Volume 15 Number 4
The Power of Silence
01 August 2002
In a restless world, silence can be the source of healing and creativity, believes Rosa Bellino
Your poetry is very deep, where does it come from?' a lady asked me at the end of an international conference, where I had been invited to present my work. 'From silence,' I replied before pausing to think.
Later on, while reflecting on my answer, I realized that it embodied my theory of art. 'I would like my work to be the poetry of silence and to move to stillness,' I had written in my diary some time before.
Each work, whatever form it takes, is a 'trace' of a journey within, of an inner alchemy, a quest for identity, a drawing, a calligraphy, that reveals who we are at that particular moment, like a mark on the canvas called life. The brush dances on the paper, the words sing in the ear, each movement, unrepeatable, captures and is captive to a rhythm - a ballet in time and space of an odyssey which, at its best, is outside time and space.
In this journey there are special moments when the work is finished before starting it. It springs from within, as I wrote in one of my poems, I feed on silences (see above); the only thing left to do is simply to put it down.
When I say that my poetry and art come from silence, some find this a puzzling reply, perhaps even an attempt to avoid the question. Yet for people who have 'experienced', even for a single moment, the gift, the mystery, of creation, this is a reality, a simple fact.
I FEED ON SILENCES
I feed on silences
On the rarefied hours
Of the evening
When the night
Little by little
Swallows the day
With an embrace
That awaken in the soul
The potential to dissolve itself
And so hear the voices
That spring from within
The heart of the seeker
(From Rosa Bellino's unpublished book, 'Travel NowHere')
Foscolo, an Italian poet, wrote 'Sacred is silence to the vate', a Latin word that means both 'prophet' and 'poet', highlighting the intimate relationship that exists between art and spirituality. To create one needs to be 'inspired', literally to breath in the 'Spirit'. Plato, writing in ancient Greece, reminds us: 'The poet is an airy, winged, sacred being, who cannot compose unless he is inspired by the divinity, and before he looses his mind, he is no longer him.' Only then can the poet catch 'a harmony and a rhythm'. Good poets, for Plato, are the gods' interpreters.
Silence is the womb, the space that allows one to hear 'a harmony and a rhythm'. Silence is the inner shaft that lets us go deep within ourselves to the place of stillness where, having forgotten ourselves, we become 'like children' and enter the kingdom of God. As the Bible says, 'Be still and know that I am God.'
People from all centuries and traditions, East and the West, have left us precious traces of their journeys into stillness, footsteps, echoes, that, when heeded, can guide us in our inner voyage today.
'In love,' wrote the 13th century Persian Sufi poet Attar, 'there is no more difference between I and You, because I has been transformed into You.' Two centuries later the Spanish St John of the Cross would describe his journey to God, in his poem On a dark night, with almost identical words:
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German Dominican monk wrote, 'There is nothing in the world that resembles God as much as silence.' And, in our time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta affirmed: 'We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.... We need silence to be able to touch souls.'
In our everyday life we are so caught up with the 'noise' of the world, both outside and inside ourselves, that we are seldom aware of the silence between the sounds. When woven into our living, this precious, invisible, and yet healing dimension provides us with the rest that our too often frenetic lives deny us. A psychologist has written that many mental ailments would be eased if the mind could be put to rest. Silence allows the muddy water of our minds to clear. We begin to hear the chatter that too often entraps us within our heads and gives us a false sense of importance.
The ego, that is always ready to judge and condemn the 'other', makes us perceive ourselves as an island, separate, rather than as 'a piece of the continent', as the English poet John Donne put it. All sorts of conflicts arise from this. Blind to our common origin we are unable 'to love our neighbour' as ourselves.
Silencing the mind means having the courage to let go of the past - the hurts from which we derive a sense of identity and that all too often trap us in old, conditioned behaviour. And it means letting go of the future - our fears and expectations - to live in the present, the only time in which we can live. By living in the now we are able to give up all attachments to the result of our actions (known in India as karma yoga). Failure and success no longer give us an identity upon which we depend. By connecting to the silence underneath the mental noise we find peace within. It is only from 'here' that we can both forgive and build bridges towards our 'enemy'.
I wrote a poem (see end of article) about this process some years ago, after walking out of a conference at the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland, because I did not agree with what was being said. As I walked up the mountain in the rain and began to let go of my frustration, I came across a burnt-out house which was slowly being demolished. I felt sorry for both myself and the house. I thought that once it was gone there would be nothing left.
Then I realized that unless one lets go of the past - the painful memories, the burning pain - one can never build a new house, a new present. I also realized that I was attached to my pain, it was part of my identity. What or who would I be without my pain and resentment?
At the time we were expecting two delegations from East Europe who were coming to Caux in the hope that, in the more relaxed atmosphere in the mountains, they could find a way to reconciliation. I thought of them as I looked at the burnt house and realized that unless they were willing to 'let go', to finally bury their dead, their past, they could never hope to build a bridge between themselves. (Eventually only one delegation came and the chance was lost, at least on that occasion.)
In English, as in my language, Italian, the word 'present' means both 'now' and 'gift'. It is when we finally bury the past that we become free and receive the present. As I wrote in a poem:
that the present
The silent path requires courage and perseverance but its rewards are many, as people throughout the centuries have witnessed - and as prisoners across the UK are now discovering through the work of the Prison Phoenix Trust, which holds meditation and yoga workshops in jails. It is interesting to note that the word 'cell' is used in both monasteries and prisons.
'All you need for meditation is your body, your mind and your breath,' writes the founder of the Trust, Ann Wetherall. 'Being shut in your cell for much of the day provides you with an excellent opportunity for change.' According to an appendix to Light sitting in Light (Harper Collins 1996) by Sister Elaine MacInnes, the Trust encourages prisoners 'to look beyond just "doing time", to discover their true inner nature and to take responsibility for their own actions. Basic to this approach is the belief that there is a spiritual being inside all of us, however fearful or lost, and whether we are of any faith of none.'
