By Sue Prescott
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Prescott, Sue."The Art of Simply Being." Quest 94.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2006):175-178.
The essence of the great spiritual teachings is the same—that of allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the wondrous bliss of simply being. What does this mean? How can we achieve it?
The teachings say to just let go and that we don't need to exert ourselves. As many of us know it takes little effort to physically release something. If someone has a book tucked under their arm, they only need to relax their muscles and it drops to the floor. It happens in an instant. Similarly, when there is no effort, we can be quiet. In the Bible, just letting go is described in Psalms 46:10 as,"Be still, and know that I am God." Peace comes without a struggle. It does not take any practice. We just need to allow ourselves to be absorbed into it, and become it. There is no process to go through because we are already there. We do not have to do anything. After all, we are human beings, not human doings. The quiet comes from within. There is a stillness that impacts us from the depth of the self. It is a silence that takes our breath away and it is indescribable.
A Zen saying speaks of the silence in this way,"Knock on the sky and listen to the sound!" This thought astonishes and shocks the mind with its incongruity. It defies logic and temporarily overwhelms our normal, everyday thinking. Our minds take a back seat which frees us to touch something deeper. Another question from Zen gives the same result,"What is it that makes you answer when you are called?"
This is the power of koans. A well-known example is"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Because this question can't be answered, pondering it deeply supersedes the mind and renders it ineffective. When the mind is still, we can touch the source of our own nature. A koan opens the pathway to the Self."What is your original face which you had before your parents gave birth to you?"
Getting in touch with this source and the silence that permeates it is not what we normally do. Most of the time, we are wrapped up in our thoughts. Our thinking everyday mind is very useful to us. It takes care of our needs, organizes our lives, and remembers what we need to do. But it is also the thief of peace. Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), the German theologian and preacher, illustrates this when he writes"God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk" (Fox 15). The quiet mind brings us back home to the self.
In order to access the stillness of our being, the mind needs to be held in a state of abeyance or inactivity—a quality referred to as"no-mind." The Chinese call this wei wu wei, or"doing not doing." This is actively doing nothing and remaining quiet. It is like the calm of a windless lake—a metaphor frequently used to symbolize the tranquility of a silent mind.
When the mind is quiet, we have a sense of emptiness and nothingness. This is the void or the abyss of the self. Several metaphors from Lao-Tzu express the importance of the empty space. He said that spokes join together in a wheel, but the center hole is what makes it spin. Straw can be woven together to form a basket, but the emptiness inside is what we use to carry things. Wood makes the walls to form a house, but the empty space inside is where we live. (Mitchell 11)
Whatever the mind conceives as peace is not peace. Peace is beyond the mind. Philippians 4:7 refers to it as the"peace which passeth all understanding." When we are not aware of the silence, it is concealed by the"I" thought. This is the thought generated by anything we pursue in our personal lives. It will take us wherever our minds go. If we are washing the dishes, but thinking about going to a movie, we will be at the movies, not in the silence of the dishes, the water, or soap on our hands. The mind will go wherever it thinks we will be happy. That is its nature.
To override the mind, the great Indian sages, Sri Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi, tell us to consider where the"I" thought comes from. They ask,"What is the source of the 'I' or the 'I am?'" If we ponder this question deeply, we reach a point where all thought stops. There is nothing but a vast abyss of quiet. There is no source that our minds can conceive. The"I" disappears and we dissolve into the peace of the self. This process of self-inquiry can be done anytime as a backdrop to the activities in our lives.
We may have a similar feeling when we have accomplished something. There is an uplifting sensation and a feeling of happiness from a job well done. We may experience the same feeling when we find an item we have been shopping for. This happens because for a short period of time, the mind is steady and untroubled due to its momentary satisfaction. The mind stops and allows the peace of the self to come through. The bliss is not from the project or the object we have bought. It is from the self.
One method of coming into touch with the self is through the process of witnessing. Thoughts arise spontaneously. The mind is perpetually active. Its nature is continuous like the waves coming onto the shore or the cars going by on the freeway. One thought stays only for an instant and another one is waiting behind it. Witnessing is simply stepping back and observing ourselves. We watch our thoughts and feel our feelings. We witness ourselves moving from place to place. We become aware of our entire situation.
