Volume 17 Number 1
Don't Just Do Something
01 February 2004
I longed for the disciplined clear thinking mind that leads to a simple life. As it's been said: 'Don't just do something. Sit there.'
BY NIGEL HEYWOOD
In early 2003 the cities of New York, Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal suffered a power blackout. When the lights went out, teenagers saw the stars in the night sky for the first time. They were experiencing visual silence.
I am writing from India, where I am part of a group from 19 countries who will live and travel together in Asia for nine months, under the name of Action for Life. The group includes Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and those of no religious faith. Part of our community life is an experiment with silence.
On the first day of the programme we got up before dawn and walked in silence up onto the second biggest plateau in Asia, where we sat on a cliff edge and watched the sun rise over India. The vast valley below was slowly revealed to us with its dams, fields and villages. Far away, we could hear an ox bell.
'Loneliness is inner emptiness,' writes Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline. 'Solitude is inner fulfilment. Solitude is not first a place but a state of mind and heart.' The solitude that we seek is not to escape our lives but to re-enter them transformed in mind and spirit.
We spend each Monday in silence, from 10 am until 5.30 pm. The Bhagavat Gita tells us, 'The man who in his work finds silence, and who sees that silence is work, this man in truth sees the light and in all his works finds peace.' After the first quiet day many admitted that silence was a struggle for them. 'I suddenly realized how loud my thoughts were,' said one person. 'If I had started to speak I would have been yelling.'
During the course of that day I flipped back and forth from one feeling to another: impatience, guilt, peace, remembering the past, worrying about the future, wanting to get on with the present. I longed for the disciplined clear thinking mind that leads to a simple life. As it's been said: 'Don't just do something. Sit there.'
One Monday we looked at a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' We asked ourselves: How honest am I? How selfless? How pure in my thought and action? How consciously loving? 'To hear God we need a clean heart,' said Mother Theresa.
Another Monday, one of the group went up on the plateau, took a gum leaf from a nearby tree and wrote all her worries and fears onto it. But when she threw it off the cliff, the wind blew it straight back to her. She threw it again and the wind returned it. After ten attempts, she came to the conclusion that perhaps she did not really want to let these things go. In the end she wedged the leaf in a rock to return to another day.
Another of us went through her life and made a list of all the bad things she had done and wrote letters of apology. She then apologized to the Asians in the group as she realized that she had not been talking to them because of a prejudice she held in her heart.
As we gather in small groups at the end of each quiet day we try to express what blocks us from our Creator and how we are removing those blocks. As we come closer to revealing who we are, our courage, mutual support and trust grow and become the foundations of our community.
At times, of course, we seek peace, or answers, and come away disheartened. Then the struggle and discipline of surrender begins. Instead of receiving we must give, stop our own words, let go of our desires and yield our time, to make space for silence.
Nigel Heywood is an Australian fine arts graduate, now travelling in Asia with IC's Action for Life training programme.