By Halvor Eifring
“Why?” The West African guest stared uncomprehendingly at the Norwegian mountain ranges that his proud Norwegian hosts had driven so long and far to show him. For them, the value of the view and of the deep silence of the mountains was to be taken for granted. For him, it was at best economic: “So much rock! Had this been in West Africa, I could have become rich, because we build our houses of stone.”
Seen from the outside, the value of meditative silence may seem as incomprehensible to us as the value of the Norwegian mountains seemed to the African guest. Spend the rest of your life in a cabin in the desert of Egypt, as the ancient Desert Fathers did? Promise to observe lifelong silence and celibacy to approach something sacred, as some have done and continue to do in both Eastern and Western traditions? Or to take an example that is closer to our own modern Acem context: sit with your eyes closed and repeat a meaningless sound in your mind hour after hour, perhaps for as long as one or two days? There isn’t even any economically valuable stone to be found here!Yet meditative silence is something whose value very different cultures have understood. In China one of the most common words for meditating is to “sit in silence”, jing-zuo, and already a few centuries before our era, jing – “silence” and “quietude” – was a central value in various philosophical schools. In India, the term mauna – “silence” and “the practice of not speaking” – has something to do with this, but perhaps also shanti, which is usually translated as “peace” or “calm”, and which is often repeated three times as a conclusion of a ceremonial mantra recitation. In Christianity the Eastern Church’s contemplative tradition is called hesychasm, from the Greek word hesychia, meaning “silence”, and in Catholic contemplation, silencio has a natural place.
The telling title of the basic book on Acem Meditation is The Psychology of Silence. Acem’s most distinctive feature lies in the psychological understanding of meditative processes. At the same time the book concludes with two short and poetic chapters on “the silence of growth – like an early morning of a day yet unborn” (p. 133), “what is untouched by time and history, happiness and suffering, by heat and cold, i.e., the silent core of man’s existential freedom.” (p. 138).
In Acem silence is a topic that is usually discussed at deepening retreats, at which the meditations are long – more than six hours every day – and the participants already have an extensive meditative experience. Slightly simplified, we can say that silence refers to an aspect of meditation that goes beyond the immediate relaxation effect, and which also reaches beyond the personality development to which regular meditation often contributes. Perhaps one can see this silence as a kind of essence of what it is to be human, and which at the same time points beyond our individual existence to a corresponding silence in nature, perhaps even in the firmament on a starry night.
What is meditative silence? In the following, we will examine several different levels of meditative silence. We will begin with silence as the absence of external noise and gradually work towards silence as the presence of an inner force.
Absence of noise
A form of external silence can consist of the absence of the constant noise and din that is a constituent of the exteriority of urban life. For although family and career are important aspects of our self-realization, they also demand our attention in ways that occasionally draw us away from ourselves. We can become too busy and stressed, preoccupied with being successful, while at the same time we feel unsuccessful and are easily drawn into struggle, conflict, and competition. If we are to find ourselves, whatever that means, we must withdraw from the frenzy of everyday life for shorter or longer periods. In a way, this is what we do for two half hours a day if we meditate regularly. This allows us to let go of some of the forces that push and pull us in everyday life, and approach a kind of inner core. An extended variant is to travel for a weekend or a week (or for that matter two or three weeks) on a meditation retreat. Acem’s retreat sites at Halvorsbøle and Lundsholm are in scenic surroundings near the Randsfjorden and Mangen lakes. The surroundings alone offer distance from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, in addition to extended meditation time and meaningful conversations in guidance groups.
Erling Kagge’s book title Silence in the Age of Noise may give the impression that this form of silence is a response to the challenges of modernity, but this is far from so. Almost all meditative or contemplative traditions seek rural or natural surroundings, and written sources confirm they have done so for between two and three thousand years.
