The Silent Mind
Reviewed and updated 3 March 2019
‘I think therefore I am‘. Rene Descartes wrote in 1637
There may be many interpretations to this quote by Descartes but mine in this context is a literal one. The process of thinking requires someone who is doing the thinking – an ego personality – the identification with a ‘me’ or ‘I’. The continual affirmation of our separateness and individualism is supported by the mind and its ability to weave never-ending stories about who we are, which we take for granted and it is this that gives life and energy to the identity we associate as ‘me’ without questioning.
In the scope of our discussion based on moving beyond a self, what would happen if we reversed the quote to read ‘I don’t think therefore I am not’ – would that stand the test of my personal experience?
Well, the answer to that question is both a yes and no. There are a number of misdirections on this journey that I previously took as being a given, a few that that may well be true for some people, but they certainly haven’t been part of my experience so far. These include anticipated milestones such as a Big Bang Enlightenment, the achievement of a life of permanent bliss and harmony and finally my confusion over what the silent mind might look like in reality.
My misconception on this aspect of the journey had its origins in my early days, which were based on mantra focussed meditation and repetitive chanting. The goal of this yoga was what my teacher described as ‘stilling the modifications of the mind’ and it was always my belief that in order to reach any sort of final conclusion to the journey (I was still hooked on ‘Tony in a blissful state’ at this time) a thought-free mind was an integral component to the tick-a-box pre-requisite. Maybe it is but in my experience there are progressive stages to get there rather than a sudden arrival of internal silence in one of those anticipated dramatic spiritual experiences.
My mother wrote extensively about the silent mind and this supported my belief that stilling the mind was a gateway to the Truth. For example Amy gave this description of a silencing of the mind she experienced as a once-off early on her path:
It was a week or so later that I woke suddenly in the night and found that my mind was held in a state where thought was impossible. There was just a state of ‘no-thought‘. I lay in bed looking up into the darkness unable to formulate any concepts as to what had happened to my mind. At last, feeling that doing something might help, I got up and went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. Evidently thought was not necessary for action. There was an undercurrent of fear, but without the ability to think and to analyse, there was just what was: a state of emptiness.
For me then it came as a surprise when I moved into a largely no-self state (stage 3) but thinking didn’t stop. Thoughts still flowed and the mind wasn’t held in a totally silent state. In my example what I was experiencing could be described by mixing the Descartes quote to read ‘I still think and yet I am not’. It was a sort of 50/50 outcome. Identification with an ego had mostly left the building but the aspect of thinking, which I anticipated would exit with it, still remained. However, the longer and deeper my new state of realisation lasts and the more I reflect on what the mind now looks like at this time, I come to acknowledge that things are not as they were and I want to expand on that.
Let’s look at some words extracted from a chapter in Bernadette’s book titled ‘The Silent Mind‘ as it offers a useful introduction to an alternative view for the type of silent mind that I currently experience, at this stage of the journey anyway. I have added my own comments based on experience to each of Bernadette’s points:
The state of no-self is the breaking up of a self-conscious system whereby the mind can no longer see itself as an object; and at the same time, it loses the ability to find any other object to take its place because when there is no self there is also no other.
TONY: A perfect summary of Stage 3. I can attest to this description as this is exactly the state I find myself as I describe in this book. My latest chapter The Mind and Metadata, written before I started to edit this Silent Mind chapter, offers my interpretation of the base cause for this no-self state, although I cannot offer any specific explanation of how to get there.
Where before, thought has been a product of a reflecting introspection, objectifying mechanism – ever coloured with personal feelings and biases – now thought arises spontaneously off the top of the head, and what is more, it arises in the now-moment which is concerned with the immediate present, making it invariably practical.
TONY: Once again my chapter The Mind and Metadata gives an explanation of how the loss of emotional memory recall, ‘ever coloured with personal feelings and biases’ as Bernadette describes it, that gives energy to the thoughts of the moment fades in the no-self state. Yet, we don’t become zombie-like with no ability to process and respond to everyday life.
For those of you who literally apply the Descartes quote and believe that you need to think to exist, I find it isn’t quite like that and reactions to life and thinking in a no-self state is similar to the natural instincts involved in riding a bike, as an example. There is no conscious recall of memory or learned skills required to jump on a bike and ride away (as long as you do know how to ride!) The physical participation of that moment does not require the active involvement of the mind. It is action without thought – a no-self doing.
What this means is that thinking goes right on even when there is no self, no thinker, and no self-consciousness; thus, there is no such thing as a totally silent mind.
TONY: I also find this to be true (at this point anyway) and an unexpected outcome based on my meditation practices as previously stated. However, I do experience an increasing internal silence the longer I exist in this state. The whole character of thinking has changed dramatically and I will expand on that shortly.
One way to look at this journey is to see it as a process of acclimation to an unself-conscious mind, or as a transition from a relative to a non-relative way of knowing.
TONY: This is one of Bernadette’s statements that I have read before but now makes sense because it matches my reality. In a few simple words she describes the essence of a fundamental change to life that removes our reliance on a personality, ego based thought driven process to a far more subtle ‘unselfconscious’ alternative. Thoughts are now spontaneous in their arrival in the conscious mind applicable to the context of the moment and they come with no attached ‘personal feelings or biases’ (metadata).
So, the awakening is simply the awakening out of the dream of thought; out of being totally immersed in that dream. Not that thought does not arise, it still can arise and does arise and yet you dwell beyond thought. In the state of presence, stillness, alert awake stillness in which nothing is known and yet everything is known. Tolle
This means that the silent aspect of the mind is actually the absence of self, or as I prefer to call it – the silence of no-self.