A simple way to get in touch with the witness is to sit quietly, while being aware of how we are sitting, where our arms are, and how we are positioned in the chair. We can observe how we are breathing and whether we are tense or relaxed. When we widen our awareness, and take in the entire room, the witness is the part of us that is simply observing. A passage in the Upanishads, one of the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism, describes the witness:"Two birds, united always and known by the same name, closely cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruits; the other looks on without eating" (Nikhilananda 134). The bird that eats the fruits of life is the personal, everyday self. It experiences the highs and lows of the emotions and the mind. The other bird, who looks on without eating, is the witness. It is the part of ourselves that watches what we do from the level of our awareness. It does not think—it is the silent watcher of all we do, think, or feel.
Witnessing allows us to stay detached from the affairs of our lives. If events happen that bring sadness and grief, the witness helps ease their sting. It allows us to rise above the plane where emotions are experienced, so that we can be influenced by the serenity of the self. It gives us perspective, which allows the wisdom of our higher minds to filter through. Witnessing can be done anytime—while walking, talking, thinking, or listening. The more we do it, the more it becomes a part of our nature.
The experience of the witness is soundless. We hear sounds in our environment, but the awareness itself is silent. Getting in touch with the witness is a form of meditation and a doorway to the self. The Bible describes this process in Isaiah 26:3,"Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in Thee." The reference is to God, but it is the same process of witnessing, that raising of our awareness so we can remember to be quiet. The Koran offers a similar teaching in verse 13:28:"Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest." This rest is the peace of the self.
In the Sufi tradition there is a story that also teaches about the detachment of the witness. It tells of a man being chased off a cliff by a tiger. As the man falls, he manages to grab hold of a branch. Six feet above him is the snarling tiger. One hundred feet below are the jagged rocks at the ocean's edge. To the man's horror, the branch he is holding is being chewed away at by two rats, one black and one white. Feeling hopeless, the man cries,"Lord, save me!" and the Lord answers,"I will, but first let go of the branch!"
By letting go of the branch, we give up the attachments we have in our lives—our desires and hopes—to have life go a certain way. The teachings say it is okay to want things, but that we should have aloofness and objectivity about how life proceeds. Normally, we deal with the contrasting qualities of happiness and sadness that are represented by the black and white rats in the story. Life may go along fine for awhile, but then a problem upraises, causing our emotions to range from contentment and peace to stress, frustration, or fear.
As long as the polarities, represented by the black and white rats, prevent us from fully experiencing life, we are outside the realm of peace. Mabel Collins in Light on the Path advises us not to pick any flowers in the garden of life, so the"pollen that stains" (the attachments) do not keep us from realizing peace. It is the witness that helps us keep track of all of this so that we can carefully choose our desires and review the contents of our thoughts.
The Gospel of Philip addresses the benefit of rising above the everyday world of changeable emotions and thoughts:"Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this, neither are the good good, nor the evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death. For this reason, each will dissolve into its original nature. But those who are exalted above the world are indissoluble, eternal" (Barnstone 88).
This passage speaks about transcending the everyday world of the personal self by not identifying ourselves with it. It means viewing ourselves as more than just our personalities, and realizing that each of us is a being, using the body and mind as vehicles, to learn as we experience life. We can forgive ourselves for our mistakes, and recognize that anything we accomplish is by way of the self. To be exalted above this world is to identify with the spiritual, higher self while still going through our daily actions.
In Light on the Path, Mabel Collins writes of the flower that"blooms in the silence that follows the storm." The storm is the stressful events of our lives. Outbursts of anger and confusion arise again and again. They are like the recurring storms of nature. The blooming of the flower is when we first become aware of our true being. We pause in the wonder of it. Then we experience the silence. With it comes the realization of bliss. Mabel Collins compares the silence to the calm that comes in a tropical country after a heavy rain. The calm soothes the harassed spirit and gives it strength to go through the next storm. It brings confidence, knowledge, and certainty. At a deeper level, there is a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Light on the Path instructs us to"Listen only to the voice which is soundless." This refers to the silence of our inner, spiritual self. H. P. Blavatsky in The Voice of the Silence tells us that"There is but one road to the Path; at its very end alone the 'Voice of the Silence' can be heard."