In early Christianity, the desert was a central arena for those who wished to approach God, which in this tradition is necessary to come closer to one’s own inner core. The desert had a dual purpose as a place that was both completely God-forsaken and where God was always near. In modern times the Norwegian author Axel Jensen writes in his novel Icarus about the desert as a place to seek spiritual realization. His interest in the wilderness was inspired both by the forty years of wandering in the wilderness of Moses’s people and by the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. For Moses and his people, the wandering in the wilderness was a test of their necessary confidence in God. When they lost this confidence, complained, and longed to return to slavery in Egypt, in which they did not have to worry about food and drink, God became angry with them. From the third century, hermits and others began to wander in the Scythian desert in Egypt in search of a life in God. Some did so on their own, others in groups, which became the forerunner of the Christian monastic orders. Although some monasteries were built in the desert, many were built in forests and on mountains, far from the noise and bustle of urban life. The ideal for monks and nuns was to dedicate their lives entirely to monastic life. At the same time, monasteries were also places where others could seek refuge for periods in their lives, both to remove themselves from the distractions of city life and to approach a spiritual dimension, preferably under the guidance of some of the permanent residents.
In early China Taoism especially was oriented towards the silence of nature, often in protest against Confucianism’s social duties and seemingly meaningless rituals, which bound people in empty forms instead of drawing out their life force. According to one story, the Taoist Zhuangzi was sitting fishing when he was told that the king would leave the kingdom to him. He calmly continued his fishing and showed no interest in becoming confined by the social rituals that belonged to the king’s role, and which would prevent him from living his natural life. He had heard, he said, that the king had a sacred turtle that had been dead for three thousand years and was ritually wrapped in a box in the king’s ancestral temple. “What would be better for this turtle,” asks Zhuangzi, “that its bones be honoured while it is itself dead, or to live and pull its tail after itself in the mud?” Then he sends the king’s envoys back and says, “I will pull my tail after me in the mud.” He wants to live a natural life, not a life in which he is bound up in the duties and rituals of the king’s castle, as a Confucian would probably encourage him to do. Nevertheless, the real Confucius himself was preoccupied with nature and its silence, as the following quotation shows:
The wise man loves water, while the benevolent one loves mountains. The sage is in motion, while the benevolent is silent.
Why Confucius believed this is unclear from the context, but benevolence was his highest ideal, so it is clear that he appreciated the silence and tranquillity of nature.
For many Chinese, the silence of nature was a place to seek refuge in periods of personal or social unrest. This was the case for the “seven sages of the bamboo forest”, who wrote poetry, drank wine, and cultivated nature and spontaneity, but also did their best to attain high office in the unstable states that arose after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. This was also the case for the poet Tao Yuanming (365? –427), who is known for having chosen a farmer’s life and for writing poems about how “the bird in the cage longs for the forest it comes from, and the fish in the pool want to return to their original pond”, while he also never abandoned his ambition to return to the life of an official. Many centuries later some of the same contemplative preoccupation with quiet nature found expression in Chinese painting, where rugged mountains are often shrouded in mist and haze, and people are so small they are barely noticeable.
In ancient India, a similar orientation began more than half a millennium before the Common Era, even before Buddhism and Jainism came into being. Hinduism traditionally divides life into four stages: the student; the head of the family; the person who has withdrawn; and the spiritual seeker. The last two stages take place in the forest. You “retreat to the forest” to reflect on life when you have your first grandchild and can leave all responsibility to the next generation and relinquish all social duties. The last stage consists of a more purely meditative and contemplative orientation in which one devotes one’s life to spiritual liberation, either alone as a hermit or in fellowship with others – for example, in an ashram that is typically far from the city, in the woods or in the mountains, as was once the case in the spiritual city of Rishikesh at the foot of the Himalayas. Although this is the last stage of life, which is often stated to be at approximately the age of seventy, you can enter this stage at any time in life if you have the right motivation.
The absence of noise and din is not the same as total silence or the absence of all sensory stimuli in sensory deprivation. The meditation periods, during which one typically remains in a room (or more traditionally, in a cave) without contact with the outside world and without sensory stimuli such as sound, light, or smell, alternate with more extrovert activity. It is instead a matter of adjusting to the rhythms and sensory impressions of nature, whether they take place out there, or inside the body and mind.
