Words and Silence

This may sound strange since I’m a writer, but sometimes I feel that words and language can weigh us down and overcomplicate our lives. At least as they are traditionally used: to argue and debate, to delineate and deduce, to explain and edify, to compile histories and construct theories. Politics, science, philosophy, religion. Even spirituality can veer off into wordiness. Some books and teachings engage the mind more than the soul. The deepest, most spiritual response to life is often just sitting or standing silently, in reverence. To look up at the trees and see God. To listen to birdsong and hear Spirit’s voice. No words required.

Of course, not all words run to excess or cause mental fatigue. Some poetry and prose can arise from a quiet space of being in the world. When I read Mary Oliver, Ann Patchett, or Mark Nepo, I feel a connection to the core of all life, Nature, and humanity, clearly expressed from the heart. Haiku is the simplest form of poetry. It pares language down to the basics and in doing so allows the reader infinite space to receive. Such writing engenders inner peace instead of a distracted, busy mind.

In one of Ann Patchett’s novels, two men from different countries who don’t speak each other’s language play chess for hours in silence. The tension and danger that surrounds them is broken by the peace that arises from their shared silence. I’ve seen chess players in a crowded city square also play in silence, those gathered around them silently watching. A small circle of stillness forms in an otherwise noisy area. How many other activities could we do quietly, creating peace in the world around us? Walking or birdwatching, for example. What about preparing meals or listening to music? We could in theory extend the list to everything. How would the world shift, without one word spoken?

Perhaps this is not completely realistic, but yet not wholly impossible, on a small scale, in our individual lives. If we hold stillness within us, outer noise falls away. Small talk evaporates. Busyness slows down. Our minds slow down. It suddenly doesn’t seem that necessary to narrate our every move or comment on everything (aloud or via texting, social media, etc.). In the space that opens up, we can rest in our own inner presence, without verbal interference.

Words can be a key part of our daily lives, and language a bridge to communicate with others. It is enjoyable and comforting to share our thoughts and feelings, bringing us closer together. But talking is not always necessary, and if we allow silence to expand within us and outside of us, what we do say becomes poetry or music arising from our souls. Gently touching the hearts of those around us and then dissolving into stillness again. Wouldn’t you love to live in a world like that? Take a deep breath, and don’t say a word. There you are.

Without a Word

I usually arise around 4 or 5 in the morning when there is predominantly silence everywhere. I sit in the darkness and rest in the stillness, soothed by the absence of noise or traffic outside. Soon the birds begin to sing, and the light of the sun fills the world. There are no voices or conversations interrupting the peace I feel at this time. I am absorbing the experience of morning without a word. Through my ears and eyes; through my cells. Presence.

So much of our lives is based in language, spoken or heard, filling our brains with thoughts. What would it be like to experience the world without mentally describing it to ourselves? Can you see a tree or bird without naming it as such? A person without mentally categorizing gender, age, race? Even beyond that, can you see anything without language, just experiencing it without a word? We humans have learned to divide the world with the words we have created to describe it. Often we aren’t even seeing what we see; instead we perceive a mental image of a word designation we have come to associate with something. We all do this. What if we tried to shift our awareness into just experiencing with no perceptual parameters? Life arising and falling away with no attempts on our part to capture it in words. Like the silence at dawn.

I’m a writer so this can seem like quite a challenge to me at times. Yet when I am walking in Nature or sitting in the silence of sunrise, it frees my mind to just experience the world from my heart, wordlessly. I practice seeing without naming as I walk among the trees, bushes, and flowers of the natural world. I can always write about it later, but in the experience itself I prefer to be and receive the full wonder of what is before me. I grew up an only child on five acres in the Illinois countryside, so I spent a lot of time alone during those years.  I had friends at school, but at home I enjoyed the solitude and silence of Nature. Somehow this has carried over to my adult life. I feel most at home in wordless Presence.

A number of years ago, when I was taking part in traditional fire ceremonies with Maya elders in Guatemala, I experienced this same kind of deep Presence. Even though words in the Maya language were spoken within the ceremony, somehow there was a profound silence that pervaded everything. No conversation, just inner quiet and receptivity. The stillness of Spirit linked our hearts and souls and also brought Nature’s magic beyond human language close to us. Bees circled in the air above the fire before the ceremony at Tikal, and birds swooped through the lingering smoke afterward. It was as if they were weaving the energy of the ceremony into the greater world. And none of us spoke at these times; to be wordlessly present was enough.