TONY: I found that what Bernadette calls ‘the silence of no-self’ is how it has worked for me. The transition to a ‘no-self’ reality in itself does not require a loss of thinking – a silent mind prerequisite. I found that my early days in Stage 3 still had a strong element of thinking, although thoughts didn’t have the power over my actions, reactions and emotions as they had before. My experience is that the dissolving of the mind’s modifications has been a gradual process AFTER achieving a measure of no-self.
In editing this chapter and reflecting on my reality I realise that in fact a degree of silence has crept up on me without any fanfare of arrival. The words I type now come from somewhere that does not require thoughtful reflection. Once I stop typing and look at the view of the Thai farm pond in front of me (a timber hut on the edge of the pond is where I mostly edit this book) there is observation but absolutely no thought.
It takes a while to adjust to a new way of life wherein it eventually discovers that the basic structure of the mind and its facilities remain intact and perfectly functional, but functional in a new way.
TONY: It is the subtle nature of this increasingly thought free environment that allows for a more comfortable adjustment. The extent of the loss of a constant flow of thoughts has been largely unnoticed. I will expand on the concept of a new way of functioning later.
Once the mind can no longer reflect on itself, all energy or movement of the self is gone; the feelings and emotions are in silence; the memory has been so denuded that the past is lifeless without continuum at all.
TONY: Totally supported in my reality and by the chapter I keep referring to The Mind and Metadata. I won’t repeat what I have already covered in that space.
A silent mind is not a blank mind – the thinking goes right on, but now it passes the synaptic self that continually colours incoming data before sending it out again. The thoughts that now come to the mind do not arise from within but originate ‘off the top‘, so to speak, and then, only when dealing with the obvious data on hand at any given time.
TONY: It is this distinction between a ‘silent mind’ and a ‘blank’ mind that is the key, because unless it is experienced the two would normally be considered the same. The word ‘blank’ in this context is like the nightmares of sitting an exam, opening the paper and the mind goes ‘blank’ in response to the questions posed. Many of us have experienced that moment – a paralysis of thought, or certainly of thought relevant to that situation. The actuality of a silent mind is different I that it still allows for the automatic access to whatever is required to function normally within the scenario presented in that moment. It just is that there are no stories attached to where that response originated from.
In this way, the mind is always clear, but not clear of thought per se, only clear of thought that had been clouded and infected by the waters of self.
TONY: A spot on summary of all the previous points. I only respond to statements like these based on my actual experiences. Mine is not a book of theory or supposition. This chapter has existed in draft form for many months but never finished because I didn’t have a full understanding of what was being described. I wasn’t totally in the state Bernadette described or if I was I couldn’t describe it. The motivation and energy to complete this section arrived much more recently and I know why it has because now my everyday experience has given life and understanding to what was previously a theoretical concept.
These following words from Amy give another insight to what I have written so far. She speaks not only to the silent mind but the fact that while some aspect of self still views that stillness there is more work to do, which I discussed previously in that chapter Where to Next.
This state of inner stillness or ‘fasting‘ of the mind, as Maharaj sometimes called it, makes living very focused in the present moment, but there is still the duality of ‘me’ experiencing the void, a witness to this state of Emptiness, and so there is still more to lose in the way of self-consciousness.
So, having given a foundation to this topic using Bernadette as a source how does this ‘active’ silent mind work in everyday life for me?
- Firstly, where before an active focus is required to slow down or stop the endless natural flow of thought, using disciplines like meditation, now it is almost a case of mentally kickstarting a thought process to get anything happening internally. I am not at that point yet but I have certainly noticed a gradual shift to a default state where silence rules and this is over-layered by thoughts that tend to ‘float’ cloud like, without strong definition, and pass through consciousness leaving no emotional or mental trace. These are largely ‘powerless‘ thoughts or in Bernadette’s words they are free of being ‘infected by the waters of the self‘.
- Silence in the now is helped by the fact that the past mostly doesn’t intrude into the current moment. As discussed in the last chapter, once the metadata attached to memory images is dissolved then there is nothing to energise thoughts and give them the power to override the current moment. I can vaguely recall a faint historical timeline but nothing comes with it in the form of emotions or reality that feeds the mind’s appetite and desire for thought creating energy. Without an emotional stimulus reward it seems that the mind just doesn’t bother trying to delve back into the past to retrieve memories to play across the cinema screen of the present.
- I find that thoughts about possible future events still make an appearance but in a very practical way rather than as an energy sapping series of what ifs and exploration about the feelings that might be associated with the achievement of that activity – the emotional payback/reward.
For example, last week I felt like spending some time at my favourite local Buddhist wat (temple). Desires like these seem to arrive not as a strongly held urge or as part of some schedule of activities but just as a softly arising suggestion that sits comfortably within that moment. I describe this as a ‘softly arising’ because the concept is the only energy that appears in the conscious mind. The normal hard thinking that would accompany that urge such as scheduling a time, deciding what specifically might I do when I get there or how I will feel about the whole experience – the whole future vision thing – is totally absent. There is no expectation and little detail attached to this event on my day’s list of activities because none is required to make it happen. I don’t need to explore all the maybes and emotions about visiting a temple. It will either happen or it won’t, either of these outcomes has no effect on my state of being and my experience when I am at the wat will be what it is.
I find that this example can be generally applied across the range of thinking where this ‘softly’ floating thought is the norm rather than being an exception or the result of the application of some mindful discipline.
Like everything related to the description of my experience on this path, it is based on my personal observation only. I don’t suggest this is the progression of stages or altered reality someone else will experience. Moving to deeper levels of that experience, as Amy writes about later in her journey, will either happen or not. I have had no control over the steps of this process so far and am not expecting that state of affairs to change!
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