Silence is always elusive in the city. I perch on my studio apartment’s loveseat with closed eyes and I hear the hum of appliances and the whisper of traffic outside like waves on the shore. I duck into a deserted conference room at the office and hear my coworkers’ voices, people opening and closing the main door. A friend and I try to find a place to pray after dinner together downtown, but end up sitting on some concrete steps and hoping the passers-by stay tuned into their phones or their ipods, too distracted by their own sounds to disturb us.
It’s not easy at the best of times, sitting there and trying to listen for the still, small voice. Even when there’s no barrage of noise from outside, there’s my own consciousness blathering away, fickle and distracted by every little thing, and my body putting in requests every two seconds: chocolate, a new position in the chair, a sweater, chocolate again. Sometimes it makes me just sick of myself.
I once heard a Buddhist practitioner of meditation cheerfully say, “Don’t worry, after awhile it will feel less like having your eyeballs shaved.” I was happy to know someone else could relate. Sometimes when I get back on the meditation wagon it feels like I’m coming off some drug instead, my mind just going everywhere and my entire body developing an itch. In a way, I am having withdrawal, from the world of words and left-brained thinking and frantically constructed reasonable explanations of a subtle, constantly shifting reality.
The tradition of silence that I practice (sporadically, whenever I can find a quiet corner and can muster up the self-discipline) is called Centering Prayer. It originated as a discipline very early in Christianity, first outlined in print by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (a book rich both in wisdom and wit, highly recommended). I was taught the tradition as interpreted by the modern-day Trappist monk Thomas Keating, and the three easy(!) steps are these:
1. Sit down comfortably, close your eyes, and relax as best you can.
2. Pick a word, ideally something nice and short, that will help direct your thoughts to the Divine Presence.
3. Sit in silence until you notice yourself sneakily breaking your interior silence with some kind of hope or fear or regret or craving or random thought. Return your consciousness to the word you chose as a reminder of what you’re doing here, then start over with your silence as needed.
I like this method because, first of all, I’m a verbal person, so having a word to center me helps. Other people may find it more useful to bring their attention back to their breathing, or simply to let their thoughts dissolve when they become conscious of them, maybe picturing them drifting away like clouds or smoke. Second of all, it’s easy to practice anywhere. You don’t need a special mat or a guided meditation CD. I find it helpful to set a timer for some small amount of time, like 20 minutes, to help me to relax (I think I fear otherwise I’ll fall asleep indefinitely), but that’s all the equipment I need. And finally, it assumes you are going to screw up, that you won’t sit there in perfect tranquility for however long. Your mind is going to try to get away with stuff, and that is fine. You just guide it back with great patience, like it’s a really cute puppy trying to learn to stay but distracted by every new smell, and you calmly start over.
This Lent, my church is having weekly prayer meetings that are in total silence for an hour. Now, you Quakers and Buddhists out there are snickering, but for me, sitting in silence for an hour is a really big deal. Especially in our church, which is pretty old and sometimes quite cold and sometimes warmed up by a radiator that makes a lot of bumps and bangs and possessing a high ceiling that amplifies the sound when someone coughs. Also I might have the slightest problem with an overactive brain, as you may or may not have noticed.
But as I learn to be patient with my mind, to wait calmly for it to come back from its distractions, I know that God is waiting for me in the same way, but with much more inherent patience. Even if the silence within is but a split second, God will find a way to inhabit it. Even I, with the handicap of my overactive brain, have found God there. I just love that about God, omnipresent but still so humble, ever present and available but waiting for me to notice, to choose to listen, even past the sounds, for the silence.