By Robert Poczik
I was driving along Genesee Street the other day and read a sign in front of the Bowmansville Methodist Church that said “Silent and Listen Use the Same Letters.”
I had to take a minute to visualize the two words before I realized that it was true. Then I reached for a scrap of paper and a pen to write it down before I forgot it. And I have thought about it ever since.
What, I asked myself, is the relationship between silence and listening? If you think about it, most of the time when we are silent and listening, it’s to someone or something outside ourselves. It could be someone who is conversing with us, a group sitting around a table, a teacher, a presenter, scripture readings and preaching in a church, synagogue or mosque, television, radio, CDs or a podcast.
So what do we do when there is no external input, when there is nobody there but ourselves? That’s when our own minds start running. If you observe your thoughts – sort of turn up the volume – I think you’ll find that it’s a constant stream, an internal conversation or monologue. In meditation, it is called our “monkey mind,” where thoughts scamper around like a pack of monkeys.
So can we be silent and not listen to anything, not even our own thoughts – perhaps especially not our own thoughts? It would certainly require effort, discipline and practice.
That’s where meditation comes in. I belong to a meditation group that meets weekly for about an hour and a half. In our humble and simple way, the seven of us gather to share ourselves, our experiences and our ideas, and then quietly meditate together for 30 to 40 minutes. It is a wonderfully peaceful, shared experience.
We have found, however, that it is very difficult for us to meditate in complete silence. So we use CDs that offer guided meditation, where a soft-spoken speaker guides us.
To move beyond that into meditating in complete silence, we need to enter the realm of meditation as contemplation. This is a spiritual realm. In a simple and yet profound way, we are seeking to grasp God with an awareness that doesn’t set any limitations or preconceptions. Silence, openness and emptiness help us to move beyond language and our own thoughts to listen for God. Of course that is difficult and people spend years in silence and contemplation. But how worthwhile to engage in contemplation that Thomas Merton says is “the highest expression of man’s intellectual life and spiritual life … a spiritual wonder … spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.”
To better understand and to have some direct experience of contemplative prayer, I have traveled to the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard on five occasions for two-day silent retreats. The natural setting, the silence observed, and joining the monks while they sing the psalms quiet and harmonize the mind. On one of my visits I signed up for a half hour of spiritual direction, and was fortunate to spend that time with John Eudes Bamberger, wise priest-monk-abbot who is both a physician and a psychiatrist.
I told him that I was searching for my “spiritual path.” He wisely counseled me that I was looking somewhere outside myself, when the path lay within me. I’m not really sure what that means, but intuitively I sense that he is right. The path within lies somewhere beyond and beneath my thoughts. I don’t know if I will ever get there, but I am willing to keep trying to be silent and listen.
Robert Poczik, of Williamsville, quiets his mind with guided meditation.