In Java, Indonesia, there are mystical communities who spend time silently together after an evening meal. They do not meditate, nor do they ‘relax’ or snooze. Rather, they sit attentively together in shared silence, just being with each other in the appreciation of existence. They may be smiling, gazing at each other, sitting quietly with their eyes closed, or taking in the vastness of the sky. Regardless of what they do, they are completely at ease with sharing silence. Most of us in the West don’t have a model for collective natural silence. Sitting in a space of alert, intimate silence with others in an informal setting is kind of a radical idea. We’ve never had the opportunity to feel totally at ease and absolutely alert, being no-one, going no-where within a group of people.
Like many teachers of awareness, I use dialogue as a central means for invoking and resting in pure awareness. However, in this contribution, I’d like to talk about the dynamics and flow of the silent dimensions of my work in part because this has become richer and more nuanced in recent years. I’d like to share the flavor of what can happen in these periods of natural silence so that you can enter them more deeply.
As a facilitator of nondual work, I often find myself saying nothing and doing nothing. Everything slows down and there is very little happening. After all, wherever we are, we aren’t going “anywhere.” This recognition allows silence to emerge naturally, and with this silence comes a rich sense of feeling connected to the others who are present, with no overt cognitive processing. A type of transpersonal communing within boundless awareness emerges with no effort. It’s possible to be in silent communion with people, some with their eyes open, others with their eyes closed, for 20 or 30 minutes; just appreciating the space that we are sharing individually and together.
The quality and energy of the silence that can emerge in this space is very different from the silence of most formal meditation. Normally when people “meditate,” they “agree” to be silent, mindful, introspective, or contemplative with a koan for a set period of time. In the space I’m describing, people know they can talk, move, and theoretically do anything at any time. People align to a space where nothing is prohibited, yet within which there is a deep respect for resting in the ultimate state of unconditioned awareness. We aren’t being silent for a predetermined amount of time. This allows the silence to be natural, uncontrived, effortless and potentially very deep. Nothing is being forced. There is no effort to avoid or produce anything. This is natural meditation: deep meditation without meditating.
I may close my eyes, but people know they can still talk to me. They can ask questions, or share their experience, because in the space we create together, nothing can be interrupted or disturbed. People often enter into profound states of the deepest quiescence because there is no pressure to be in any particular way. As this space deepens, thoughts begin to thin out. At an even deeper level, thoughts and feelings dissolve into nothing before they can take the form of a single word or a fleeting sensation. This is what I call the auto-liberation of thoughts and feelings. In this state, it is impossible to produce any interpretation of “what’s happening.” Energy that could take the shape of a thought-form continually dissolves into structureless awareness without any application of effort.
This type of vortex doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone. Regardless, the free-form space that neither encourages nor suppresses verbal communication undeniably supports the emergence of a samadhi-like resting in the state of profound unthinkability. In this state of unthinkability, it’s impossible to think about anything. We have no idea about what it is that we can’t think about, because even that thought can’t happen. This is the unthinkability of nondual wisdom.
In psychotherapy it’s often thought to be more useful to vocalize our silent thoughts and work with them in open dialogue. There is an obvious and vital role for dialogue in nondual inquiry. However, silent communication is a powerful way of invoking a form of deconstruction in which people can dissolve different structures, or points of reference, at the same time. In the nondual space, we don’t need to rush into any verbal exchange. We don’t need to stimulate an inquiry or a dialogue, but we can allow dialogue or inquiry to stimulate us as it arises naturally from awareness whenever it does.
A primary dimension of nondual awareness is that we aren’t conditioning the space; we’re not pushing it in the direction of speech or silence. As facilitators of this work, there is always the option of letting participant’s play out their silent conversations, giving them the opportunity to dissolve their own fixations. As a facilitator of this process you might sense that someone is poised to ask a question, but is unsure about whether to talk, or what to say. Here we play in the liminal spaces between silence, sub-vocal and vocal communication.
We are in an ambiguous place, not knowing what will happen next. You might be thinking, “It seems like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t know what to say.” You are dancing together in a place where talking may or may not happen. Neither of you know. This is a very intimate, and often light and playful experience, during which your participant is likely in her own silent conversation about if, and what, she might share.
If there’s a shared history in which workshop participants have experienced you publicly deconstructing different points of view and types of understanding about our condition or nature of reality, people continue to deconstruct their beliefs in the “projected conversations” they have with you in their mind. There is something very exquisite and beautiful in this shared space where the dissolving of ideas and concepts happens naturally and effortlessly.
Often, this type of sharing is punctuated by smiles and laughter—and we don’t even know what we’re laughing about—which can make this all the more absurd and wonderful!
In this space the nonverbal, extra-linguistic dimensions of communication become very rich. The turn of our mouth into the hint of a smile, or a broad grin, the tilt of our head, the relaxing or straightening of our posture, the seriousness on our face, clearing of our throat, settling back into unthinkability, are all tightly coordinated with the mental processing of people who are in the room. Our body becomes an instrument through which we communicate ease, relaxation and a letting go of all striving and needing to know.