Absence of language and speech
Another form of external silence may consist of the absence of linguistic communication. This also has an undoubted value, and again we can regard the two daily half hours that regular meditators spend in Acem Meditation as an example. With your eyes closed in a room by yourself, you are not only shielded from noise and disturbances from the outside but from linguistic meaning structures that shape our ways of thinking on a daily basis. It is telling that sounds with meaning and structure, such as overhearing a conversation in the next room or someone practicing on a piano upstairs, often disturb meditation far more than sounds without meaning, such as the noise of traffic or footsteps, not to mention the sound of the wind in the trees or the rain on the roof. Certainly, the absence of linguistic communication can enable us to let go of the need to talk about mundane everyday things which keep us stuck at the surface level of life, and we can thereby more easily approach deeper layers of the mind.
In Acem it is essential that the meditation object, whether it is a meditation sound (which is what one uses in Acem Meditation) or one is meditating on the body, one’s breathing, or an image has no linguistic, symbolic, or religious meaning. This neutrality gives the mind the freedom to move in unforeseen directions. If the object of meditation had any meaning, as is the case in many forms of religious meditation (scriptures, names of gods, prayers, etc.), the movements of the mind would become far more predetermined.
However, beyond the meditation technique itself what distinguishes Acem is an extensive use of dialogue and linguistic communication to facilitate the meditation process. Long meditations should always be followed by guidance, in which the individual is encouraged to talk about her or his meditation, be it technical challenges or aspects of the thoughts, feelings, and images that spontaneously appeared in the mind during the meditation period, which enables one to reflect on life in a slightly new way. In deepening retreats time is also set aside for a “walk-and-talk”, in which meditators share experiences and reflections with each other while getting some daily exercise.
This is in marked contrast with many meditative and contemplative traditions. Some Catholic monastic orders require monks and nuns to promise to live partly or entirely in silence. Some orders develop a kind of sign language that helps them communicate about the many practical challenges of everyday life, and some are “free” from the vow of silence once a week, but in general, the lack of conversation is intended to provide more space for God. The same applies to many Catholics living ordinary lives, but who sometimes attend retreats for shorter periods. Twenty years ago we encountered one such person when we held an Acem retreat at a retreat site in Massachusetts. A young Catholic had been lodging for a period of silent retreat. He smiled when he saw us and probably wanted to talk. Such short or permanent promises of silence are also part of many other traditions, both in the Eastern Church and in various Indian and Chinese movements. In Sanskrit the old word for a sage or spiritual teacher, muni, is related to the word mauna, which means quiet, and the idea was often that such people refrained from speaking, because the wisdom they possessed was beyond words and language. The Buddha himself is called Shakya-muni, a muni of the Shakya clan, and in some versions of the story, he first hesitated to convey his new teachings, because he did not think people would understand. In a popular Zen story, the Buddha gives a wordless sermon to his disciples, in which he does nothing but hold up a white flower. No one understands the point except the disciple Mahakashyapa, who smiles and immediately achieves enlightenment. Modern nine- or ten-day vipassana retreats also often require complete silence from the participants, perhaps with the exception of shorter conversations with the teacher.
Part of the point of this silence is to stimulate the individual to let go of the dependence that lies in our everyday tendency to want to engage in superficial conversation, and instead to delve more deeply into the meditative or contemplative process. In a Christian context, one can think of it like this: if you cannot talk to others, you can talk to God. Deepening retreats in Acem reflect this approach to a limited extent, as most participants refrain from talking to each other in the morning – no communication, no eye contact, no disturbances. It may at first seem strange that people you know quite well will not so much as look up when you meet them on the morning walk. Still, you quickly get used to it, and it helps to preserve some of the tranquillity of the dawn and bring it into the meditation hours.