Of course, it’s not necessary or realistic to live like this all the time. Our friendships, family, and community arise out of communicating verbally and sharing life experiences, thoughts, and feelings with words. Yet, to step back at times and just be silent is deeply soothing. Your breathing slows, and your whole body relaxes. Space opens up within you for the soul to expand into present-moment awareness. Those who meditate or take long quiet walks experience this. I feel it in the stillness before the day begins. If we each found our way to including such experiences in our daily lives, perhaps we would be less busy and stressed. Sometimes the most profound moments of life occur without a word.

Without a Label

A good friend of mine recently told me that she loves my writing but doesn’t necessarily relate to the God references. She said she believes in something but doesn’t really have a label for it. She’s not alone. So many of us (myself included) have felt exactly the same at one time or another in our lives. And truthfully we don’t need a label–often language misses the point entirely. Some people and traditions prefer to leave the idea of a creator-being unnamed. Many Native Americans use the words “the Great Mystery.” Makes complete sense to me. I wasn’t raised in a religion, and I used to be put off by the groups who would go around house to house proselytizing about God. That word remained a negative trigger for me right up into adulthood, when I began my own spiritual exploration.

My first attempt at explaining how I thought of spirit at the time was the word “meaning.” I believed there was meaning in the universe because I could feel it in my heart. That’s as far as it went for a while. Eventually, I came to see that the word or description didn’t matter as much as the experience itself. I lost most of my objections to words and labels like God or Divinity. Still, I try to be low key about using them when I write because I know many people are uncomfortable about naming something that is in essence nameless. And it’s unnecessary. The deeper I dive into my soul, the more words fall away entirely. I experience a beingness or oneness that defies description.

So how do you write about that? How do you talk about it? Perhaps the best response to the mysteries of the universe is silence. Within that, everything arises. Immersion in something greater than language fills you. Nature shows me this more than anything else. Every time I am outdoors by myself I am deeply connected to the entire cosmos without a single word being spoken. This is why I prefer to be alone with Nature. Silence prevails. In the stillness, language is irrelevant. And mental naming is only a distraction. If you can walk slowly and quietly, or stand motionless, the natural world continues as if you weren’t there. You hear the birds singing, the wind in the trees, chipmunks and squirrels calling. You smell the earth and the foliage, and you can feel the living energy vibrating all around you.

This is Presence: being, without a name or label. Humans invented a language to describe what they were experiencing. Such descriptions can often be poetic and magical, but wordiness can diminish the essence of what is essentially a silent soul exchange. I am a writer so I know the power of expressing what is pouring through me to be shared, a divine connection to something wondrous. This is why I write. Yet, I also know that what ultimately allows that connection is an empty space of stillness, an openness to what some have called universal consciousness. Another name for God. We try, we humans, to express the inexpressible, to name what has no name. Within that trying is a sweet vulnerability that holds hope and loving awareness in it.

When we stop trying, however, when we stand in silent reverence without language or labels, the grace of something beyond expression pours over and through us. That is what we came here to Earth to experience and know deeply. And there are no words that can describe that miracle. Only profound gratitude comes close to touching the core of this meeting of Heaven and Earth in the human dimension.

Stillness of the Heart and Soul

The nonstop noise of the external world often keeps us from experiencing the quiet at the core of our being. There, a timeless eternal presence without sound or language awaits us, a connection to something greater than our individual, seemingly short lives. Outer distractions, both audio and visual, continuously surround us from our TVs, laptops, and cell phones and prevent a deeper relationship to all of life. Traffic sounds, machinery, and loud voices in nonstop conversation interrupt our peace of mind, even if we don’t consciously recognize the dissonance. Yet, something within each of us does know something is amiss and longs for an absence of sound within which we can feel calmer, more centered. How do we get there?

