SURRENDERING TO SILENCE:
A HEART-CENTRED PRACTICE
Vancouver School of Theology. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Theological Studies.
By Laura Madsen
Vancouver, British Columbia, March 2011
Rev. Jane Vennard and Rev. Donald Grayston
Thank you to Vancouver School of Theology and to Rev. Jane Vennard for providing the structure and discipline for this research.
Thank you to my husband and daughter who supported me while I wrestled with the practice of my emerging theology.
Thank you to the eight participants who had the courage to dedicate four weeks of their life to a daily exploration of Silence.
Laura Madsen March 2011
Vancouver School of Theology Vancouver, B.C.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- CHAPTER ONE – CONTEXT AND THEOLOGICAL RATIONALE
- CHAPTER TWO – RESEARCH DESIGN
- CHAPTER THREE – RESULTS REVIEW
- SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This study explores the efficacy of surrendering to Silence as a heart-centred practice within an urban setting. Designed as a two-stage process, it began with a weekend workshop, followed by three weeks of home-practice. The weekend workshop was designed to outline the challenges of Silence practice, and to assist in the navigation of its practice; the intention of the three-week practice was to articulate the participants’ personal experience with both. To achieve this not-so-modest task, eight participants gathered for a retreat weekend at Vancouver School of Theology in early June 2010. Five interrelated themes, called the “Silence Practice Kit,” were introduced throughout the weekend in the following order: Physical Response, Resistance and Suffering, Internal Observer, Surrender as Alignment, and Yearning and Devotion. The five themes were presented using dyad-exercises, journal writing, drawing, group discussion, visualization exercises, communing with nature, labyrinth walking, and chanting/singing psalms – all interspersed with periods of Silence. These activities were designed to reinforce Silence practice within the distractions of urban living in order to assist participants with their three- week practice: group discussions and exercises were intended to deepen their personal interpretations and/or understandings of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.
Following the theme-building workshop, participants were expected to have a daily morning meditation practice and an end-of-day reflection, with each activity followed by journal.1 In both cases, the “Silence Practice Kit” themes were intended to provide a reflective framework to focus their journal writing. In effect, the “Silence Practice Kit” themes serve as the backbone for the entire project: the context and theological rationale of chapter one; the weekend exercises and discussions (Workshop Outline of Appendix 4); the quantitative and qualitative research design (chapter two); and a reference source for the participants’ meditation and day- end journal writing (Appendix 8).
An urban practice of Silence is challenging because it is counter-cultural and counter- intuitive. If we want Silence, most of us “escape” to nature or a retreat centre because we do not think that it is possible to create space for Silence in the routines of our everyday life. Since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th-19th centuries, our cultural and personal identities have been increasingly shaped by market-driven economies. In our first world consumer culture, human existence has become increasingly centred around “filling ourselves up” – with entertainment, purchases, socializing, information, exercise, sexual liaisons, and so on. Our relationships, including ways of relating to the natural world, have been colonized by increasing consumer- driven demands. Eventually and unconsciously we internalize these needs to the point where they become a core belief-system through which we live our life. Over time, the constant seduction of externalized needs creates inappropriate social and spiritual values that reinforce a false understanding of who we are. This false self-understanding, in turn, lessens our availability for the open simplicity of sacred Silence.
This research project proposes that regular Silence practice, in an urban environment, can offer a possible antidote to these culturally-reinforced habits of self-identification. Thomas Keating refers to this culturally-reinforced false understanding of who we are simply as the “false self.” He describes why the false self develops and how it is culturally maintained:2
[The false self is] the self developed in our own likeness rather than in the likeness of God; the self-image developed to cope with the emotional trauma of early childhood. It seeks happiness in satisfying the instinctual needs of survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control, and bases its self-worth on cultural or group identification.3
Given the impact of this cultural context on our lives, the “Silence Practice Kit” is designed to loosen the compulsive habits of the false self. While awareness of these false-self habits is a personal practice, it would be incomplete to view them only as a personal problem, that is, as separate from cultural influences. After all, as Keating states, we seek validation of the false self, and its instinctual needs, within the dynamics of the surrounding culture. So where does one begin?
The short answer is that we begin with ourselves – or rather – our false self (most commonly). However, as Keating reminds us, the dropping of false-self identities is only the first half of the journey. The second half raises the question: if I’m not just my body and my emotions, then who am I?4 This research project suggests that some answers to this question lie within the theistic practice of Silence which understands Silence as a relational dynamic that can be grounded and expressed in and through our daily lives. The workshop and three weeks of practice were designed to increase conscious awareness of this frequently-feared, misunderstood, and largely-forgotten dimension of twenty-first century life. Attending to Silence was explored as an interior journey, and as with many journeys, it begins at the beginning. In other words, it can only begin from where we are and what we are experiencing: our psychology, our theology, our fears, our hopes, our bodies, our emotions, our busyness, and so on.
The most challenging obstacle we meet on the silent journey is our false-self habit of resistance to the spaciousness of Silence. However, with the other four themes of the “Silence Practice Kit,” particularly the Internal Observer practice, we begin to make space for changing our relationship to our resistance (and the suffering it causes). As Eckhart Tolle says, by observing or “watching the mechanics of the mind, you [can] step out of its resistance patterns.”5
Although the themes are discussed independently in chapter one, they dovetail with each other constantly within the actual practice and experience of Silence. This will be discussed more fully in the results review of chapter three, with direct “sample quotes” from participants’ journals (Appendix 7). These entries reflect participants’ experience of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes during meditation and at the end of the day. The day-end journal writing gives participants an opportunity to reflect on how, or if, they were aware of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes that day. It also allows for the “spontaneous surprises” of Silence practice, most evident in the Surrender theme in chapter three’s Journal Results.
A spontaneous arising of Silence however, is not intended to downplay the importance of a committed meditation practice. Even within the protected walls of monastic Silence, Thomas Merton encouraged daily contemplative practice, independent of what one’s personal feeling towards it might be. He stipulates that praising God is independent of how we may feel about it.6 Like many mystics, Merton demonstrated a particular resonance for expressions of God-yearning. Addressing Trappist monks, Merton claims that Christ is in them whether they think about it or not; and therefore, their particular feeling towards their contemplative practice becomes easier to deal with precisely because they are not just doing it for themselves.7
Whereas an expression of yearning as devotion is likely the most powerful conduit for the practice of surrendering to Silence, it is highly unlikely that urban Silence practitioners could wrap their minds around the concept of a self-less practice at the outset. For this reason, Yearning appears as the last theme in the “Silence Practice Kit” and the final practice introduced in the workshop. Without the foundational practice and experience of the other four themes – particularly the Internal Observer practice (as we shall see) – there is little chance of connecting with the Yearning practices as outlined in the Research Design of chapter two.
The diversity of themes allows for individual differences, as well as the personal complexity of our Western psychology. For example, on one given day we may be completely unable to relate to the practice of surrender, but we may be adept at observing our resistance to it without judgment. On another day, our body may feel relaxed – our breath full and deep – as we experience a place of internal surrender. The Journal entries of Appendix 7 show how the five themes work in surprisingly supportive and interrelated ways.
The presuppositions I bring to the practice of surrendering to Silence are three-fold: firstly, that the practice of Silence is heart-centred (as is supported by the Yearning results); secondly, that God lives in and through our heart (and life) within the spaciousness of Silence practice; and thirdly, that the challenge of Silence is multi-dimensional because we are multi-dimensional people – connected to our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits – living in a highly stressed culture.
Robert Sardello suggests that the heart is the region of the body where “the currents of Silence” enter, before spreading to the whole of our body: likewise, he says, the qualities of this silent current are much harder to feel when we are focused on the head region.8 Cynthia Bourgeault states that the profound effects of lectio divina come from the awakening of the “eye of the heart,” when the “unitive seeing” of the divine heart becomes manifest.9 The heart region of the body is also where I have experienced my most profound moments of Silence – once in paralyzing resistance, fear, and heart-chakra contraction; and once in the glory of a mystical- heart opening. These experiences, and others, have irrevocably altered my life view, and are responsible for my presuppositions.
As Sardello says, a conscious Silence practice is different from a “gift” of Silence, and can involve confronting anxiety and a “certain degree of terror.”10 Perhaps this is because a challenging conundrum guards the gates of the silent journey and its spiritual practice: it only begins where we end – or rather, where our false self ends. Can such a humble practice be learned in an urban setting that does not value humility, or internal practices in general, let alone Silence?
The following research questions guided my research, and are answered in the chapters below. Would a workshop and three weeks of practice provide enough information and time to navigate the challenges of Silence practice? Would group discussions and the use of the “Silence Practice Kit” be sufficient to sustain that three-week practice? Would the habitual distractions of everyday life take over once participants were home? If there are benefits to their Silence practice, would participants’ journal-writing adequately reflect that benefit? Finally, would I be able adequately and fairly to interpret the challenges and the victories in their three-week exploration of Silence?
