I find myself drawn to places of silence. I attend my local Quaker meeting when I can, finding the resonance of the meeting room particularly appealing to sit, do my zhikr, and deepen in meditation. Knowing that others are also sitting in intentional silence – whether searching for the inner light (as Quakers call it) or just taking a moment from their busy lives – seems to strengthen my own practice.
It wasn’t always like this of course, and it feels like my journey into silence has snuck up on me. The early retreats I attended were difficult for many reasons as my ego was disrupted from all sides, but I particularly found the early morning contemplation session excruciating to sit through. Getting up early to sit in prolonged moments of silence just made no sense to me: what was I supposed to be thinking? It was cold; some folks fell asleep and snored lightly; I wondered what I would have for breakfast. The teacher’s recitation of the Qur’an was divine and may have been the only thing that made me get up for those early mornings when phrases like ‘presence’ and ‘ego’ were a new language.
Over a decade later, and my favourite sessions at the retreat are those early morning moments of collective silence. I marvel at how much I look forward to sitting in that quiet hall, with 50+ other people, listening to the birds and the breeze – and of course my teacher’s recitations and invitations to deepen in my inner spaciousness. I had read about how spiritual techniques change your life, but I honestly never really thought they would change me this much!
My spiritual journey has been accelerated slightly due to my physical illness, which at times has left me with no choice but to sit in silence and contemplation for days, weeks, months at a time. The extreme response to this has been an uncomfortableness when I re-emerged into the world – it was too noisy, too busy, too bright. People never stopped talking – and it was so inane! Not that I had anything clever to add to the conversation, but many times I just wanted it all to stop – or for everyone to just be silent. But that makes for an awkward networking event.
Over time, I have learned to balance my reactions, to hold my energy and to know when to leave – and more importantly, when to stay. What I love most about my tradition is how it is of the world, and we are taught to walk the middle path – not to be extreme in either way. So I shouldn’t run into a cave and become an ascetic, and neither should I become so attached to the world and opinions that it becomes my primary care. And that was the place I started from when I came to Sufism – I had an extremely busy, loud life, full of people and things and doing. I couldn’t sit still without the television being on in the background. I would wake in the morning to the radio and my whole day would be one noise to another – even reading was with musical accompaniment.
How did I find this silence – or more correctly, how did the silence let me in?
We can either be empty with Spirit or full of ourselves.
My understanding of presence has helped me to start emptying myself. The tools of spiritual practice help in this process: zhikr, prayer, whirling, muraqaba (observing), and muhasaba (self-reckoning).
Presence is our essential Self. It is a space to be filled by the qualities of Spirit—qualities such as love, generosity, patience, courage, humility, and wisdom, which are inclusive, encompassing, and transcendent. The ego is a crowded space filled with conflicting desires and thoughts. Sometimes we want to begin spiritual work but are too full. Every word, movement, and thought invokes some artificial “I,” some conditioning or superficial role. When we come into presence, we enter speechlessness, silence. We put our weapons down. The intellect is given rest; thoughts subside. Then the feelings, too, can become still and empty.
Recognising that my ego was covering over my deeper inner essence has been a tough journey; getting to that silence is no easy task. For each layer of conditioning I uncovered, five new hurdles arose. But once the journey begins it is difficult to stop – once you’ve witnessed your ‘conflicting desires and thoughts’ it’s tough to ignore them again. But persisting is worth it. There has been such relief to find that inner stillness, to put my weapons down, and to face the void that I was covering over with busy noise.
Our work is to cross a threshold into emptiness and stillness. It is like entering an empty room that proves to hold a great presence. The apparent emptiness of simple presence is richer than the crowded experience of ordinary personality.
I have written previously about meeting God in the awe-inspiring vistas of the Lake District. That awe came within silence, far removed from the busyness of the towns and villages, the mountains hold a palpable feeling of stillness and divinity. And yet, God does not only dwell on the mountain-tops but within us, in the towns and villages, in the Quaker meeting rooms, in our hearts. The Silence is all around and within me.
Everything is being breathed out of the silence of Spirit. This is the key to the secrets of the moment, to the fullness of living. Let it breathe us; let us be this Living Presence.
[All quotes from Living Presence by Kabir Helminski]