In our last issue, we shared about how the tradition is exquisitely balanced. There’s a constant dance between austerity and celebration. For example, after all the Diwali and New Year’s parties (oh and before we forget, Happy Chinese New Year!), we spend Kārtika month cultivating simplicity and purity.
Then we again get to celebrate and let loose during Pauṣa because of harvest season. Today, we begin the month of Māgha, which again brings us back to the rhythm of austerity and turning inwards.
On the path, especially at the beginning, we might skew towards either austerity or celebration. It’s good to be aware of what your tendency is.
For example, does the thought of sitting alone repeating a mantra scare you or comfort you? Do you feel delight or resistance to getting dressed up for ceremonies with your community? Does fasting sound soothing or painful?
How about joyfully singing the divine name – weird or awesome? Do you prefer structured, solitary, rigorous practices, or ecstatic, expressive, relational ones?
Luckily, it doesn’t really matter what we prefer, because both austerity and celebration are part of the path. And the more we practice, the more we have the incredible experience that austerity IS celebration.
For example, if you’re not a fan of austerity, meditation (the quintessential austerity!) can seem SO excruciating when you start. If you keep going though, it invariably becomes the most joyful, restful, and fascinating part of the day.
At this point, you might even have the wacky experience that celebration is actually austerity. For example, all the practices that are so fun at the beginning – like getting dressed up and going to temples for elaborate rituals – might start to feel like chores!
The month of Māgha is all about experiencing austerity as celebration. And the traditional practice for today’s New Moon is an essential austerity that most people tend to either enthusiastically cherish or desperately fear:
S I L E N C E
So before we go on, take a moment to check in. Do you feel delight, or resistance? Or both? Without judgment, be aware of your instinctive response.
The practice of experiencing silence (mauna) is a MAJOR cornerstone in this tradition. Our whole practice depends on it, which basically guarantees that our deep (deep!) resistance will kick up around it. And even when we think we’re pretty good at silence, there’s always further to go.
Silence in this tradition isn’t the same as an absence of sound, or an emptiness. It’s a form of pure stillness, and a fullness, a living presence. In fact, according to some traditions, you can actually sing silence as a mantra.
For example, when you chant the mantra Auṃ (Oṃ), the fourth letter after “a”, “u”, and “ṃ” is actually silence. And in that practice, rather than pausing in between the letters, you consciously sing the fourth, which is silence!
So observing silence is more than just not talking (although that’s a great place to start)! It means to really OBSERVE silence – to become aware of the deep stillness and quiet within all things, within each moment.
Silence is a physical form of the transcendent aspect of the divine. Silence, like the divine, holds all things, permeates all things, and is also beyond all things.
Why is silence so essential to sacred practice? Our whole world is constructed through sound. We begin to hear as early as 18 weeks old inside the womb, whereas for example our full vision does not develop until several months AFTER birth. Our first real experiences of life – and of being – are through sound.
As we get older, we learn to name the objects of our perception, and build a view of reality based on these names. Then, we spend the rest of life navigating (and struggling with) these concepts and stories. The space of silence restores us – even momentarily – to our original source state, which is free, whole, and peaceful. From here, we can perceive ourselves and the world with newness and clarity.
Practice: Observe Silence
The traditional practice for today is to take a vow of silence (mauna-vrata). In the most rigorous sense, this means no speaking, writing, reading, or unnecessary communication – with others or even with yourself.
It may take some time for the mind to settle (especially if it’s used to always being fed with language), and you might feel anxiety, boredom, or irritation.
Some people perform it for the whole day; others from sunrise to sunset; you can also commit to a fixed period of time (say an hour or two) where you will practice silence.
However, if this is not possible, the austerity of silence can also be performed by being disciplined with speech. Before speaking, or listening or reading something, ask yourself if it is really necessary and beneficial.
And, even as you speak, you can be aware of the underlying silence in the moment, and speak with awareness of and alignment with stillness. In fact, this is one of the great benefits of the austerity of silence – it gives you mastery and depth when you do speak.
You can also commit to observing silence in each moment of your day. As you move through the world, as you listen to sounds, simultaneously let yourself perceive silence.
Lastly, let the austerity of silence be a joyful celebration of our innate and untouchable freedom and unity!