The “Silence Practice Kit” themes coalesced over months of research into the nature of Silence practice. Most of the authors make distinct references to at least three of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes. These are supported by theme-related quotes in the theological context below. The authors that reflect all five themes most consistently are Bourgeault and Keating. Their heart-centred Christianity, depth psychology, cultural understanding, and awareness of false self “energies” coincide well with the theme orientations.11 Bourgeault describes a Welcoming (Centering Prayer) practice as follows (although I did not extract the themes from this practice, it is remarkably resonant with all five “Silence Practice Kit” themes).12
Welcoming is intrinsically an energetic practice [Physical Responses], geared to work at the level of sensation (not attitude) [Physical Responses and Internal Observer], in order to actively imprint kenotic surrender [Surrender as Alignment] as the innate first response to all life situations. Through its deliberate training in inner softening and opening [Physical Response and Surrender as Alignment], the practice begins to lay down new neural pathways in support of that deeper compassionate flow … [of] Divine Mercy [Physical Responses and Yearning] … Kenosis is experienced in (and through) the act of bringing oneself into a state of unconditional presence [Internal Observer and Surrender as Alignment]. In this more spacious spiritual state [Silence], the energy of being which might otherwise have been squandered in useless identified emotional reaction [Resistance and Suffering] is recaptured and placed directly in the service of spiritual transformation [Surrender as Alignment and Yearning].13
CHAPTER ONE – CONTEXT AND THEOLOGICAL RATIONALE
The Christian wisdom-tradition recognizes the ancient and sacred connection of Silence to God: Merton states that we cannot be silent without listening to God;14 Keating describes silence as “God’s first language;”15 and Vennard explains that the purpose of silent retreat is simply “attending to God.”16 The following theological context attempts to demonstrate that attending to the interior Silence of our heart is infinitely more real, challenging, and beneficial than the seduction of theological abstractions and curiosities. It will attempt to subvert the enduring (often unconscious) ideologies of manipulating ideas of God to serve our personal preferences and situations, rather than engaging in the vulnerable spaciousness of relating to God in attentive and surrendered Silence. As Richard Rohr says, we have to “break through the images to find out who God really is” (although he recognizes the anxiety and insecurity in letting go of both God- images and self-images).17
Cultural and religious paradigms alike have contributed to our distrust and ignorance of the internal world of spirituality. Bourgeault states that from “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” the Christian West has become stranded in “I think, therefore I am.”18 Merton says that the trouble we have with Silence is that we don’t know what we are doing.19 Perhaps we have tried to “do” Silence – and “do” God – from theological concepts alone, forsaking the vitality of a lived relationship or practice. Concepts can isolate us from experiencing who we are in Silence – and therefore, in God – if we engage God only through our thinking mind. Rohr says that while good theology is important, spirituality is more important.20 Known for his cheeky manner, he suggests that religion is one of the surest ways to avoid both faith and God.21 The Church, he says, was built on “outer authority,” and what we need now is the experience of “inner authority.”22 Accordingly, the question becomes not just how to place Silence theologically, but how to experience it as the heart-centred Christian practice that it is. Or, as Bourgeault says, “the unitive level [of] Christianity is ‘all heart’.”23
A painful chasm exists between our fears and misunderstandings of Silence, and Merton’s joyful declaration that “the silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast.”24 The following theological context is designed to support the “Silence Practice Kit” themes through a sound grounding in theology and practice; both are needed if we are to navigate the cultural and personal landscapes of Silence practice. This chapter begins with a personal theological context and metaphoric story, followed by a discussion of relevant Christian theologies and spiritualities that support the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.
While studying at Vancouver School of Theology, I have discovered my love and natural affinity for the Christian Wisdom Tradition. Guilty of having “thrown the baby out with the bath water,” I am slowly returning to Christianity as a scholar and Silence practitioner. Previous grounding in other wisdom traditions has helped me to recognize and appreciate my Christian wisdom roots. There is a proverb that “one teaches best what one most wishes, or needs, to learn.” In this sense, my thesis topic, “Surrendering to Silence: A Heart-Centred Practice,” is actually a humble attempt to serve my heart’s deepest yearning: learning to serve God with simple authenticity in my daily life.
The deep yearning behind this research project evolved gradually over a lifetime. A thirty- year career in Psychiatric Nursing, and further psychotherapeutic training, grounded me in an ability to be present with diverse forms of suffering. An undergraduate degree in Communications from S.F.U. (1992) deepened my understanding of the media’s impact on the Western psyche and culture.25 Lastly, eleven years of exposure to a Bhakti (devotional) spiritual tradition has clarified suffering as a legitimate, and even necessary, part of an evolutionary spiritual practice such as Silence.26 Understood as an essential aspect of spiritual practice – rather than something to “fix” – suffering begets the surrendered heart of yearning.
Navigating the challenges of Silence myself has made it possible for me to assist others in this process. The research results indicate that the practice of Silence clarifies a spiritual need that people have had difficulty naming. It is difficult to say, “I need more of God in my life,” but in fact I think that is what I am “hearing” in the Journals and observing in the Yearning-theme Bar Graph Results.
The heart-centred practice of Silence has much to teach us about who we are and who we are not – usually beginning with the painful awareness of the latter. Knowing our resistance is the internal equivalent of “know thine enemy.” The Bengal Tiger Story (Appendix 9) offers a valuable metaphor for the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.27 As Vennard says, “Stories are the words that give voice to the Silence, which information is unable to do.”28
The theological rationale for the “Silence Practice Kit” draws mainly upon the Christian writings of Thomas Merton (and Merton scholar William Shannon), Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and my thesis advisor, Jane Vennard. Each of these authors practice and teach (or taught) the benefits and challenges of Silence within the spirituality of Christian wisdom. References also include secular authors who, while they refer to New Testament scripture at times, do not identify themselves as Christian. These include local spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle; spiritual psychologist and Silence Practitioner, Robert Sardello; and journalist and Silence practitioner, Anne LeClaire. All of these secular practitioners came to Silence in unique and fortuitous ways. Their writing style and choice of language is diverse, but their reverence for the universal sacredness of Silence is palpable and inspiring. These authors demonstrate that Silence practice is available to everyone who chooses to embark on the discipline of its practice, a discipline that continually beckons us away from a life of fear and pain, towards a life of open- hearted yearning for God.
Christian mystic St. John of the Cross stated, “The Father spoke for all eternity – just one word – and he spoke it in an eternal silence, and it is in silence that we hear him.”29 There are many enticing mystical expressions relating to Silence. However, Silence practice begins where we are. As Tolle says, “[seeing] one’s predicament clearly is a first step toward going beyond it.”30 Like the Bengal tiger, this often begins with the discomfiting knowledge of our own suffering and its ally, the false self. Keating demonstrates the pervasive tenacity of the false self, by comparing the worldly example of “drinking your friends under the table” with the monastic example of “fasting your friends under the table.”31
The theological context most helpful for the practice of Silence starts with the humbling recognition of how deeply (and unconsciously) we are trapped by the false self and its various manifestations of our human condition. To use an old-fashioned Christian term, we begin learning Silence as we begin to observe our “sinful” habits, or the places where we are not aligned with God or our own authenticity. Ann LeClaire says that on her Silence days, she was challenged to “release illusions about [herself] and … observe [herself] as she truly was,” by
looking more deeply at her “intentions, reactions, and responses.”32 The Internal Observer theme is essential to Silence practice, as it allows us to recognize our authentic location in relationship to Silence. Although the following “Silence Practice Kit” themes are discussed individually, they are fluid and interconnected within the experiential practice of Silence.33
1. Physical Responses
The spaciousness of Silence easily gives rise to a palpable softening of the physical body.
As Sardello says, when the “touch of Silence announces itself,” there is a closeness and a familiarity with our own bodily form.34 He describes our multi-leveled relationship with Silence as follows.
Silence keeps us intimately bound with the truth of our being, constantly conveying to us in a bodily way that our individual and unique presence as soul, spirit, and body intermingles with the world and, at the same time, lives a free and independent existence … Illusion and ego-fantasy begin with forgetting this intimacy (italics mine).35
Likewise, in the inner work of Centring Prayer, Bourgeault recommends avoiding the mental work of self-analysis and “staying with the sensations.” Self-analysis, she says, lands us right back in ego, whereas following the sensation (i.e, if fear is present, what is the sensation of fear?), will align us with our “inner observer.”36 In this way, the practice of Physical Responses and Internal Observer support each other.