Blavatsky continues, but changes the metaphor to the climbing of a ladder. She says,"The ladder by which the candidate ascends is formed of rungs of suffering and pain; these can be silenced only by the voice of virtue." The suffering and pain on the ladder are like the storms in Mabel Collins' Light on the Path. Life's struggles bring emotional turmoil. The Voice of the Silence informs us that to ascend the ladder, and put an end to the pain, we must lead a life of virtue. Virtuous living helps release the grip of personal desires and attachments, so we are one step closer to the true self. (Of course, this is not an easy task, hence the metaphor of climbing a ladder.)
Virtuous living means building up our positive qualities such as compassion, kindness, perseverance, and responsibility. It means perfecting our nature and doing good things. Suffering and pain are silenced because the foundation for virtue is selflessness. When we are focused on someone else, our own problems become insignificant. As we develop virtues within, we lessen our suffering because virtues are other-oriented rather than"me-oriented." When we are concerned about others, our attachment for how things turn out lessens.
Virtues extend help and support to others, in sympathy and thoughtfulness. They keep us focused on doing our best, in trustworthiness and responsibility. They make it so people can rely on us, and insure we are not a burden to others. Virtuous living brings us closer to the self, because we are living as one with the unity of all life. The Voice of the Silence lists the virtues (paramitas) we are encouraged to develop, such as"charity and love immortal" (dana);"harmony in word and act" (shila); and"patience sweet, that nought can ruffle" (kashanti).
The Buddha also taught the value of developing virtue in his Noble Eightfold Path. He explained the process of attachment and suffering in his Four Noble Truths. He said that suffering exists in the world, and there is a cause for that suffering. He went on to say that the cause is attachment, and the cure is following the Noble Eightfold Path in which: Right View (we can't do anything right unless we see things with the right perspective); Right Intention (having seen things rightly, we must resolve to do right); and Right Speech (speaking or thinking properly precedes action) are included in the Path.
Developing the virtues and living up to the standards of Buddha's Eightfold Path releases us from the clutches of our personalities. When we work on self-improvement, the mind is turned away from being preoccupied with our personal wants. Our wants melt, bringing us serenity and peace.
The same message that is imparted in The Voice of the Silence is exemplified in Native American teachings. Dr. Charles Eastman, known as Ohiyesa, of the Sioux Tribe, writes,"Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. The man who preserves his selfhood is forever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence . . . you ask him 'What is silence?' he will answer, 'It is the great mystery. The holy silence is His voice.' If you ask him about the fruits of silence, he will say, 'They are self control, true courage and endurance, patience, dignity and reverence. Silence is the cornerstone of character'" (Exley 4).
Like Mabel Collins in Light on the Path, Dr. Eastman talks about the storms of existence that we experience in life—the troubles that cause us anguish and stress. He speaks of the silence that brings about a balance in body, mind, and spirit—an equipoise that allows the influence of the spirit, or self, to enlighten our minds. This aids us so that we can look at ourselves objectively and see the qualities we need to develop. The fruits of the silence that Dr. Eastman refers to—the qualities of character and integrity—are the virtues taught by the Buddha and the paramitas.
The silence of the self can be experienced anytime. All we need to do is be still. Whether it is reached by seeking the source of the"I thought" or pondering the answer to a koan, the self is always there. It just gets buried by our thoughts and desires—a process that can be observed by the witness. With the help of the witness, we can replace the desire for worldly objects with the desire to be one with the self—a purpose above all others. We can elect a life of integrity and grow to be a living expression of the spiritual higher self—at peace in the bliss of simply being.
Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Other Bible. San Francisco: Harper, 1984.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Voice of the Silence. Chennai, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.
Collins, Mabel. Light on the Path. Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1911.
Dikshit, Sudhakar S., ed. I Am That—Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Durham, North Carolina: Acorn Press, 1982.
Exley, Helen, ed. In beauty may I walkâ€¦words of wisdom by Native Americans. New York: Exley Publications, 1997.
Fox, Matthew. Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company, Inc., 1982.
Godman, David. Be As You Are—The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Boston, MA: Arkana, 1985.
Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, a Division of Harper Collins, 1988.
Nikhilananda, Swami. Upanishads. Vol. II. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1952.
Poonja, H.W.L. The Truth Is. Prashanti de Jager, editor. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc. 2000
Sue Prescott, MSW, is a psychotherapist and frequent lecturer at the Seattle lodge and surrounding area. She is author of Realizing the Self Within—an overview of the concepts of spirituality that can be applied to relationships and self-improvement. She has been a member of the Theosophical Society for over twenty-five years.