My objective in prayer is stillness and silence. It is a state of mind in which one’s attachment to the fractured narrative implied by thought is loosened. One becomes aware of the space in which those thoughts occur, and of the gaps in between them. To pray is to enter into the willingness that precedes undoing.
But what do I mean by stillness and silence? Is the brain literally emptied of thought? Does its movement – from this idea to that, fluttering like a butterfly or a hummingbird – cease?
I want to suggest – cautiously – that stillness and silence are a natural condition and that we encounter them by discerning first what they are not: movement and chatter. So in prayer one observes the nature of the mind – how it moves and how it articulates movement. And then based on that observation, one realizes that is not all that is going on and begins to make contact with what what is beyond the noisy dance of the day-to-day mind.
There is nothing new in this, of course. Thomas Merton talked about it. Therese of Lisieux talked about it. Harada Roshi did. And Guru Nanak. Krishnamurti and David Bohm explored it in their published dialogues. It is an old idea – easy enough to find and compose a paragraph or two about – but quite another thing to bring into application. To realize as a present experience.
Like most physical organs, the brain simply does what it does: it takes data from sensory perception and organizes it in hopefully helpful ways. Thought sometimes feels like brain’s effluvium, the natural output of its constant effort to arrange and order the barrage of information confronting it.
Contemplative prayer – which takes as its starting point the simple observation of mind – allows us to see this. It allows us to question our devotion to certain thoughts. Some just float by, right? Yet others we grab hold of and begin to work on – replaying how they worked in the past, plotting how they might play out in the future. Why?
Maybe we see too that we are not very good at concentration. Maybe we wonder just who is in charge up there – deciding what will get a lot of attention and what will get only a little. Maybe we will start to appreciate how difficult it is to know reality through such a shifting set of filters.
Just seeing all that and raising it up to be questioned, to be looked into, is healing. It is helpful. Because when we see how fleeting and chaotic thought is, we detach from it. Even just a little. Our skin flakes off all the time and we don’t pitch a fit. So maybe we can have that diffidence with thought, too.
I think it is then – for me it is then – that we begin to realize that there is a space beyond thought. I say that carefully, not wanting to sound like a know-it-all, which I emphatically am not, and also not wanting to obscure with language what is not dependent on words in the first place.
Or rather, a space in which thought happens. And we begin to look around that space – what are its dimensions? What is the nature of its boundaries – or is it boundless? What is its ground? Who else is here?
That exploration, in turn, reveals that there are tiny spaces between our thoughts. Gaps in which thought does not intrude. And so one tries to make contact with them, as well. Extending or enlarging those gaps. They, too, point to the larger space, that openness.
So I am saying that openness – that space – is stillness and silence and it owns a vitality that is absent from our thoughts. It is actually alive – fluid and dynamic and pervasive. It has no beginning and no end. It does not relate to the past or the future. It is not personal in any way. No Buddha, no Jesus. No courses or teachers. No websites.
Sooner or later, through attention – which is our prayer – we recover it. We remember it. Gracefully, helpfully – perfectly lovingly – it ends us.