Unlike stress-reducing techniques that focus on finding relief through physical relaxation techniques, relaxation is a by-product of Silence practice, beginning with the simple practice of observing “what is,” without judgment or conclusion. As Shannon reminds us, we don’t have to “get anywhere” when we practice Silence “because we are already there” (in God): we simply have to become aware that we are there.37 Far from just a conceptual understanding, the awareness of being in God through Silence can be felt physically, as a fluid relaxation in the body. Sardello says that physical relaxation is pivotal for Silence practice, because muscles are connected to personal effort or the “desire body,” which is incapable of receiving Silence.38
2. Resistance and Suffering
William Shannon, a Roman Catholic priest, identifies two main reasons why it is so difficult for us to have the true awareness necessary for Silence practice: (1) certain things that are a part of our culture and, (2) certain things that are a part of our personality structure.39 Shannon cites three obstacles to developing cultural awareness: our busyness, the addiction of our culture to (external) productivity and efficiency, and the noise that so pervasively saturates our lives. He refers to our personality structure as the “brooding, disturbing thoughts [that] represent what is really a false, illusory self in us, … untrue to the image of God that we are.”40 Here, Shannon is addressing the connection between the illusory false self and the “brooding, disturbing thoughts” that inhabit our personality structure.
Rohr speaks to types of thought – one spiritually problematic and the other not – by differentiating between the calculative mind and the contemplative mind.41 He labels the calculative mind as ego-centric (i.e., “what’s in it for me, how will this make me appear, and what advancement will this give me”?), calculating, controlling, judging and therefore essentially blind.42 Rohr says that, as a Western people, we are largely involved in hoarding, accumulating, performing, attaining, and achieving – “exactly opposite to the direction of contemplation.”43 In her book, Mary Magdalene, Bourgeault cites that “… the real problem with any constrictive motion (taking, defending, hoarding, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the divine generosity that is always flowing toward us.”44 Through self-observation and a conceptual understanding of suffering’s cultural-psychological dynamics, we begin to break patterns of resistance that contribute to both our suffering and spiritual blindness.
3. The Internal Observer
The Internal Observer navigates the inner world that lies behind the false self. Bourgeault recommends an “inner observer practice” to facilitate moments of “unconditional presence.”45 She argues that this allows for the convergence of surrender and awareness – something she claims that the mystics have always known.46 Acknowledgment of our suffering through an awareness of it (rather than unconsciously resisting it), opens us to a more spacious way of knowing our pain.
The Internal Observer practice encourages a different way of perceiving, both on and off the cushion. Either way, suffering and discomfort can metamorphose into an opportunity to know ourselves and the world around us less habitually. Tolle challenges us to “take the thinking out of perceiving” by simply “looking,” without the voice in our head commenting, drawing conclusions, comparing, and trying to figure things out.47 The Internal Observer practice allows self-knowledge to grow because we begin to experience ourselves beyond the confines of personal suffering and resistance. Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of our human condition, but through increased self-awareness, it can also serve as a fiery portal into Silence practice.
Keating warns that if our suffering remains unconscious, it may cause us to pray from an unconscious and therefore insincere place.48 Without self-observation practices, we remain victims of our own suffering, casting blame outside of ourselves. The Internal Observer practice is designed to illuminate the structure of our ego. If we never explore why certain people or situations make us nervous or angry, for example, we never get to know the defenses of the false self. Rohr says that we have to de-stabilize the “imperial ego,” and “do something … to undercut the success game that we’re all playing.”49
Tolle discusses two phenomena: one he refers to as “the pain body,” and the second as the “transformational tool” of being present – as the watcher – to that pain, or whatever is happening inside you.50 Similar to Bourgeault’s “unconditional presence,” Tolle suggests that we become “present with the pain” rather than feeding it with our “compulsion to talk or think about it.”51 Being present with emotional/psychological pain and letting go of the story we have built around it, resonates with the kenotic action of Centering Prayer, where one returns – again and again from thoughts and feelings – to the “sacred word.”52
4. Surrender as Alignment
What mechanism could possibly teach us the kenotic action of self-surrender? What could be strong enough to propel us towards surrender? Within the materialistic individualism of our culture, surrender is a feared and misunderstood spiritual practice. Rohr questions where we will learn the surrendered action of letting go when capitalism teaches us nothing about it.53 He suggests that there is only one thing strong enough to teach surrender:
Normally the only thing strong enough to destabilize [the] separate self, [the] imperial ego, [the] private “I,” [the] autonomous self that Western individualists think they are – the only thing strong enough is some form of suffering.54
Rohr reminds us that suffering and surrender are inseparable, and that all great spirituality is about “letting go.”55 Shannon reminds us that the “letting go” action of surrender is not just a momentary experience, but a way of life; he cautions us against making childhood wounds and bruises identity badges that we “enjoy nursing.”56 It is not wealth or material possessiveness that are the opposites of true poverty, he says, but the clinging to less definable realities, like our prejudices and biases.57 Bourgeault reframes surrender as “open alignment,” as in the New Testament story of Peter walking miraculously across the water, until he becomes “self- conscious” and falls out of alignment.58
In a theistic tradition, yearning is often expressed as prayer. Vennard states that many people claim that they need to figure out who God is before they pray, but she recommends the other way around.59 Vennard maintains that prayer is her theology and that old images of God – good and bad – are abstractions.60 She questions the possibility for intimacy with an abstraction: “while they help us to think about God, they don’t help us think about God and relate to God in our own hearts.”61
Western cultural and religious paradigms distrust the internal world, making them prone to mental abstractions – whether atheistic or theistic. Keating says that a scripturally-based spirituality (now rediscovered by Christian scholars) represents a 180-degree turn from the Western Model because “Scripture teaches that interior motivation is more important than external acts.”62 As such, we immediately come up against our social and cultural conditioning: not just conditioning us about who we are as individuals, but conditioning us about who God is as well.
Historically, much of our theology has been a process of God-objectification, which does not lend itself to knowing the heart’s yearning. In order to help us transition from externalized God-concepts, Bourgeault simply refers to “God as flow” rather than “object.”63 Bourgeault and Vennard both recommend the use of Psalms to praise God, as well as to transform intense emotions such as anger or fear. Bourgeault asserts that psalmody helps us to stay grounded, connected, and “is always guiding the heart.”64 Vennard says: “if I can really pray where my heart is, then my heart and my prayers are transformed.”65 Merton asserts that contemplation “sees without seeing [and] knows without knowing,” and is a greater depth of faith and knowledge than can ever be grasped in words, images, or even in clear concepts.66
20 Rohr, Simplicity, 33. 21 Rohr, 33. 22 Richard Rohr, The Contemplative Stance in an Active Life, audiotapes of lectures by Richard Rohr presented at Christ Church Cathedral, Chalmers Institute Summer School Public lecture series July 2001 (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver School of Theology, 2001). 23 Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 73. 24 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), 297. 25 How the media’s emphasis on an external life-focus contributes to suffering, is discussed below in the Theological Rationale. 26 The Western Baul tradition, founder Lee Lozowick (with origins in Bengal, India). 27 I have studied with the Western Baul Lineage since 1998. Originating 500 years ago in Bengal India, they combine Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi teachings through stories, song, and dance. The metaphor’s drawn from the story are entirely my own. 28 Jane E. Vennard, telephone interview with author, Vancouver, B.C. Oct. 7, 2010. Quoted with permission. 29 Thomas Keating, Contemplative Prayer: Traditional Christian Meditations for Opening to Divine Union, audiotapes of lectures by Father Thomas Keating, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True Recording, 1995). 30 Tolle, A New Earth, 131. 31 Keating, The Human Condition, 17. 32 Anne D. Leclaire, Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence (New York:Harper Collins Publishers, 2009), 102. 33 For a more practice-oriented description of these themes, see Appendix 2, “Interpretive Themes,” a hand-out for participants. 34 Sardello, Silence, 32. 35 Sardello, 32. 36 Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 143. 37 William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: The Prayer of Awareness (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 167. 38 Sardello. Silence, 34. 39 Shannon, 75. 40 Shannon, 80. 41, 42, 43 Rohr, The Contemplative Stance, audiotapes. 44 Cynthia Bourgeault, “Theology and the Practice of Prayer,” Class Handout of chapter 8, “The Great Identity Theft,” The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambala Publications, 2010), SP220: The Theology and Practice of Prayer, V.S.T., Fall 2008. 45, 46 Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 145. 47 Tolle, A New Earth, 240. 48 Keating, Contemplative Prayer, audiotapes. 49 Rohr, The Contemplative Stance, audiotapes. 50, 51 Tolle, The Power of Now, 34. 52 Keating, Contemplative Prayer, audiotapes. 53, 54, 55 Rohr, The Contemplative Stance, audiotapes. 56, 57 Shannon, 85. 58 Adaptation by Cynthia Bourgeault, Spirituality and Practice E-course, InterSpiritual Wisdom, March 3, 2010. (This story, among others, was given to participants as a Reflection Handout, see Appendix 5.) 59 Jane E. Vennard, A Theology of Prayer: Discovering Intimacy with God, audiotapes of lectures by Jane E. Vennard presented at Vancouver School of Theology, Chalmers Institute Summer School Public lecture series, July 2000(Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver School of Theology, 2000). 60, 61 Vennard, A Theology of Prayer, audiotapes. 62 Keating, Intimacy with God, 25. 63 Bourgeault, “Theology and the Practice of Prayer,” Class Notes, Fall 2008. 64 Cynthia Bourgeault, Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD (Boston: New Seeds,2006), 47. 65 Vennard, A Theology of Prayer, audiotapes. 66 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 1.
