What is ‘Silence for Beginners’?

Why a course in silence?

Silence is an awesome space within all of us. The absence of sound waves from the outside merely helps us to discover the quiet depths within us. Silence is a space where there is clarity about who we are and the life that pulses through all that is.

In my experience, there is a huge desire for silence among contemporary people. That desire is largely unmet. Psychology and lifestyle programmes may hardly address the symptoms of this unquenched desire. The churches have not yet fully recovered their great heritage in mystic silence and tend to get stuck in circular ways of intellectual reflection and imaginative or scriptural meditation. If those methods fail them, people are mostly left alone. Some feel inadequate with their strange desire for more when there is nothing else on offer. Shouldn’t the Bible and the teaching on Sundays be enough? Am I a bad Christian?

Few are lucky and discover that there are spaces for silence and that they are not alone in their longing for solitude. However, the instruction remains minimalist and often leaves people frustrated after a very short time. Why is there such a chaos of distractions in my mind? Why do I have body pains? How am I supposed to feel? How am I meant to make sense of just sitting idly and thinking of nothing in particular? The significant transformation of our interior life gets stuck if people only ever devote a few minutes to just being in silence. That is not enough.

Many books on silence and contemplative prayer are rather poetic or philosophical and, though they are undoubtedly beautiful, too far away from the real problem of trying to sit still for more than 5 minutes. Some people have received inner silence as a sudden grace or as the fruit of a life of suffering and dedication. This course is for those who have not. Everyone can discover inner silence if they practice with dedication and commitment. The steps I will teach in ‘Silence for Beginners’ are in my opinion the best teaching path for those setting out on the Contemplative Way. Effects tend to unfold quickly and once learned the tools can be utilised throughout your entire life independently of any teacher or group.

Is the course Christian?

It is, and it is not. I am a committed and active Christian who loves the Church. The desire that made me meditate is what I would call a desire for God. I have a sincere passion for seeing the beautiful effects of silence flourish among the clergy and the laypeople. However, the experience of silence is universal and for everyone. When I fully experienced the vastness of love and life that flows within I understood that there are no religious limitations to it. Whoever seeks with true surrender, love and dedication will find in great abundance. I have learned to appreciate that for many the language and structure of the Western Churches have become a hindrance rather than a help. I have experienced the absence of real dedication in significant parts of my beloved Church while finding it in a small Zen group in a North London basement. Therefore this course is for everyone. If you are in doubts, that is wonderful! If you are firm in faith, that is great! If you like Buddhism, go ahead! Just sit down and let the truth happen to you. The only thing that matters to me: We won’t discuss theology or engage in intellectual, philosophical discussion. The course leads on a way of experience. For every hour you spend reading a book on silence you should spend two hours in silent sitting. Thinking and reflecting have their place. However, the little time we dedicate to silence is not the right place.

What are the steps?

My aim is to teach three things: Silent sitting meditation, the Jesus Prayer in everyday life and contemplative attitudes.

Silent sitting: This is the core of the course. Silent sitting is the practice of remaining in an alert posture while keeping the mind stable in a loving attention. My experience shows that greater inner silence starts to set in after about 20 minutes followed by an encounter with deeper layers of ourselves for the time we add onto it. The great shift can take place if people give an hour to silent sitting every day. Half an hour is a minimum. The simple rule is: The more you do it, the better it goes. If you feel like devoting two hours on a day off, then do it. It will be rewarding.

Developing the practice of silent sitting is a great challenge, though. Many thoughts and distractions seem to make remaining in meditation impossible. Not only the mind but the body might rebel, too. It will be crucial to develop the right attitude towards these seemingly difficult mental and physical events: Gentle acceptance. All that is can be there. I can be here just as I am. We notice distractions and gently bring our attention back. To where? Simple, loving attention, which is the goal of silent sitting, is too vague a concept at the beginning. We will start with some anchors to keep you firm in the tempest of your mind. These anchors are the breath, your hands and the Name.

The breath flows independently of our active will; it is a force of life within us. We will learn how to feel and appreciate the movement of breath in us and go back to it as an anchor. For most people, this is already a powerful way to meditate.

However, if you are an anxious control-obsessed type, like me, there is a temptation to control the breath. The tampering with the natural flow of breath may lead to exhaustion, and it proves not to be enough as an anchor.

The hands are spaces of the presence of an intense energy flowing through our bodies. We will learn to perceive this energy and utilise it as an incorruptible anchor with which you cannot tamper. In the words of the Jesuit who taught me: “When you sense the power in your hands, you are always in the presence.” This anchor is very useful and rarely taught. However, it might take some people a while to perceive this subtle sensation. Some might be well advised to practice with this exercise for two or three weeks. It will be rewarding.

The Name is the listening to the interior sound of the Name of Jesus. It is a means of constantly directing our attention to what is divine and good in us. Experience shows that this is only possible if some inner silence has already taken hold. We will move towards it in the second half of the course. The Name is the basis of the practice of the ancient Jesus Prayer, one of the most potent practices of Christian spirituality. If you feel that you cannot invoke the Name of Jesus we will find a suitable alternative for you.

The Jesus Prayer

Silent sitting is immensely valuable. It is a safe space in which many good attitudes can be developed and awesome experiences made. It is a source from which a well-spring of quiet strength can flow into our everyday life. Additionally, I will encourage you to practice in every available moment of your life with your breath and your hands. Whether you will be standing in a queue or travelling on a bus, you can pray.  Saying the Name of Jesus or using a longer phrase like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ will be a way to meditate anywhere at any time and therefore maintain vital interior silence in whatever you do. The constant repetition of the phrase or word will take root in your depths. Committed practitioners find themselves saying it involuntarily and automatically and even in their dreams. In my experience, it works well if you do it in combination with the body-centred anchors of the breath and the hands. It also significantly deepens the experiences of silent sitting. I will teach you how to sing or hum the Name internally as well.  Singing or humming takes less effort than just saying the Name inwardly. It is at the same time more grounded and connected to your body. London is a noisy place and neither on the tube nor in the supermarket people will recognise your humming, I do it all the time. Incessant meditation and prayer are possible.

Contemplative attitudes

Silence is not merely a practice. It is a way of life. Soon the practice of silence sitting and incessant praying in everyday life will have effects. Our intentions will be cleared and a greater desire for silence will take root. As we descend into our depths challenging things might emerge, old wounds that wait to be healed with patience in the accepting and loving place that silence is. Encountering dark sides of ours might frighten and challenge us. A willingness to suffer whatever life gives us to be ours is a contemplative value.

People will encounter that their relationships with themselves, other people and God are exactly one. We treat ourselves and God as we treat other people. All else is deceiving ourselves. Loving attention and acceptance are contemplative values.

Those seeking silence will soon get into places where they realise that they cannot control what is happening. Though this sounded nice in theory, it can be terrifying in practice. Only in giving up our will to control and letting the silence within us unfold freely we will break free from struggling. Surrender is a fundamental contemplative value.

Over the weeks I will address the challenges and the great joys that dedication to a practice of silence may bring. You will be able to ask questions and I will provide help and resources that make it possible to deal with resistances and crises gently and adequately.
Throughout the course, I will be happy to have one-to-one conversations with each participant who attends the sessions of the course and does the exercises.

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