However, after meditation discussion is a very central and indispensable part of Acem’s approach. While meditation brings material from the unconscious to the latent consciousness, the conversations in process groups and walk-and-talk help bring things from latent consciousness to manifest consciousness. For meditation and deepening are more than mere silence. They also actualize our inner brakes and our resistance to letting go of ourselves and sinking into the silence – or our tendency to strive so eagerly to achieve the goal that we are left on the outside. All this can come in the form of intense dreams at night or as judgemental meta-thoughts during meditation. Painful self-images can slip into the awareness as fragments, often disguised as anger at the uncomfortable chair in which you are sitting (in which you usually feel quite comfortable), as a pain in the back (which disappears once you open your eyes and stop meditating), or as a flow of tears (the feelings behind which you do not yet know). In these phases, we often tend to have tunnel vision, to become mired in painful self-images, so the challenge lies in opening the field of awareness and taking in a larger part of oneself. Putting things into words in the process groups later is perhaps what contributes most to bringing the process forward.
Various meditative traditions have also encountered these counterforces, but have often spoken of them in completely different ways: as the dark night of the soul; as trials; or as demons doing their best to pull one away from the process. The concept of actualization, and of how meditation reflects our life story and personality, is peculiar to Acem, which has developed an entire teaching method on this basis.
Absence of thoughts
If we now move to the inner plane, it is commonly held that the silence of meditation consists of emptying the mind of thoughts – what one might call a psychological silence. Indeed, many traditions do all they can to reduce all the thoughts that come and go during meditation.
The Desert Father Evagrius (345–399), for example, wrote voluminous tracts on how to counteract sinful thoughts during contemplative prayer. He saw such thoughts as demonic and even had a theory about how a demon, without being noticed, could touch a specific area of the brain to create an inner light that made one imagine one was close to God when in reality one was in the hands of the demon. In tracts that are at least as voluminous the Chinese Buddhist monk Zhiyi (538–597) described thoughts in meditation as the result of attacks by devils and demons. Both Evagrius and Zhiyi drew their ideas from even more authoritative sources: the devil’s futile attempt to tempt Jesus in the desert; and the chief demon Mara’s equally unsuccessful attempt to lead the Buddha away from the path to enlightenment. To this day it is common among Buddhists to assume that one’s Buddha nature only appears when one manages to bring the mind to a state of silence. This has also become part of the modern mindfulness discourse. It is often claimed that mindfulness practices reduce mind wandering, and this claim is supported with reference to scientific studies of the activity in the brain’s default mode network. Many forms of Indian meditation are also based on active concentration on the object of meditation and attempts to exclude all spontaneous thoughts. The Yoga Sutra’s well-known dictum that yoga consists of stilling the movements of the mind has in parts of the tradition been interpreted as advising that one must actively suppress any thoughts that arise.
Yet many traditions are equivocal in their message. It can seem contradictory to work so hard to keep thoughts at a distance, while emphasizing that the effortless performance of the meditation method will lead to spontaneous breakthroughs and changes. Some, like the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713) in Chinese Zen Buddhism, took the plunge and stated bluntly that “I have no technique for removing the myriad of thoughts.” Others, like the Buddhist monk Hanshan Deqing (1546–1623), said on the one hand that chasing away thoughts was like using one wildcat to chase away other wildcats, but on the other spoke in favour of counteracting thoughts by pushing the meditation object forward in one’s awareness with all one’s might, as if pushing a heavy cart uphill. The Christian mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing was less afraid of spontaneous thoughts than Evagrius, but still considered it a sin to hold on to thoughts. In the yoga tradition one also finds voices that do not want to actively suppress the thoughts at all, but assume that they will spontaneously calm down after prolonged practice.
Acem’s approach is less ambiguous. Nondirective meditation allows thoughts to come and go as they please. Anyone who has read the book The Power of the Wandering Mind knows this and understands the value of giving full freedom to the mind. This provides relaxation and energy, creativity and renewal, self-understanding and empathy, and it is a prerequisite for processing the conscious and unconscious counterforces in the mind that regular meditation and long meditations actualize. The freedom and spontaneity one gives the mind here are the same freedom and spontaneity that are needed to reach an intuitive opening to a timeless basic impulse in life. For in Acem Meditation there may also be periods in which thoughts calm down by themselves, partly because the hustle and bustle of everyday life disappears, and partly because the inner grind spontaneously calms down periodically, and some doors open in the mind. These may be fine moments or periods, although the absence of thoughts is not an end in itself in such meditation.