CHAPTER TWO – RESEARCH DESIGN
The research design used for this thesis has produced results that demonstrate that attending to the interior Silence of our heart is infinitely more real, challenging, and beneficial than the seduction of theological abstractions and “curiosities.” It subverts the enduring (often unconscious) paradigm of manipulating ideas of God to serve our personal preferences and situations, rather than engaging in the vulnerable spaciousness of relating to God in attentive and surrendered silence.
Qualitative and quantitative research methods were used. The qualitative research method contained three weeks of twice-daily journaling, once following the meditation (internal reflection) and once at the end of the day (external reflection). The latter reinforces the idea that the practice of Silence extends beyond the meditation time. The quantitative method consists of thirty-five rated questions about participants’ experiences of Silence (see Appendix 6). These were e-mailed to participants prior to the weekend workshop and were measured as follows: (1) bar-graphed in contrast with the answers to the same set of e-mailed questions following three- weeks of silent practice (Appendix 8), and (2) contrasted with the emerging themes from the journal writing of the qualitative data (Appendix 7).
A Western psychological perspective is applied to the “Silence Practice Kit” because its practice begins with the extensive psychological entanglements of the false self. Bourgeault
states that, before our deep quest for God-union can be fully realized, “there is a huge amount of healing [from] … our psychological woundedness and self-justification that needs to take place.”67 Combining contemporary psychology with classic Christian teaching, Keating refers to the false self as the modern day equivalent of the Christian concept of original sin.68
Modifying Silence from “academic topic” to Silence as “practice,” carries with it a particular set of challenges. The Christian tradition – as expressed by Thomas Merton in particular – recognizes Silence as a monastic practice. The question then becomes: how does one establish a Silence practice within an urban setting, without the visible walls and monastic routines of the community? In order to approach Silence practice from a Western-psychological perspective, the five themes of the “Silence Practice Kit” combine a theistic model with an embodied psychology. As Keating says, it is helpful to recognize emotions as energy because they “can only be dissipated by acknowledging or articulating them.”69 While the actual relationship with Silence contains no such categories or divisions, the “Silence Practice Kit” themes serve as navigational training wheels (or monastic walls) that provide guidance around cultural and personal (psychological) obstacles to Silence. Most significantly perhaps, the workshop design and three-week practice simply gave participants permission to take time for Silence.
Monastic Motif: Urban Practice Guidelines
Many questions lay behind my desire to support and learn from people as they faced the challenges of engaging in an urban Silence practice. As Westerners, we are estranged from Silence, in part, because we have learned to live with the false self (or ego) at centre stage: “wild, strong and free,” like the Bengal tiger. Our personal and cultural orientations may be incongruent with Silence practice, and yet our deepest heart-yearning draws us towards its spacious language. Bourgeault says that monastic practices are not about “leaving the world,” but more about “cultivating worlds within the inner geography” where subtle meanings of essential interconnectedness begin to find “expression in the outer world.”70
As with the Bengal tiger, the heart-centred practice of Silence begins with the willingness to learn a new language, to allow for deeper connections with ourselves and the world around us. According to Bourgeault, “Benedictine monasticism refined the training of the unitive imagination to a high art,” and as long as yearning continues to reverberate within us, that same potential is within each of us.71
The five “Silence Practice Kit” themes were presented in the Workshop Outline of Appendix 4 as a variety of individual and group exercises, followed by dyads and theological discussion. Many workshop exercises were followed by periods of silence, journal writing, and drawing. The focus was to allow participants to explore their own resistances, observations, and questions in a safe and supportive environment.
Workshop Design for the workshop weekend. We were fortunate to have two rooms on the fourth floor of the Vancouver School of Theology. This allowed for some flexibility in silent breaks and those wishing to dialogue further about their experiences. In either case, whether in Silence or talking, the Internal Observer focus was constantly encouraged. Breaks in the workshop were divided between “silent breaks” and “talking breaks.” According to Vennard, this gives participants a lot to observe regarding their own responses to talking and Silence.72
Friday night began with circle introductions, in which participants gave their reasons for attending, followed by any fears they might have had about Silence practice.73 They were then given a questionnaire in which they were asked to write or comment on their personal experiences of Silence in the past.74 The Workshop Design details and exercise descriptions are found in the Workshop Outline of Appendix 4. The Participant Workshop Outline, which is a skeletal version of the Workshop Outline, is found in Appendix 5, along with theme-related handouts mentioned below. Following the guided meditations, participants were frequently encouraged to draw or write.75 Vennard states that this “helps people remain with their imaginations rather than immediately engaging their analytic minds in discussion.76 (As Rohr points out, we need to be able to distinguish between the calculative mind and the contemplative mind. The practice of Silence simply cannot be undertaken with the calculative mind.)
Friday and Saturday evenings a “home practice” was assigned, and then discussed the following morning. Lunch consisted of a one-hour silent break, during which the participants were asked to have eye contact for the first half hour, and no eye contact for the second half hour. Labyrinth walking was also available. At lunch break, they were encouraged to exercise their Internal Observer: i.e., if resistance surfaced they were to just watch it; rather than practicing compassion they were to just allow the spaciousness of “neutral” observation, and watch what happens.77 They also discussed how their body (and/or breath) responded when resistance (i.e, judgments) entered their consciousness.78
Sunday morning began with a silent entry and meditation. The Yearning exercise began with a brief orientation to Christian psalmody and its history. It was contrasted with other traditional forms of chanting, in particular its “purgative” emphasis, designed to awaken the heart’s capacity for spiritual realities.79 The Chants and Psalms of Sunday’s Yearning practices were done as a group exercise and individually, where we listened to the different nuanced interpretations of the text.
Workshop Handouts: Theme-Practice Guidelines “Retreat Reflection Handouts” (Appendix 5), were distributed to participants as we covered each “Silence Practice Kit” theme during the weekend. These Workshop Reflection Handouts were based on the work of the authors referred to in chapter one, and were intended to support an understanding of the theology behind some of the workshop exercises. They consisted of the following: Internal Observer, Surrender, Yearning, Scriptural Orientation to Silence, and Prayers and Chants. (Physical Responses and Resistance did not have handouts, as these themes do not apply to theological reflection.) At the end of the workshop, participants were given a practice-oriented description of the five themes (Interpretive Themes of Appendix 6) as a guideline for their Silence practice and their journal writing. This reinforces the rationale behind the themes, as well as tips on how to practice them.
The data collection included the qualitative analysis of participants twice-daily journal writing, thirty-five quantitative before-and-after questions, comments from the follow-up meeting, as well as three “Outlier Themes” that emerged independent of the weekend workshop design (i.e., courage, intention, and simplicity). Appendix 2, Interpretive Themes of the “Silence Practice Kit,” was given to participants at the end of the workshop in order to guide them in their practice and their journal reflections. While these themes are discussed theologically in chapter one, the interpretive theme descriptions emphasize a practice-based context.
Journal Writing : The main method of inquiry is a qualitative analysis of the participants’ twice-daily journal writing. The themes of the “Silence Practice Kit” are reflected in the Meditation Journals as well as the Day-end Journals because the practice of Silence extends beyond the meditation time. For example, a sense of increased spaciousness, well-being and/or calmness, may not always be apparent or observable while meditating; but we may find ourselves surprisingly gentle and open with our challenging teenager, or aging parent during the day.
Our relationship to Silence is very personal and can be named and experienced differently. I was keenly aware of this fact as I searched for “Silence Practice Kit” references when reading through participants journals, placing them in theme categories.80 The participants’ journals are divided into Meditation Journals and Day-end Journals, with the latter divided into sub-themes. The journal themes are placed into categories in order to compare them with the quantitative data from the before-and-after questionnaire.
Before-And-After Questionnaire: The second method of inquiry is quantitative and consists of thirty-five before-and-after questions (one to five scale-rating). These were e-mailed to participants prior to the weekend workshop, and again after their three-weeks of Silence practice.81 The questions were designed to reflect the five themes of Silence practice. These before and after theme-based results are shown on the bar-graphs of Appendix 8.