When a prisoner makes contact, the Trust sends them two books, We're all doing time by Bo Lozoff and Becoming Free through Meditation and Yoga by Sr Elaine and Sandy Chubb (the Prison Phoenix Trust, 1995). The Trust promotes simple meditation techniques, to help prisoners find support on their personal journeys.
'Meditation is hard for everybody, because we've allowed our mind to run wild for several years,' writes Bo Lozoff. 'The mind can be a great servant, but a cruel and exhausting master... Meditation practice is simply about making enough quiet space inside to allow all the Wisdom of the ages, all the peace that surpasses understanding to flow through freely.'
MacInnes is a Catholic nun who studied meditation under a Zen Master in Japan. She retired as the director of the Trust two and a half years ago. She sees silence as a means of melting the blocks in our consciousness which stop the flow of which Losoff writes. 'Because the mind is kept in one-pointed concentration through breath counting, it will cease during meditation to be a wild horse, as Teresa of Avila used to describe her active mind,' she writes. 'But this will take time.... Eventually our resistance melts, and our demons follow its course.'
The effect on prisoners is confirmed by teachers, governors and prison chaplains - and by prisoners themselves. 'I can only say that what I saw as a hopeless situation has now become a blessing for my spiritual growth,' writes one. 'I have begun to enjoy life.'
'As long as I can remember, I have had this hurt inside,' writes another. 'I can't get away from it, and sometimes I cut or burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside. Then I saw the Prison Phoenix Trust Newsletter last month, and something spoke to me about meditation and although I didn't really know what it is, I wrote for the book. I just want you to know that after four days of meditation, a half hour in the morning and at night, for the first time in my life, I see a tiny spark of something within myself that I can like.'
In another of her books, Light sitting in light, Sister Elaine quotes a prisoner in Canterbury Prison, who wrote to tell her that he could feel his life was changing. The first thing people notice after beginning to practise meditation regularly is that they feel refreshed, she says. 'Later, that seems to deepen into a kind of attitude change, which brightens up the world for us. We start to feel really good about ourselves and our life. Then we get happier as we notice change in the way we perceive people and things and happenings, that they are all part of something special and sacred.'
Finally, she says, a flash of intuition awakens the meditator to a 'way of knowing' who they really are. 'This is a moment of great joy. And no matter what your past was, what you have done or what you haven't done... you are ecstatic and humbled about who you really are. In the East this is called the time when you "see your own Nature".'
During a stay in the Philippines, Sister Elaine taught meditation to several political prisoners, one of whom had been arrested five times under the Marcos regime, blindfolded and 'harassed almost beyond human endurance'. He wrote to her later, 'I am perfectly free, I am perfectly happy and deeply at peace. I have tasted of the true oneness you led me to in meditation. I know that where I am and where I want to be are no different at all. The bars and stone walls do not really separate me from my loved ones, from my friends, from my people... In reality, I and the universe are one.'
Silencing the mind is not the preserve of the selected few, but a practice available to everyone everywhere. Aren't we all captives after all? We all need to travel within. As I say in one of my poems:
There are people
Everywhere and get nowhere
And there are people
Who travel NowHere
Who get EVERywHERE.
But enough of words. As Rumi, a 13th century Sufi and poet from Persia wrote, 'Enough with such questions, let silence take you to the core of life. All your talk is worthless when compared to one whisper of God.'
THE WOODCARVER'S STORY
A woodcarver called Ching had just finished work on a bell frame. Everyone who saw it marvelled, for it seemed to be the work of spirits. When the Duke of Lu saw it, he asked, 'What sort of genius are you that you could make such a thing?'
The woodcarver replied, 'Sire, I am only a simple workman, I am no genius. But there is one thing. When I'm going to make a bell frame, I meditate for three days to calm my mind. When I have meditated for three days, I think no more about rewards or emoluments. When I have meditated for five days, I no longer think of praise or blame, skilfulness or awkwardness. When I have meditated for seven days, I suddenly forget my limbs, my body; no, I forget my very self. I lose consciousness of the course of my surroundings. Only my skill remains.
'In that state I walk into the forest and examine each tree until I find one in which I see the bell frame in all its perfection. Then my hands go to the task. Having set myself aside, nature meets nature in the work that is performed through me. This, no doubt, is the reason why everyone says that the finished product is the work of spirits.'
(From 'Becoming free through meditation and yoga' by Sister Elaine MacInnes and Sandy Chubb)
I went out into the rain
I felt only with the rain
I could share my pain, so...
I went out into the rain
And cried with pain
Water in the skies
Water in my eyes
Half way up the mountain
A burnt house stood
Blackened by fire
Barbed with wire
It was beyond repair
It echoed my despair
There up the mountain
Searching for an answer
I lost all restraint
And once more
I cried into the rain
I found myself staring
At the house again
Scarred by fire
Scarred by wire
Then I saw someone
Who with great pain
Was pulling it down
Untroubled by the rain
With tender care
As if in prayer he was
On top of the mountain
I found myself staring
At my life again
Scarred by pain
It was time to come down
And make way
For a new day
I went out into the rain
And let go of my pain
© Rosa Bellino
i was in prison 8 years ago and i got these books from the prison phoenix trust.They turned my world and my life around.I have not been in trouble with the police and i still practice yoga and meditation.I teach meditation to inner city kids and adults in Manchester.I have traveled to India to explore further the art of meditation and yoga.I feel so affected by all the shooting lately of black youths and i know that white kids are going throu it too.When we see the truth of who we are we can not kill each other
Andrew Enniscole, 20 March 2007
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