At some point in every life, hardship threatens. For some of us it starts in childhood: we suffer the death of a parent, unspeakable trauma, or grinding neglect. Others feel protected until adulthood or even middle life, but sooner or later sterner fates intrude. Perhaps a child gets sick, or a marriage ends, or a career fails. Maybe illness strikes and the end of life comes into view.
When fear, loss, or setbacks shatter peace, we seek answers. We turn to friends and relatives for support. Some of us consult mental health professionals. Some of us enter houses of worship or meditation.
Finding relief proves difficult. All too often, life delivers new hardships even as we scramble to cope with the old ones. We may begin to question whether life offers enough enrichment to make its agonies worthwhile.
These dark times are fertile. They portend the foundational collapse that allows wisdom to arise organically. We feel desperate to find answers, but answers aren’t what we need, and as we surrender to this truth we begin to find our way.
What we need is to break free from seeking, from efforts to understand, from endless analysis. What we need is to quell the mind’s struggle to understand, to abandon its dream of figuring out how to evade the inevitable pains of existence.
What we need is silence.
The first layer of silence is a respite from mental toil. We enjoy a break from the work of churning facts, memories, and predictions. The introductory gift of learning to quiet the mind’s chatter is a chance to rest. In spacious moments of stillness, we begin to appreciate how struggling to solve life never leads to solutions, only to confusion and exhaustion. Relief comes with suspending, even for a moment, all our strenuous, futile striving.
The second layer of silence is the recognition that verbal reasoning is only a shadow of life, not life itself. Before we get to this stage, we buy into the stories we tell ourselves. For instance if we think, “I can’t continue in the face of such pain,” we believe our mind’s dire prediction and feel paralyzed. But as we learn to detach from inner dialogue, we begin to see that strings of words are interpretations that depend on our state of mind. We discover that negative thoughts are products of fatigue and pain; they aren’t unchanging truths. Instead of thinking about life, we start to experience it in the moment. Nearly always, life as it is feels far less distressing than life as we think it is.
The third layer of silence is beyond description. This essay was inspired by a Frederick Buechner quote my aunt sent me. It comes as close as words can to offering a taste of that sweetest inner quiet:
I have been conscious but not conscious of anything, not even of myself. I have been surrounded by the whiteness of snow. I have heard a stillness that encloses all sounds stilled the way whiteness encloses all colors stilled, the way wordlessness encloses all words stilled.
Dampening the mind’s chatter yields benefits at every stage. Early on, we are granted rest. A little later, we gain insight into the hollowness of words. Ultimately, we locate what we were hoping for all along: a solid foundation for peace of mind.