CHAPTER THREE – RESULTS REVIEW
In this chapter, significant entries from participant Journals will be discussed, along with the Bar Graph theme results, and the “ Unexpected and Could-Have-Improved” Results. The Meditation Journals are discussed first, followed by Day-end Journals and Outlier themes that emerged from the workshop weekend. Both journals have been reviewed and categorized according to the five “Silence Practice Kit” themes in the Journal Data Entries of Appendix 7. While themes frequently overlap, with two or more themes emerging in one journal entry, I have attempted to place the journal entry under the heading of the dominant theme being expressed.82 Classifying the results by theme category allows the results to be reviewed systematically. In reality, any one theme, when practiced with sincere intention, can morph into an inclusive all- theme experience of Silence.83
The configuration of the eight participants was as follows:
• one male, seven female • three with English as their second language • four with regular meditation practices prior to the workshop • three ex-Catholics, one Buddhist (raised in Brunei Darusalaam – a small kingdom on the island of Borneo), one with Pentecostal roots, and the remaining three without strong religious roots • two practice their spirituality within a church • ages ranged from forty-five to sixty-five years
Only six of the eight participants have journal entries quoted in the Journal Data Entries of Appendix 7: one participant lost her journal (see “Follow-up Results” below), and the other participant’s journal writing was so personal as to obscure the “Silence Practice Kit” themes. As discussed in the conclusion, the Internal Observation theme is essential to Silence practice. The fact that the Internal Observer is by far the largest section in the Day-end Journals also reinforces the vitality of its practice.
The journal entries of Appendix 7 comprise approximately forty percent of the six remaining journals. Occasionally spelling, punctuation, and wording have been slightly altered from the original journal to improve legibility. Occasional italics within parentheses indicate my comments when the theme focus shifts within the journal entry.
Some entries belonged in two theme categories, and were placed in both. In her peer- debriefing, Sharon Liebau felt that some of the Internal Observer entries belonged in Surrender categories, and vice versa.84 (Some I did change, others seemed best left where they were.)85 Internal Observer and Surrender themes are perhaps easily mistaken for each other, due to the implicit action of surrender within the willingness to self-observe. As Bourgeault suggests (above), mystics speak of a “surrendered awareness,” implying the simultaneous nature of Internal Observer and Surrender practices.
Meditation Journals: The themes in the Meditation Journals were approximately equal in number, with the overall entries being less than half the number of Day-end entries. Unlike the themes in the Day-end Journals, the Meditation Journals did not warrant sub-categories.86 Entries from Theme A- Physical Response practice were expressed as:
1. (A.1) kundalini (corporeal energy)87 2. (A.2) physical pain 3. (A.3) a connection to the body through breath 4. (A.4) a desire for creativity 5. (A.5) a flow of physical energy though chanting (sound vibration) 6. (A.5) a “sensing” of the mind’s skittishness
Theme B-Resistance appears as the largest category in the Meditation Journals, whereas it was the smallest theme in the Day-end Journals. Perhaps the withdrawal from external activities during meditation allows for increased observation of resistive patterns. (As discussed in chapter one, resistance to Silence is also a learned cultural phenomenon.) Entries from Theme B- Resistance practice were expressed towards:
1. (B.1) fatigue and weariness 2. (B.2) scriptural verses (from Catholic upbringing). 3. (B.3) a busy life 4. (B.4) a devotional quote evoking fear (of “forsaking [the] … ego-self”) 5. (B.6) the discipline of practice 6. (B.7) psychological pain 7. (B.8) unsafe feelings
For the most part, Theme C-Internal Observer in the Meditation Journals seemed to reflect a generalized sense of “spaciousness,” allowing for increased levels of questioning, self-acceptance, and self-understanding. Entries from Theme C-Internal Observer practices were expressed as:
1. (C.2) questioning the difference between surrender and purposelessness 2. (C.3) recognizing the need to “lighten-up” (not take responsibilities so seriously) 3. (C.4) releasing “fear,” and seeing the mind’s busyness and spirit’s “warm glow” simultaneously 4. (C.5) feeling anger move 5. (C.6) a recognition of the difference between the actual situation and the thought-filter that produces fear 6. (C.7) seeing the relational aspect of Silence 7. (C.8) observing the sharp sound of hand-clapping to “startle/stop the mind”
Theme D-Surrender (Alignment) is a relatively short category in the Meditation Journals. For the most part, participants surrender experiences came in brief glimpses that appeared to surprise them (at times). Theme D-Surrender entries included glimpses of:
1. (D.3 and 6) the power of trust, the need to say or do little in that space, and how one can receive others (and activities) from a different place of understanding 2. (D.4) a surrendered feeling through (Psalm) Lectio Divina practice 3. (D.5) surrendered feelings of “being at peace” through Intention practice88
The Meditation Journals of Theme E -Yearning (and Devotion) demonstrate the participants experimentation with the Sacred Word in Scriptural Quotes from the workshop weekend.89 Half of the entries seem to express a move from resistance to yearning, while others express an open trust that resonates as a physical response. Theme E-Yearning entries were expressed through the following:
1. (E.1) using a Hindu Scripture where “Me” represents the Holy, the participant expresses surprise at how the “Me” can put the (personal) “I” in its rightful place. 2. (E.2) using (Outlier theme) Intention by calling for “Grace and humility” 3. (E.3) psalm 34:1-3 begins as the “most resisted” quote to a discovery of its sacredness and power to bring people together in worship
4. (E.4) enjoyment of the mind-calming quality of Scripture 5. (E.5) a Rumi quote, now memorized after ten days, fills participant’s consciousness with prayer and yearning 6. (E.6) Scripture resonates in the body and also feels like a call to wisdom 7. (E.7, 8) psalms and sacred texts as powerful words affecting visceral and spiritual experiences 8. (E.9) feeling oneness and support in the universe
Overall, the Meditation Journals emphasize the discipline, personal challenges, and rewards of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes. The Internal Observer practice allowed for deeper levels of observing resistance through awarenesses of anger, fear, constant mind chatter, and physical habits of resistance. During the three-week practice, reflective insights into Silence practice emerged, allowing for experiential glimpses into the surrendered spaciousness of (alignment with) divine yearning.90 The Meditation Journals demonstrate the importance of authenticity in Silence practice; awareness of both our resistances and our yearning are essential to its practice.
Day-end Journals: Possibly because there is more to observe during the day than on the cushion, the Day-end Journals were more than twice the length of the Meditation Journals. I have therefore summarized the results in broader strokes, with less specific references to individual entries. The only Day-end Journal theme that is not divided into sub-categories was Theme A-Physical Responses. These entries included:
1. (A.3) a calming and settling of body and mind 2. (A.5) awareness of relationship with food 3. (A.6) awareness of body posture 4. (A.10) a sense of calm spaciousness in the body 5. (A.12) agitation and anger responses shifting to a sense of peace and calm
Theme B-Resistance entries were the smallest in number, comprising only 8 percent of the total entries (the opposite of the Meditation Theme B-Resistance Journals, which was the largest category, with 21 percent of the total entries). One half of the Theme B-Resistance entries metamorphosed into aspects of surrender. The entries are as follows:
- (B.1) intense observation of personal “tight spot”
- (B.2) reflecting on irritations through the day as types of resistance
- (B.3) playing it safe and avoiding risk
- (B.4) sudden personal irritation as resistance that obscures compassion
- (B.5) resistance as fatigue moving to surrendering control need
- (B.6) resisting spouses stress, then surrendering the need to “fix things for him”
- (B.7) resistance as irritation to family upsets, surrendering into self-reflection
- (B.8) resistance as lack of forgiveness, surrendering attachment to the story
Theme C-Internal Observer entries were the largest category of the Day-end Journals, and were divided into five different categories. The “reflective self-observer” category was the largest. It showed various styles of self-reflection during the three-week practice. For example, there was the scriptural reflection (C.8), the relationship reflection (C.6), and the reflection on the actual practice of Silence (C.14). Each of these three “reflective self-observer” entries demonstrates a deepening Internal Observer practice which allows an increased understanding of self in relationship to Silence practice. Theme C-Internal Observer entries were divided into the following categories:
- (C.2-5) observing Outlier Theme of Intention (4 entries)
- (C.6-18) reflective self-observer (13 entries)
- (C.19-23) compassionate observer (3 entries)
- (C.22-26) observing resistance (5 entries)
- (C.27-29) observing allowing space-from-self (3 entries)
The Surrender entries show the various realities available to us through surrender: the importance of practice through the challenges and blessings of Silence (D.2), the experience of “freedom” from one’s opinions and preferences (D.4 and 5), allowing the “other” space through not taking their reactions personally (D.7), surrendering into the “source” (D.8), surrender as presence and mind-body stillness (D.11), surrendering into spacious glimpses of compassion (D. 14), self-expression creating new alignment with mind and body (D.15), and recognizing the difference between “giving up” and surrendering (D.23). Due to the large number of entries, Theme D-Surrender entries were also divided into the following categories:
- (D.4-8) non-resistance (5 entries)
- (D.9-14) being in the present (6 entries)
- (D.15-21) non-judgment/equanimity/calmness (7 entries)
- (D.22-23) knowing our limitations and biases (2 entries)
- (D.24-25) surrender as love (2 entries)
The final category of the Day-end Journals is Theme E-Yearning and Devotion. Most of the entries expressed Yearning as “gratitude” (8 entries), as well as Yearning as “feelings of separation” (2 entries). Journal entry (E.1) expresses Yearning as continuous joy following “group chanting and Psalm” singing. The rest of the Yearning entries express “gratitude” (with the exception of the last two entries) as follows:
- (E.2) gratitude for the (unusual) experience of a positive day
- (E.3) gratitude for the beauty in the world
- (E.4) gratitude for the attributes of Silence
- (E.5) learning with “ears of the heart”
- (E.6) appreciation for love of spouse and home
- (E.7) the gift of silent spaciousness
- (E.8) the power of gratitude
- (E.9) mind and body gratefully appreciating the view
- (E.10 and 11) expressing the pain of being separated from the yearning heart
Overall, Day-end Journals drew most consistently from the C-Internal Observer theme. These entries were highly individual and creative, but did reflect certain trends (that were divided into categories). Theme B-Resistance entries were the smallest in number, perhaps indicating that external distractions and busyness of daily life make resistance-observation more challenging. Resistance was explored as a mixture of internal and external struggles (physical fatigue, listening to spouses’ stresses, generalized reactivity and agitation, and attachment to a story) that metamorphosed into aspects of surrender. Theme D-Surrender, like the Meditation Journals, was experienced as a type of revelation (i.e., a “surprise gift,” or “fruit of Silence practice,” rather than a “practice” in itself). Again, because of the large number of entries, Theme D-Surrender was divided into five categories of expression. Gratitude emerged as the largest category in Theme E-Yearning, expressed chiefly through gratitude for various internal and external experiences of spiritual connection.