I’m reminded of the Lankavatara Sutra in Buddhism that talks about how the Mahayana transmission happens in some awakened awareness fields (buddha-kshetra) without the need for words to be spoken. Contentless awareness is transmitted through steady gazing, in gestures, through a firm concentrated visage, by movements of the eyes, laughter, even by yawning, clearing the throat, or bodily vibrations. Perhaps this is the direction that nondual gatherings move towards when dialogue and inquiry matures into shared natural meditation.
When people aren’t given the same level of content or type of feedback that they normally receive in a conversation, they may begin to wonder what to speak about, or if there’s anything to speak about at all. They become engaged in silent conversations with themselves that can take them all the way through to unconditioned awareness. People drop into spaces of deep inner stillness that are extremely nourishing and profoundly centering.
The value in letting conversations unfold silently is that they allow us to dance in a set of open-ended possibilities without prematurely conditioning the space by asking a question, or making an observation that’s simply a reflection of our own insecurity. On the other hand, this needs to be balanced with an awareness of the fact that we sometimes protect ourselves from other people’s judgments and perceptions by being silent and uncommunicative. In nondual inquiry we’re often dancing at the confluence of the conditioned and the unconditioned, sensing the influence of our energy field in activating and releasing fixations.
This is a way of connecting with people at the transition point where someone moves from being silent to speaking. Here we are playing with “not knowing” around the themes of, “Am I going to talk first, or are you going the say something?” “Are you going to talk or not?” “Is anyone going to talk?” We are playing with the open dimension of nondual awareness within which there is no possible bias towards silence or speech. This play can go on for several minutes.
As a facilitator, I allow people to rest in the present moment. I provide very little content. For much of the time, there’s very little to do or say, very little for people to build on, and create meaning. After a while it becomes obvious that there’s nothing to understand.
People then have the opportunity to be with this space. They can fight it by looking for an argument or struggling internally. At the beginning of a workshop there may be periods of boredom and tiredness. But at some point there’s profound depth to the space. Participants can look at each other within the space with wonder and love. They’re neither bored, nor highly stimulated. They’re just sitting in alert presence, with great appreciation for the space.
Many forms of nondual teaching produce periods of natural silence, and it’s important we understand the function and potency of this experience. In a retreat setting, people can spend hours resting in subtle states of bliss-consciousness. In one-on-one sessions, people can spend many minutes in deep aesthetic appreciation, as their thoughts dissolve into unconditioned awareness.
In nondual work, silence is equally as potent as dialogue in terms of its capacity to enhance or diminish the experience of unconditioned awareness. The creation of meaning is just one possibility, but we aren’t compelled to make everything meaningful. We can make meaning out of thoughts and interpretations, but it is also possible to just be with “what is” without needing to understand it or make it significant. Resting in unconditioned awareness gives us less to think about because it is ultimately unrelated to our thinking. When we make a distinction between our thoughts and the awareness of those thoughts, we invite identification with awareness itself. Resting in awareness is completely unrelated to our thinking because the need to think or not think is simply a thought that arises within centerless awareness.
Not all experiences of silence decondition our minds. Silence can do the opposite: it can exacerbate and amplify people’s fixations. If people feel uncomfortable, silence can intensify feelings, especially if they feel that the opportunities for communicating are being curtailed or suppressed. This is why it’s critical in unfolding this type of work that we are totally open to everyone, without exception, and that we’re also open to the possibility that anything and everything can happen in the next moment. From our side, there is no such thing as an “interruption” or “disturbance” to this type of unconditioned silence, because this is the silence of pure awareness where there is nothing that can be disturbed.
Peter Fenner, Ph.D.
Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2012
Peter Fenner, Ph.D. is a spiritual leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom. Pioneer in the development of nondual therapy, he created the Radiant Mind Course® and the Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training. Peter runs courses, trainings, retreats and satsang telecalls and offers individual coaching sessions. His students and clients include Buddhist psychotherapists, psychologists, coaches, Zen masters, Sufi masters, Vipassana and Mindfulness teachers, Yoga teachers, psychiatrists, medical doctors, hospice workers, students of Tibetan Buddhism, followers of Advaita, artists and spiritual seekers worldwide.
Peter was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. Over a period of 40 years Peter Fenner has distilled the essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen and the Buddhist Middle Way, and adapted them to suit creatively our post-modern culture. He is the Director of Education of Timeless Wisdom.
The Radiant Mind Course (www.radiantmind.net) is taught in North America, Australia, and Europe, as well as the Natural Awakening Training, (www.nondualtraining.com.) Peter also offers retreats on 5 continents. He has presented his work at leading universities and institutions including Columbia, Stanford, CIIS and Naropa.
Peter Fenner has written extensively on Buddhist nondual traditions. His books and CDs include:
- “Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditional Awareness” (Sounds True, 2007) translated in French: “L’Esprit Lumineux” (Almora, 2010) and in German: “Reines Gewahrsein”;
- “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy” (ed. with John Prendergast and Sheila Krystal, 2003).
- “The Edge of Certainty: Dilemmas on the Buddhist Path” (2002) translated in French: “Le Fil de la Certitude, Dilemmes de la voie bouddhiste” (du Relié, 2001).