During this period of mandatory confinement, when  our normal activities have been curtailed and our public spaces have fallen silent, commentators in the media have suggested numerous ways to fill the void: movies we might watch, books we might read, things we might make or do. Some of those suggestions have been helpful. But the reduction of sound and activity in our external environment might also prompt us to consult its inner counterpart: the silent, abiding dimension of our minds, which often goes undetected and unacknowledged. A well-spring of intuitive knowledge, it is also a source of compassionate wisdom.

In Buddhist teachings this dimension is known by various names. In the Theravadan tradition, it is sometimes called “natural awareness,” or, more lyrically, “the one who knows.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “Big Mind” (as distinguished from ordinary, voluble, ego-centered mind). More obliquely, an old Zen koan refers to it as “the one who is not busy.” Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “the mind of non-discrimination,” the act of discriminating being the busywork of ordinary mind. And Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi has called it “the silent mind,” the term I prefer and have enlisted here.

However variable the terminology, the distinguishing qualities attributed to this faculty remain relatively consistent across the differing schools. Of those qualities, the three most salient are its constant, uninflected nature; its capacity for knowing what is present, within and without; and its particular way of knowing—a way very different from that of everyday linear thought.

As even an hour of introspection will confirm, our mental and emotional states are anything but permanent or reliably stable. In the morning we may feel dull and irritable, in the afternoon alert and relaxed. By contrast, the silent mind is immutable. It is not depressed when we’re depressed or angry when we’re angry. At any moment during the day or night, especially when the external world has been upended, we may suddenly feel anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The onset of such states is not predictable and for many not controllable. But the silent mind is not subject to those changes. For that reason it is a dependable refuge, to which we can return, time and again.

And just as taking refuge in the silent mind can provide stability in the midst of chaos, it can also engender insight into things as they actually are. Buddhist teachings speak of the “five hindrances,”—the mental states of craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt—which skew our perceptions and hinder our ability to see clearly. Classical teachings liken those states to disturbances in calm, clear water. Craving is like dye suffusing the water, making it opaque. Aversion is like heat, causing it to boil. Sloth is like algae, agitation like wind, doubt like darkness. Inhabiting our silent mind, we acknowledge whichever hindrance might be preventing us from seeing clearly. By recognizing that particular hindrance, we see how it is causing us to deny, exaggerate, minimize, or otherwise distort whatever is occurring. And, having gained that insight, we can more wisely decide what action, if any, we should take.

This way of knowing is not the same as “thinking through a problem” in the usual linear fashion. Its nature is contemplative rather than logical, holistic rather than narrowly focused. In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind,” Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, compared this mode of being, seeing, and knowing to that of a wading bird. As a blue heron stands perfectly still and quietly observes its surroundings, so the silent mind takes in what is present, not zeroing in on any one aspect of the scene. It comprehends the whole. Poised and alert, it stands ready to respond, without resistance and with the totality of its being, to whatever might occur.

The Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas (1927-2012) called the silent mind “the mind of readiness,” “the deep quiet mind that is always present, even in the midst of activity.” Yet, despite its abiding presence, it may escape our conscious notice much of the time. And even when we are resolved to return to it, we cannot throw a switch to turn it on. What we can do, however, is cultivate our silent mind by inviting it into our conscious awareness. Sitting upright and still, quietening ourselves with conscious breathing, we can open our awareness to our breathing, our bodily sensations, and the ambient sounds in the room. Thus established in the present moment, we can gently shift our attention from the foreground to the background: from our sensory impressions to awareness itself, our living presence in the vastness of existence. By such means, practiced with discipline and devotion, we can ground and nourish ourselves, even in the midst of our anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. And over time, if we are faithful in the practice, we can experience the peace of the silent mind.


In a talk entitled “The Silent Mind”: Alan Watts, “The Importance of Meditation”

Sobun Katherine Thanas: The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is (Shambhala, 2018), 35. Continue Reading »

Robert Frost

On the eve of the Second World War and during a period of acute personal distress, Robert Frost composed “The Silken Tent,” a lyric poem widely regarded as one of the finest sonnets written in English in the twentieth century. A love poem in the tradition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is also a hymn in praise of personal composure:

            She is as in a field a silken tent

            At midday when a sunny summer breeze

            Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

            So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

            And its supporting central cedar pole

            That is its pinnacle to heavenward

            And signifies the sureness of the soul,

            Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

            But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

            By countless silken ties of love and thought

            To everything on earth the compass round,

            And only by one’s going slightly taut

            In the capriciousness of summer air

            Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

In these eloquent lines, cast in the strict rhymed form of the English sonnet, Frost elaborates a single complex sentence and a single unifying metaphor. Likening an unidentified woman to a silken tent, he compares her strength of character to a cedar pole, her interdependent relationships to guy lines, and her bonds of affection to the “cords” that tether her to the earth. Contrasting the connotations of bound and bondage—the former suggestive of obligations, the latter of enslavement—he portrays a person grounded in real life but also flexible, buoyant, and untrammeled. In the midst of social pressures and ever-shifting conditions, she remains balanced and resilient—qualities of heart and mind that the narrator much admires. Continue Reading »

If you are of a certain age you may remember the CB Radio craze. In the late seventies, long before the advent of smart phones, Citizens Band radio became wildly popular in America, not only with truckers and tradesmen but also with enthusiasts and hobbyists, who talked back and forth in their cars and trucks, warned each other of road conditions and speed traps, and entertained themselves by tuning into Channel 9, where fires, crimes, and other emergencies were reported and help dispatched.

Such was the pastime of one Allegany County [New York] resident, who lived alone in the country and spent his idle hours on his CB radio. On one occasion, so the story goes, this gentleman was seated comfortably in his bathroom, taking care of business, when he heard a report of a house fire in progress. Listening eagerly for details, he learned to his considerable consternation that his own house was on fire. Fortunately for him, he hastily assembled himself and fled the house, escaping serious injury. Continue Reading »

222. A zone of peace

“How do we find our own place in a complex political world,” asks the American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, “and find a way towards peace?”

For some, the way might be a studied indifference, a turning away from politics altogether. For others, it might be engagement: social activism in the cause of peace. But for Kornfield, the appropriate initial response, and a prerequisite for wise and effective action, is first to “stop the war within.” “Our first task,” he observes, “is to make our own heart a zone of peace.” Continue Reading »

Mary Oliver

“Attention,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), “is the beginning of devotion.”

Oliver’s bold assertion appears at the end of her lyrical essay “Upstream,” the title essay in her 2016 collection. In the preceding paragraph, she implores her readers to introduce children to the sensuous delights of the natural world:

Teach the children. . . . Show them the daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.

Thus instructed, children may “learn to love this green space they live in.” But they must first learn to pay attention. Continue Reading »

220. Something new

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

Dale S. Wright

Recall, if you will, the last time you felt deeply angry. Someone had hurt and offended you, and the more you dwelt on the indignity you’d suffered, the angrier you became. You felt your anger rising in your stomach, your chest, your body generally. You wanted to retaliate, and you imagined what you might say or do. At the very least you wanted to break the nearest plate or throw your cell phone against a wall.

Now imagine some future indignity, but this time with a very different response. Rather than fuel your anger with destructive scenarios, you choose simply to feel and acknowledge it. “Anger has arisen in me,” you might say to yourself, while practicing conscious breathing. And rather than reflexively condemn the words or actions that have occasioned your outrage, you elect to look into their causes. What personal or social conditions prompted that person to speak or act as he or she did? What specific event triggered that insulting remark? Might that trigger have had little or nothing to do with you? Continue Reading »