Questionnaire and Bar Graph Theme-Results
The Bar Graph results reflect the group average before and after results. Except for Theme E-Yearning, the Bar Graph Themes reflected such small differences between the before-and-after questions that no statistical significance was reached. However, the overall differences in the scoring patterns of the five themes is worth noting, as is a brief synopsis of significant differences between the before-and-after questions themselves. (Bar Graph differences of (0.5) and less, are not considered significant enough to mention.)
Most Theme A-Physical Responses reflect “strongly agree” responses (i.e., 4.0 – 5.0) in both the before-and-after questions. Theme B-Resistance, reflects the opposite – a less than “neutral” score (i.e., less than 3.0) – in all of the before-and-after responses.91 Theme C-Internal Observer, reflects all “neutral” or less, except question 31, which scores in the “strongly agree” range in both before and after. Similar to Theme A-Physical Responses, Theme D-Surrender reflects all high scores of “strongly agree” in seven of the before and after, with the exception of two questions. Theme D-Surrender also reflects the largest number of questions (nine), while Theme C-Internal Observer has the fewest (five). Theme E-Yearning is consistently a “strongly agree” response in both the before and after for three questions. The remaining three questions show a less than “neutral” response before, and a significant shift to “strongly agree” in the after responses.92 These are the differences between the themes themselves, we now move to an analysis of the individual questions in each theme.
Only two of the seven questions in Theme A-Physical Responses show an increased “after” result: question 19 (“When I am in touch with Silence, my breathing is slower and more regular”), and question 6 (“When I experience Silence, my heart chakra – chest centre – feels less constricted and/or more open”).
Theme B-Resistance shows inconsistent before and after responses to similar questions: the negative result of question 4 (“I am very uncomfortable when I’m not busy doing something”) and the positive result of question 32 (“I am restless and uncomfortable if I don’t have something planned for the day”).
Theme C-Internal Observer shows two positive result changes: question 13 (“if I am not busy I feel unimportant and disconnected”), and question 34 (“the only Silence I have is when I am completely alone and undisturbed”).93
Theme D-Surrender, shows four positive result changes: question 8 (“after I have meditated, I usually feel a calm stillness”); question 20 (“after relating to Silence, I seem to think more easily or clearly”); (negatively-worded) question 21 (“meaning is created through external engagements, not through Silence”); and question 33 (“relating to Silence allows me to slow down and connect with people and their situations in ways that I normally wouldn’t have done before”).
Theme E-Yearning reflects the three most dramatic positive result changes in the questionnaire. From smallest to largest, question 17 (“before I practice Silence, I find it helpful to read a Scriptural text”), (negatively-worded) question 27 (“my experiences of Silence seem to have no connection to God or a higher power”), and the most dramatic change of all, question 16 (“before I practice Silence, I find it helpful to chant”).
Comparisons between Bar Graph and Journal Results In spite of the overall lack of significant change in the Bar Graph results, there are some commonalities between the themes represented in the Bar Graph and the Journal entry results.
The most striking example is in the Theme E-Yearning results; with questions 16 and 17 reflecting significant increases in the use of chanting and scriptural texts in Silence practice, and question 27 reflecting an increased awareness of the connection between Silence and God (or a higher power).
It is perhaps not surprising that the challenge of a disciplined “sitting practice” is reflected in the Meditation Journals, in the large percentage of Theme B-Resistance entries, as well as the quality of the entries themselves (e.g., B.3 and 6).94 The challenge of observing resistance is also reflected in the consistently low scores of both the before-and-after questions in Theme B’s Bar Graph results.95
As mentioned, Theme B-Resistance entries (B.5-8) of the Day-end Journals, on the other hand, metamorphosed into aspects of surrender about half of the time. One could speculate that it is more challenging facing one’s internal resistances in the “sitting practice” of Meditation, than it is in the flow of everyday life. This may also explain why Theme D-Surrender Bar Graph responses are substantially higher than Theme B-Resistance Bar Graph responses.
The Unexpected and Could-Have-Improved
Two unexpected and two could-have-improved occurrences emerged out of the workshop weekend and the research design.96 Firstly, the Outlier Themes were unexpected results that emerged alongside the “Silence Practice Kit” themes during the workshop weekend. Secondly, the follow-up evening had unexpected outcomes. Thirdly, in hindsight, I would have reformatted the Data Collection of the quantitative Before-And-After Questions to reflect only positive answers. Finally, the feedback from participants following the workshop weekend offers some constructive fine-tuning details.97
Workshop Outlier Themes Three Outlier Themes emerged from the workshop weekend. I did not anticipate these beforehand, but feel that they are worth noting because they articulate participants’ responses to the “Silence Practice Kit” themes. Theme F-Courage emerged during the Resistance and Suffering exercises; Theme G-Intention emerged while the group engaged in the Internal (and compassionate) Observer exercises; and Theme H-Simplicity emerged on the last morning of the workshop, with the practice of Yearning. The Outlier Themes appeared infrequently in the Journals, and are entered as separate categories in Appendix 7.
To look at Suffering takes courage, to observe rather than react takes intention (or discipline), and simplicity lends itself to the heart-centered practice of Yearning. Theme F- Courage (2 entries) expresses the courage to trust and explore. Theme G-Intention (6 entries) expresses the intention to have physical silence (no radio), to focus on the task at hand, to have gratitude, and to remember that Silence never goes away. Theme H-Simplicity (6 entries) expresses the simplicity of the creativity arising from Silence, a Scriptural passage, letting go and feeling humbled, and (like intention) staying with the task at hand. Entry H.6 is particularly worth noting. Beginning with simplicity, it metamorphoses into the only journal entry that describes an all-theme experience: initially observing her relationship to Silence and its present simplicity (compared with previous struggles [resistance] “for all those years”); she makes sure to “breathe” (physical response); she feels the attraction to (yearning for) the “quiet space” (of Silence); she then lets her “brain do what it needs to do without reacting,” where there is “no juggling or pondering,” a “thought just drops,” and “it comes as an offering” (four different surrender examples).
Follow-up Evening (After Three-weeks of Practice)
“Every class needs a class dunce and I am the class dunce,” announced one of the participants at our follow-up meeting after three weeks of practice. In tears, she explained how she had experienced a couple of “beautiful” meditations in the first week of practice, but that her practice and journal writing began to fall away in subsequent weeks. She also announced that she had lost what journal writing she had done. The “container of intention” that the group practice itself provided may have contributed to how badly this participant felt about her lack of follow- through.98
On the follow-up evening, six of the eight participants returned books they had borrowed from the research bibliography, i.e., books by Thomas Merton, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Robert Sardello, and Anne LeClaire. From their enthusiastic feedback at the follow-up evening, it seems that these books offered participants a variety of supportive concepts and ideas that assisted Silence practice during the three weeks.
