Silence, by Thich Nhat Hanh

I feel jet lagged after traveling to a music therapy conference near Newark, New Jersey and then vacationing with Norwegian and Swedish friends in their summer cottages near Oslo and Stockholm. My trip home on Saturday night was very long and tiring. Mark is visiting with friends near Munich until Thursday, so we are without our regular bell ringer tonight.

Since I returned home to hot, steamy Houston, I’ve found refuge in reading the first chapter of Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, a recent book by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He starts off by saying, “Unless you live alone in the mountains without electricity, chances are you’re absorbing a constant stream of noise and information all day long.” I resonated with his statement, “Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.”

Many people seem afraid of silence and fill their lives with texting, music, radio, TV, and repetitive thoughts. When I go on month-long retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, we are asked to surrender our cell phones at the manager’s office. Some of my more youthful fellow meditators go through withdrawal pains from addiction to social media. Ironically the very technology that is supposed to “connect” us leads to loneliness. Constant stimuli can distract us from uncomfortable feelings of isolation, sadness or restlessness. In silence, those feelings surface.

Thich Nhat Hanh mentions four kinds of food that we consume every day. Known in Buddhist philosophy as the “Four Nutriments,” they are edible food, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness—both individual and collective. Sense impressions are sensory experiences received through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, including what we hear, read, smell and touch. Right now you may be aware of hearing passing cars or Metro trains, sensing your feet touching the floor, and seeing other people around you. You consume this kind of information throughout the day.

After edible food and sense impressions, the third source of nutrition is volition or our will, concern or desire. This is considered food because it “feeds” our decisions, actions and movements.   The fourth kind of food is consciousness—the way the mind feeds thoughts, words and actions, both individually and in society.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, any one of these foods can be healthy or unhealthy, nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption. When we are upset, we may eat junk food or drink too much alcohol, which often ends up making us feel worse afterwards. Sometimes we eat not from hunger but in order to console ourselves when we are lonely or worried. On retreat, I benefit from loving, mindful preparation of three vegetarian meals per day.

With sensory food, we may limit ourselves to wholesome, uplifting media, or we may use video games, sensationalist movies, celebrity magazines or gossipy chats to distract ourselves. As Thich Nhat Hanh states, “Our senses are our windows to the outside world. Many of us leave our windows open all the time, allowing sights and sounds of the world to invade us, penetrate us, and compound the suffering [inside].” Conversation is sensory food. When we talk with people who are bitter or envious, we absorb their negative energy. We have a choice to end such a conversation in a polite but firm way in order to protect our inner peace. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends staying aware of the breath and the inner climate no matter where we are and who is with us.

Volition can be either constructive motivation that gives us a sense of purpose or unhealthy craving and obsession. With so many advertisements, movies, games and billboards around us, we are bombarded with messages about how we should look and what we should be doing to achieve success. Due to so much noise, we seldom pay attention to our true innermost desires. Without space and quiet, our actions lack intentionality, and we drift without purpose.

How often do you reflect: “Am I doing what I want with my life? Do I know what my life purpose is?” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “To fully experience life as a human being, we all need to connect with our desire to realize something larger than our individual selves. This can be motivation enough to change our ways so we can find relief from the noise that fills our heads.”

Like other forms of nutrition, consciousness has both healthy and unhealthy dimensions.   On an individual level, each of us has a capacity to love, forgive, understand and be compassionate. If we learn how to cultivate these qualities in our consciousness, we feel good inside and benefit those around us. We can choose to cultivate healthy thoughts in our consciousness instead of toxic obsessions that cause us suffering. We can hurt ourselves and damage our relationships when we don’t pay attention to what we absorb and cultivate in the mind.

Apart from our individual consciousness, we absorb collective consciousness. Consider how differently the mood or consciousness of a group affects you, if it is supportive and happy or if it is competitive, judgmental and angry. When we surround ourselves with people who are committed to being loving and caring, we are nourished by their presence, and our own capacity to love is strengthened. When our companions are gossiping, criticizing one another and complaining about their circumstances, we soak in their toxins.

Because each nutriment affects us, it’s important to be aware of what and how much we are consuming. Awareness is crucial for our protection. On Monday nights, our Insight Meditation Houston sangha aims to create a quiet, peaceful physical environment. Our collective energy is calm and compassionate. During the week, whenever possible, we can consciously choose who and what we bring into our surroundings, so that we create more space for peace, joy and silence.