However, there is another form of inner silence that is not primarily characterized by the absence of anything, but by a presence. We may call it intuitive silence. In the midst of the thoughts that may come and go, we can approach a quiet dimension in consciousness or in existence. Subjectively, it can be experienced as a quality of meditation, but also of the community around meditation, or even of places where a great deal of meditation has been practiced. Many experiences in nature can strike some of the same chords in us and create a kind of resonance similar to what meditation can produce. This is especially true high up in the mountains, where the thin air, the broad panorama, and the distance to civilization can create a subjective feeling of lightness despite physical exertion, an overview in the midst of fog and mist, and calm in the midst of strong gusts.
The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (3rd century BCE) put it this way:
How can people know the Way? Through the mind. And how does the mind know it? Through openness, unity and silence. The mind is always filled, but also has what we call openness. The mind is always divided, but also has what we call unity. The mind is always in motion, but also has what we call silence.
Despite his fear of demonic thoughts, the Desert Father Evagrius would agree: the mind never completely calms down, it is always in motion, but the silence to be sought lies in another dimension, and can be present despite any activity or disorder. This dimension of silence presupposes neither the absence of sound nor the absence of thoughts but can be present in the eye of the storm or the echo of a thunderclap. It is on the border of the non-phenomenal, because it is not primarily captured by the intellect, the emotions, or even our physical senses. To grasp this aspect of existence, we must develop an ability to perceive things intuitively rather than through the senses, emotions, or intellect.
The word intuition is used differently here than in ordinary everyday speech and in philosophical terminology. Both in everyday speech and among philosophers, intuition often refers to an immediate knowledge that cannot be explained on the basis of thought, feeling, or perception. I know that I know, but I do not know how I know. The meditative form of intuition has something of the same immediacy to it, but points less to a truth that can be expressed in words than to aspects of life that will never achieve the same certainty. “You have to sense it,” as The Button Moulder says to Peer Gynt in Ibsen’s famous play.
There are many forms of meditation. In religious forms, one often meditates on a specific content like a scripture, a prayer, or a dogma. Yet even here the meditation does not stop at the level of intellectual understanding. According to the Desert Fathers, you must “ruminate” on the content on which you are meditating until it becomes increasingly part of you. The content then also acquires an emotional dimension, and through visualization and imagination can also be linked to the senses. In addition, the meditation can begin to point in the direction of a dimension beyond thought, feeling, and sensation: the intuitive. This is when meditation comes to life.
Something similar applies to meditation on a particular emotion such as love. At the most superficial level this may be a form of self-suggestion in which you almost persuade yourself to feel love for people for whom you basically have little sympathy. However, to the extent that such meditation is connected with a more intuitive dimension, it no longer becomes merely a form of mood making but a way of finding in one’s own consciousness a deeper empathy with the whole of existence, possibly including all humans, animals, plants, and things.
Acem Meditation is not based on thought or feeling, but on the perception of a sound. When one learns the method, one first repeats the sound aloud with the speech organs and hears it with one’s ears, but when one later meditates, this physical sensation becomes an inner sensory impression. You “hear” the sound in the same way as you hear a song inside you. Gradually, this form of mental sensation can become increasingly subtle, not least if one also practices long meditations on retreats. The connection with the speech organs, ears, and bodily rhythms such as breathing and heartbeats may become less and less prominent. One listens with the mind, not with the ear, and with parts of the mind that are increasingly less connected with the body and physical reality. This opens the perception of another aspect of consciousness and existence in general. The parts of the mind that have intuition as their form of understanding are gradually brought to life.
This awakening can strengthen the sensitivity to more subtle psychological and emotional impulses, both in oneself and others. The ability for introspection and empathy increases. First and foremost, however, the sensitivity to the silence and light that can characterize consciousness when you approach something at its core is strengthened. This intuitive opening can take place in meditation with closed eyes, but can also live as a sounding board for community and conversation with others. It can help to open and process our basic structures for experience and action, and can ultimately affect every aspect of life, our “being in the world” – if we allow it to shape us.
Translated by Eirik Jensen
Language editor: Rupert Moreton