Data Collection Improvements The Bar Graph results would likely have been clearer if the scoring for the Before-And-After Questions (Appendix 6) read “0” as neutral, rather than “3.” In that case, “-3” would have been “strongly disagree,” and “3” would have been “strongly agree.” Question #3 presented a conundrum because it is actually asking two questions, which some participants pointed out in their answers. Also, some of the Before-and-After Questions were worded in a negative fashion, causing the Bar Graph picture to reflect a negative result in the “changes” column when, in fact, the change was positive.99 As well, it would be inaccurate to draw conclusions exclusively from the height discrepancies of the individual Bar Graph themes (i.e., strongly agree or strongly disagree responses). For example, because of the oppositional nature of resistance, the B-theme questions are likely to reflect a more negative (“strongly disagree”) response than other themes.
Sorting through the Journals and placing them into the five themes of the “Silence Practice Kit” presents the challenge of subjective interpretation. Although peer-reviewing (Appendix 3) validated most of the category placement of the entries, it may have been useful for participants – and perhaps more accurate – if they had categorized their own journals. Either way it seems, there is an unavoidable contrivance to categorizing the journals.
A feedback questionnaire sent to participants four days after the workshop weekend was generally favorable.100 However, there are some helpful suggestions listed in Appendix 10, “Afterword: Participant Feedback.” These include when and how to give out hand-outs, fine- tuning dyad work, re-focusing the more verbal participants, and a longer workshop. Appendix 10 also contains participants’ feedback four months later, where they convey their continued exploration of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Collective and personal resistances to Silence practice are almost insurmountable. Be that as it may, Christian monastics have endorsed this practice for centuries, and eight people did show up for a three-week urban practice. If both mystics and theologians are correct in their proclamations of God equaling Silence, then the willingness to challenge our resistance to Silence is surely productive and worthwhile. Based on the Journal entries and Afterword comments, it most decidedly is – in spite of the immense practice (and research) challenges it presents.
Silence practice brings us face to face with all within us that does not want to attend to Silence. Initially, Silence practice collides uncomfortably with the noise and self-absorption of our consumer culture. Similarly, in our internal environment, habitual thoughts, emotions, and psychological patterns of the false self makes Silence practice uncomfortable. Observing this false self, rather than (unconsciously) reacting to it, is both counter-cultural and counter- intuitive. However, by not engaging in the awareness of an Internal Observer practice, as Keating says, we risk “looking for God in all the wrong places.”101
Journal entries and participant feedback seemed to reflect both the discomfort and the benefits of Silence practice. The research results give hopeful indications that intentional awareness of ourselves and our cultural adaptations can provide openings into the mystery of Silence. The “Silence Practice Kit” did appear to support a three-week urban Silence practice for seven out of eight participants.
On the whole, this research has planted seeds for a variety of future options (see Afterword below). Like Silence practice itself, the conclusion appears to be an “on-going discovery” rather than a decisive deduction. The Internal Observer and Surrender are discussed next as the two most influential “Silence Practice Kit” themes. However, the practice of Yearning always remains at the heart of Silence experience.
Internal Observer: The Essential Practice
The Results Review of chapter three demonstrates that the Internal Observer practice is vitally important for Silence practice, both off and on the cushion (Day-end Journals and Meditation Journals). The “reflective self-observer” category was the largest of the Internal Observer themes in the Day-end Journals, indicating that participants reflected upon their behaviours and reactions of that day – not to judge, but to know themselves more deeply. Within the “Silence Practice Kit,” observing practice is not done for the sake of “knowing,” but for the sake of “deepening.” Tolle reminds us that knowing ourselves and knowing about ourselves are two different things.102 In psychoanalysis, for example, we can learn more and more about ourselves in a quantitative or factual manner, whereas knowing ourselves involves a more qualitative or depth dimension.103 This is congruent with the generally qualitative dimension of the research design. Discovering self within the mysterious depths of Silence practice does not lend itself easily to quantitative designs. (As I have found out!)
Deep self-knowledge begins with the practice of self-observation. The Internal Observer practice divulges the humbling details about where we are not surrendered to (aligned with) God. When learning contemplation, Keating reminds us that, at first, we “[go] from humiliation to humiliation, as we throw-up undigested material of a life-time.”104 The Internal Observer theme- practice is essential for the practice themes of Physical Responses and Resistance and Suffering because it creates space for questions and spiritual discoveries we would otherwise be blind to. By not questioning our habitual reactions and resistances, we close to the open vulnerability necessary for Silence practice. Silence practice begins humbly, with an intimate understanding of “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51: 3). Or as (Meditation entry) Theme E.1-Yearning observes, it is about “[putting] the I in it’s rightful place.”
Physical Responses As Silence practice Tool: The high-scoring Bar Graph results of Theme A-Physical Responses reflected “strongly agree” responses in both the Before-And-After Questions. As discussed in the Results Review of chapter three, this could have to do with the Physical Responses theme being the easiest to observe. This could be a reflection of the positive nature of the questions themselves, as opposed to the negative nature of resistance-related questions. Resistance is reflected in muscle tension, which has no receptivity to Silence.105 When resistance is observed without judgment however, the body can become a highly tuned “instrument of awareness.”
In both Journals, Theme A-Physical Responses also reflect how the body relaxes when the mind is present (i.e., when the mind is focused on the activity in which the body is engaged). Journal entries describing relaxed physical responses tended to be associated with decreased emotional and psychological stresses, as well as increased insight and depth in the participant’s Internal Observer practice.106 In the Day-end Journals, Physical Responses were observed through relationship with food, sound, physical pain, the beauty of nature, the breath, and so on. In the Meditation Journals, Physical Responses were observed through corporeal subtle energies, physical pain, the breath, sound vibration, and “sensing” the skittishness of the mind. In both Journals the physical connection is made through observation, externally, during various daily activities, or internally, during meditation.
Externally or internally however, physical awareness only occurs when we slow down to observe what we are aware of. One of the most reliable compasses for knowing the difference between when we are (mostly) self-referencing and when we are more surrendered and spacious, is the way our body feels. The former tends to hold tension, and the latter is more easeful and relaxed (as Sardello points out). However, endless external distractions and internal fascinations can easily prevent a recognition of the body’s simple resonance with Silence.107
Body awareness in the Journal entries was perceived in a variety of ways, all of which connected participants more deeply with their experience. These ranged from physical pain or exhilaration, to the energy sensation of sound (when chanting), and sensing the skittishness of the mind (when meditating). On their own merit, observing these physical responses may not be significant, but within the context of a regular Silence practice they become an internal connection – a matrix – allowing for increased depths of awareness or a “sensed” presence. With intentional practice, the body gradually builds endurance for incorporating the actual physical experiences of Silence. At this point, the body becomes a reliable self-reflective device, or a Silence practice awareness “tool.” Respecting and observing the body’s messages corroborates both the interdependent and the inclusive nature of the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.
Resistance, The Challenge of Suffering: The practice of Silence challenges us to be still with ourselves. For many, this begins with a deep acknowledgment of suffering (including the cultural and personal resistance-habits against knowing suffering.)108 Simply put, constantly running from suffering creates internal noise levels that obscure our ability to “Be Still and Know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
Participants wrote three times as much about resistance in their Meditation Journals than they did in their Day-end Journals. Perhaps this is because sitting alone in meditation allows for a more astute observation of resistance, i.e., all that does not want to sit still or be alone rises to the surface of our awareness.109 Unobserved suffering easily takes root in our false self. Or, as Keating says, “[the] lack of connection with the source of painful thoughts or feelings is what identifies them as coming from our unconscious.”110 Without an observation practice a vicious circle ensues, whereby the spiritual blindness of the false self perpetuates suffering, and vice versa. Employing a regular Internal Observer theme-practice offers different alternatives for our personal suffering. As Merton says, a great deal of our trouble – our “me suffering” – comes from not having the deep self-knowledge that our fidelity is to the service of God alone.111
By repeatedly choosing to observe pain, rather than resist it, suffering can transform into a profoundly kenotic experience indicative of spiritual yearning. In Meditation Journal entry B.7- Resistance, the participant writes: “I have lost the pure heart of me. Too much pain is the lie, the resistance.” The acknowledgement of pain as the “resistance,” speaks to two important issues: (1) the dangers of over-indulging our personal pain stories (Merton’s “me-suffering”), and (2) the keen self-observation it takes to see our personal pain as resistance (to Silence and to God).
The spiritual disciplines of the “Silence Practice Kit” are like the invisible monastic walls that create the space for observing our habitual resistances. This is an entirely counter-intuitive process, because our usual pain response is one of contraction and withdrawal. Entry B.4- Resistance of the Meditation Journals reflects how staying with the Resistance (identified by the writer as fear), also gives her glimpses of freedom from fear. As in the Bengal Tiger story, the paradoxical nature of Silence practice is that we are “released” when we “stay with.” Our Western cultural habits of pain-denial and distraction are costly; they separate us from the freedom of knowing who we are in Silence and in God.
