flow helps to free tensions and clean the body at the beginning of the practice, the ultimate goal is to attain a state of «no breath », in other words, to stop physiological breathing. The nature of breathing then becomes almost solely energetic.
- The mental aspect: Concentration is required to maintain poses, mudras (gestures, including bandhas and drishtis), and to visualize energetic breath, an essential element of Natha Yoga. The aim is to synchronize these different aspects and make them converge into a single reality. The mind becomes more and more silent and a state of presence and unity can be reached. Let’s recall that yoga means union: union of the whole being and union of oneself with the universe.
Once this state is reached, the mind finds silence, as Lao Tseu understands it. This state of mind is so powerful that it cannot be distracted by futilities. The mind knows what is essential and best. No energy or time loss.
This wisdom cannot be built overnight, but we get closer every day through practice. No matter your current mental state, you can only improve.
The path of authentic yoga is the best way to find serenity, to access and achieve our deepest desires and to fulfill ourselves in our own path, without pretending or self-indulgence.
Join Sylvie on a yoga retreat and find silence and stillness with her yoga holidays in India!
*This article is also available in French.