Many people have turned to meditation and yoga or quiet solitary walks in Nature for just this reason. It connects them to that inner space of quiet within. Once accessed, you may realize it is never absent, even in the noisiest surroundings. At least, that is what I have discovered over the years. There is silence beneath every sound, even the loudest, because sound arises from silence and falls back into it. There is silence between every note of music, every spoken word, and every birdcall. There is silence in my heart. If I pause, that silence rises to the surface, and I become silence itself, just peaceful presence. My soul holds the stillness of the universe and divine connection, and it is always available to me as I awaken more fully and deepen my awareness.

You and I are on this path together, this opening to the eternal stillness of all being. Every human is. It is the collective destiny of humanity, and the individual journey of each soul. The return Home after life on Earth…and a realization that Home is within us now. In silence we find it, and gradually it becomes so compelling that we choose to live the rest of our lives in conscious awareness of that divine stillness within. Sometimes world events, like a global pandemic that shuts everything down, become the catalyst for awakening to this deeper awareness. What appears on the surface to be crisis may open the doors of perception to untold universes within. In the absence of activity and noise, we find peace.

I grew up in the Midwestern countryside, an only child who spent most of my time outdoors. Nature’s quiet is part of me, and I reach out for it in my daily life. Even a small park with trees and flowers in an urban setting is enough to call me back to that inner silence of the heart and soul. I believe we all need this connection, especially now. If you feel distant from stillness in your life, it is not as far away as you may think. Don’t wait until life overwhelms you and crisis stops you to rediscover the essence of your being. Every day, take a few minutes alone to access that place of internal peace and quiet. Pause, close your eyes, breathe deeply—and there you are. As simple as that…

This Moment

Photograph © 2012 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2012 Peggy Kornegger
“There’s only now, there’s only here.
Give in to love, or live in fear….
No day but today.”
—Jonathan Larson

Life experiences involving loss, pain, or fear, which we all encounter at one time or another, may throw us off kilter at first. We are often so attached to a particular static version of reality that we cannot accept change of any kind. But if we remain open to the totality of what is before us, we can access a greater wisdom: Life is both fleeting and eternal. We can see this seeming dichotomy with more clarity in times of difficulty or challenge. The tenuousness of life hits us full force. We realize that all we ever really have is this moment, but it contains all of eternity within it. With that awareness, we can appreciate every single second as if it were our first or our last. We can “hold Infinity in the palm of [our] hand, and Eternity in an hour,” as William Blake has so eloquently written.

The uncertain health diagnosis about my eyes that I’ve been living with over the last weeks has placed this wisdom front and center in my life. If I race forward in my mind with what-if scenarios or retreat backward into fear and regret, I have lost the moment that is right in front of me now. No matter what events are transpiring, this moment before me contains all of life. All of it, both extraordinary beauty and acute loss. When I can hold both of those parts within me in a complete embrace of acceptance, I am at peace. If I can witness my life as it unfolds, without judgment or expectation, fully grounded in the present moment, I am free.

It is not always easy, and I am not always calm and centered, but an ongoing practice in stillness and conscious awareness has helped me tremendously. As I sit in silence, breathing slowly and deeply, I open to an expansive awareness that is observing and experiencing the world through me. This awareness at the soul level is completely neutral, peaceful, and unlimited. It is pure spirit, pure love, in the largest sense of those words. Within that space, there is no struggle. Everything is just as it is, in perfectly orchestrated symmetry. Peace of mind, peace of heart and soul.

As I have faced the fragility of my own body and my own life, I have come to an ever-greater appreciation of each moment. I have surrendered again and again to uncertainty and shifting sands. It’s truly a never-ending practice, letting go into not knowing anything, into living each moment fresh and innocent of opinion. Adyashanti calls this “falling into grace.” And grace can be gentle or cutting; it will open your heart in whatever way it can. For with an open heart, we live in gratitude. We live in love, not fear. And that is why we are here on this beautiful blue planet, in this infinite universe.

My journey is not complete, nor will it be complete, ever. I continue to open my heart (and have it opened for me) in gratitude, embracing more with each breath, with every experience. In this moment—the fleeting and eternal now—I am grateful for all the blessings that fill my days: Light and darkness, sadness and joy, silence and sound, movement and rest. The flow of giving and receiving all that life so generously offers us. When I allow myself to stand naked and awestruck, freed of assumptions, before the vast universe, realizing my cells are intermingled with the stardust from distant galaxies, I clearly see and feel the oneness of which we are all a part. A oneness encapsulated in every single grace-filled moment.