Surrender: The Choice-less Choice
It is significant that half of the B-Resistance entries in the Day-end Journals metamorphose into aspects of surrender. Initially however, these entries express clear observations of resistance, e.g., in B.5-Resistance entry, the participant first observes the connection between her physical fatigue and her resistance, then, observing more deeply, she connects her resistance with her need to control. With no effort on the part of the participant, surrender begins to emerge the moment she clearly observes her control-needs. B.6-8 entries have similar movements from observing resistance to surrendering attachment to a personal story or “me-suffering” (Merton).
The willingness to self-observe simply, truthfully and non-judgmentally, holds within it an implicit action of surrender: the choice-less choice that frees us from bondage to false self preferences and habits. Like the Bengal tiger, with deep self-knowledge we observe that we are trapped and suffering, and have no choice but to learn another language. The two options remaining are continued suffering or a kenotic leap into learning/surrendering to the mysterious language of Silence. There is no room for “me suffering” or victim stories in the organic transformation from clear Internal Observer practices to Surrender.
An additional aspect of surrender that the Day-end Resistance-theme Journals emphasize is that surrender occurs effortlessly, as we align ourselves with present time. It appears that the Internal Observer practice assists participants to come into present time with the truth of their own experience, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or not. For example, in the Day- end Journals of Resistance B.5-8 entries (above), participants observe their body’s tension, their resistance to their husband or children, and their lack of forgiveness, before evolving into feelings of surrender.
Likewise, in the Day-end Journals of Surrender D.9-14 entries, participants actually describe feeling surrender as a present time experience. Compared with the vitality felt within the present-time connection, the personal particulars of their observations appear less relevant or important. A radical simplicity (outlier theme) appears to be at work when we find our way to present time: we open the potential for surrendered alignment to Silence and God. I can only speculate that this is because they – Silence and God – only exist as experience within present time.
“Catching” Silence, or more to the point being “caught” by Silence (Vennard), often means that we are unable to live in the same (unobservant or unconscious) manner as we did before.112 As our relationship with Silence grows, so does our awareness of how caught we are in the false self grip.113 In the same way that the Bengal tiger struggled against the (perceived) trap, the “wild, proud and free” false self resists the kenotic invitation of Silence practice. During the Invocation at V.S.T.’s Convocation this year, Rabbi Robert Daum asked: “Who am I invoking? God is already here, so who am I invoking”? A good question, because it places the onus right where it needs to be. As Rabbi Daum concluded, it must be us, then, that needs to change. It is rightfully our task to engage in the abundance of Silence, that is always so freely given.114
Within the context of Silence practice, conscious struggling is actually the good news. It means that we are slowing down and using our energy to observe suffering, and the false self identities colluding with it. Bourgeault reminds us that with a growing trust in God and a stable practice, we penetrate more deeply “down to the bedrock of pain, the origin of our personal false self.”115 With courage, intention, and simplicity (outlier themes), deepening self-observations thaw us from the grip of the false self and allow for the spaciousness of surrender. Frequently this experience comes as a “surprise moment,” where we experience the intimate nature of Silence as more compassionate, spacious, and intimate, then anything we have previously experienced.116
From outside of the experiential nature of Silence practice, all of this can sound rather glib, or even ridiculous. Sardello reminds us that Silence practice is not an intellectual practice. Neither is it something we can will or force, because that forcefulness comes from the same false self paradigm that keeps us spiritually blind. As Keating says, we are already in a state of “pure grace,” but we have yet not learned to receive these gifts with an open (or surrendered) heart and mind.117
Yearning, The Heart of Silence practice: The results indicate that the heart’s yearning is ultimately stronger than the cultural influences that lay siege to our authentic spiritual identities. I am happy to concede that I may have overestimated the impact of our consumer-driven Western culture, and underestimated the heart’s natural affinity and yearning for the Silence of God. This is good news indeed. It is also theologically sound evidence of God’s enduring Grace, without which I would not have been inspired to undertake this research project.
In their Meditation Journals, participants describe a holistic sacredness or oneness that resonates in their bodies, hearts, and minds. The majority of Day-end Journal entries agree with the Yearning-theme Bar Graph. This reflects the Yearning theme-practice simply as “gratitude.” The Yearning themes of gratitude, deep listening, chanting, psalmody, or Lectio Divina represent the only truly significant collaborative result between the qualitative Journal entries and the quantitative Bar Graph. Both results demonstrate that surrendering to Silence is most productive when the heart expresses its divine yearning. These results are made even more significant because, prior to the workshop weekend, chanting and (especially) psalmody, was an unfamiliar practice to many of the participants. This is likely why the Yearning theme reflected the largest changes in the Bar Graph results.
Happily, the heart-centred practice of Yearning is not a new discovery within the Christian tradition. However, as both the journal entries and feedback results indicate, it is a discovery that people yearn to make again and again in their daily lives. The “Silence Practice Kit” themes work both independently and collaboratively to increase awarenesses of false self habits. With the grace of Silence, we can dispose of the rubble of spiritual blindness and suffering that surrounds our collective and personal identities.
The research results indicate that Silence practice is possible in an urban setting. The results also revealed that heart-centred Yearning-practices could be the transformational fire that ignites our surrender to it.
The language of Silence is the most powerfully inclusive, grace-filled, and humbling of languages. It is available immediately through our own surrendered yearning-hearts. It has always been a two-way call and response, which comes as the unspoken blessing to be “where we are” by experiencing the eternal Grace of “who we are” in God.
“Surrendering to Silence: A Heart-Centred Practice” has become far more than an academic research project for a Master’s degree. It has become a way of expressing my heart’s deepest yearning in a more complete way than I ever imagined possible. Not only has this project helped my own understanding of our intimate and eternal connection to Silence – and to each other, through Silence – it appears that it has done the same for others.
Four Months Later
Six of the eight participants attended the oral thesis presentation at V.S.T. on October 18th, 2010. At that time, they agreed to e-mail a response to questions (listed in Participant Feedback of Appendix 10). In general they reported the following: an increased use of the Internal Observer practice, an increased depth-understanding of the Yearning practice, less resistance in the body, finding spaciousness and compassion within the Scriptural quotes, et cetera. The Buddhist in the group, who grew up in Silence, explained at the oral presentation that she feels grateful to now have words to describe her native love of Silence practice. Likewise, I am grateful to have a theological framework in which to elucidate the “Silence Practice Kit” themes.
Where to from Here?
Exploring the powerful and humbling dynamics of Silence has assisted my return to Christian scholarship and practice, theology and spirituality; not exclusively the one or the other. I am grateful for my previous experience of other wisdom traditions, particularly the Western Baul lineage. This tradition awakened my heart enough to recognize the cultural value of Silence offered within Christianity’s wisdom-roots. Perhaps this research is living proof that we do teach best what we most wish to learn. My thesis topic has served my heart’s deepest yearning, i.e., of serving God more clearly, unconditionally, and simply through the everyday practice, and teaching, of Silence.
The minister at my (newly-found) church has asked if I would be interested in giving a Sermon, because “people need to hear about experiences with Spirit.” He has also suggested that I do a thirteen-week series on the Practice of Silence. There are people in the Shuswap area, as well as on Gambier Island, that are interested in a workshop weekend and practice. I will also be offering one day a month (from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.) for Silence practice out of my home. (Several people have already expressed interest.) As of January 2011, all but one of the participants (plus two interested non-participants) will meet monthly with me for an evening of Silence practice and theme discussion.
The “Silence Practice Kit” themes are certainly not the only way to connect with Silence. However, without some form of relationship-practice to Silence, our human desires too easily become fodder for a culturally reinforced false self identity. This frequently results in spiritual forgetfulness, and feelings of confusion and isolation. Regular Silence practice gradually leads us inward and, through God’s grace, outwards and away from (culturally engrained) habits of self-centeredness. Perhaps like the Bengal tiger, we are recognizing and experiencing the “productive value” of Silence practice. A valuable “group container” was provided by the workshop weekend and three weeks of practicing the “Silence Practice Kit” themes. “Surrendering to Silence: A Heart-Centred Practice” began as a research thesis but, like the kenotic action of Silence practice itself, it appears to be evolving anew.
108 Perhaps this is why Buddhist dharma starts by acknowledging that “life is suffering.” 109 Also, some participants were new to meditation, and therefore their resistances to its practice may have been more substantial (and therefore more keenly felt). 110 Keating, Intimacy with God, 79. 111 Merton, Surrender to God, audiotapes. 112 Vennard, A Theology of Prayer, audiotapes. 113 One of the paradoxical elements of any in-depth search for knowledge is that “the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know.” (A good recipe for humility development!) 114 This is reminiscent of Bourgeault’s statement (above) that we are blind to “the divine generosity that is always flowing towards us.” 115 Bourgeault, Centering Prayer, 97. 116 My Western Baul teacher, Lalitha, refers to these times as “lucky moments.” 117 Keating, Contemplative Prayer, audiotapes.