Teaching Without Words
In felt silence we rest, always to heart
giving, always heart receiving.
As research took me more deeply into the historical roots of my spontaneous meditative experience, I discovered a host of teaching methods used by both masters and advanced practitioners to prepare beginning students for “resting in silent awareness.”
These methods often included mind-based activities, like listening to spiritual talks, reading explanatory texts or reflecting on holy scriptures, but other kinds of practices were offered, too. In ancient China, for example, students of contemplative Taoism learned first to focus on the breath in order to quiet their thoughts; eventually they rested in the Tao without making the breath their meditation object.
When following the ancient Buddhist practice of dozgchen, novices quieted their minds by visualizing a specific symbol or making prescribed sounds; later, they released the symbol or sound and resided naturally in the silent state of rigpa. The twentieth-century Hindu, Ramana Maharshi, invited his students to engage in a process of self-inquiry that began with a thought (“Who am I?”) and ended (if it bore fruit) in direct, silent experience of Heart.
Frequently, representatives of these traditions explained that resting in silent awareness was “caught” more than “taught,” meaning that the experience was best acquired by being near someone who resided in that state. In the presence of Ramana Maharshi, for example, disciples felt a silent stream of love pour forth from him—a peace that permeated them so deeply, it erased their questions and doubts, at least for a while.
In Siddha Yoga, the guru “donated” the energy of the Self to disciples through shaktipat—a transmission that occurred via the intentional sounds, gestures or glance of the teacher; this donation also occurred simply through proximity to him or her. Some receptive disciples felt the flow of prana-kundalini (spiritual energy) in their bodies soon after.
In the Subud Brotherhood, advanced practitioners “opened” initiates by allowing their own experience of God (including their inspired movements and sounds) to happen in the presence of novices. Similarly, the Hindu guru, Amrit Desai, a disciple of Swami Kripalvananda, donated spiritual energy to his disciples by allowing his spontaneous movements to unfold while they watched in silence.
The New Testament also describes wordless transmissions of the Spirit. According to the Book of Acts, for example, Jesus’ disciples imparted the Holy Spirit to new converts through the laying on of hands. In John 20:22, Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit to devotees simply by breathing on them.
If these nonverbal methods of communication seem odd or improbable, remember that we experience the “contagious” nature of energy states all the time: anger (or a yawn) expressed by one person often triggers anger (or a yawn) in another.
A Typical Session
When teaching spontaneous meditation, I also rely on my experience of the silence—and on any movements or sounds that arise from the silence—to amplify students’ ability to feel their true nature. I did not come upon this approach to teaching in books or workshops, however. I discovered this method while resting in silent awareness.
This part of my journey began in September of 1981 during a conversation with a woman called Susan whom I had known for several months. When I told her about my unusual spiritual opening and its un-programmed movements and sounds, she asked me to awaken the spiritual dance lying dormant within her. It had never occurred to me that my solitary experience could be intentionally transmitted to someone else. Not knowing how to respond, I told Susan that I would take her request with me into the silence and let her know the result.
Later that day while meditating, I received a simple response to Susan’s request. During our next meeting, we were to quiet our minds and release our expectations, then I was to let my experience happen in her presence. When we did meet, we sat on the floor of her living room, face-to-face, and followed the instructions I’d been given. After acknowledging our hopes and fears for the upcoming session to each other, we quieted our thoughts. When the energy streaming from my true nature flowed into my right arm, it prompted my hand to rise and undulate around Susan’s head and shoulders.
While my right hand kept undulating near her head, Susan’s brow furrowed, as if she were straining to make something happen. Realizing that she needed help relaxing, I opened to my innermost self and received these words for her: “There is nothing to do; just be still and feel.” When I repeated them, Susan’s brow softened. Several minutes later, the river of love rushed within her, prompting her own spontaneous movements.
In the following months, other students showed up, asking me to be their teacher, but, unlike Susan, they did not have immediate, dramatic awakenings. In time, I began instructing students verbally in four simple skills—quieting, feeling, offering and receiving—to help them rest and remain in silent awareness.
Below, I describe the four phases that usually make up the spontaneous meditation sessions I facilitate, including the interior actions we practice during each phase.*
We begin a typical spontaneous meditation session by sharing experiences, questions and insights. This might mean discussing concerns about our meditation practice or changes we’ve noticed in our relationship with our true nature. Sometimes we read aloud a poem or short essay and discuss its relevance to meditation. We may also talk about the spiritual import of recent events in our lives.
Whatever the topic, our conversation is not an ordinary one. While we talk, we feel; scanning our minds and bodies, we become aware of events and emotions that hold deep meaning. We are especially on the look-out for painful experiences that we want to take with us into the silence—to bathe in the river of love. We also watch for experiences in which we feel especially grateful, joyful or peaceful. We hold these uplifting experiences close, too, as we prepare to dip into the current of our true nature.
During this conversation, we each use our own spiritual vocabulary, referring to our true nature as heart, the beloved, the inner Christ, the luminous void, the divine Self, the sacred Presence, the Indwelling God, etc. While we talk, I keep our focus on love’s river—which means staying away from analysis. This conversational period is not the time to figure things out. It is a transitional phase that readies us for heart’s silence.
After agreeing upon the length of time we want to meditate (usually forty minutes), we set a timer, allowing ten to fifteen minutes after the timer sounds to talk about our experiences. Finding a comfortable seat, we release our expectations about the upcoming meditation. Out loud or silently, with many words or with few, we dedicate ourselves to heart—to that part of us that is always a source of blessings.
II. Quieting, Feeling, Offering and Receiving
(Approximately 40 minutes)
Next, we suspend the analyzing, judging parts of our minds and entrust ourselves to the silence.
In spontaneous meditation, we foster silence by substituting thinking with feeling. We take this approach because it is difficult to fulfill the negative injunction, “Don’t think!” But when we define our task in the positive (“Feel!”), thoughts quiet down more naturally, on their own.
This does not mean that we strive to become emotional, however. Feeling (not to be confused with the noun, feelings) is a way of perceiving—a verb, like seeing or hearing. When we explore ourselves through our ability to feel, we may discover an emotion, like sadness, but we may also encounter an itch in a foot or spiritual light rising in our heads. Emotions are affective states, bound up with thoughts; feeling is an aconceptual activity. When we feel, we are able to perceive our interior world without the thinking mind.
If we find it difficult to quiet our minds through feeling alone, we repeat a mantra, focus on the spaces between our words, or use some other simple, mind-stilling technique. While employing these techniques, we remember to sense the shifts in body and mind brought about by these strategies.
Once we have entered a clear, open space, we watch the unfolding of our inner worlds.** Whatever experiences arise, we explore them through our ability to feel. If, through feeling, we notice emotions or body sensations, we open to them. If we find heart’s grace flowing inside us, we receive its blessings. If we discover impulses to move or to make sounds, we follow them; if we remain still, we witness our immobility. Whatever happens–whether we laugh or cry, see mystical visions or recall painful childhood scenes, feel bored or filled with luminous love—we offer our experiences to heart.
We also make sure that our “offering” is not a subtle form of “rejecting”—not a way to rid ourselves of something we dislike. When we give to our true nature, we act with love, like a child or a lover presenting a gift to a parent or a beloved. In these human-to-human relationships, we offer something valuable, hoping to strengthen the bond with a person dear to us. In the same way, our love-gift to heart reaffirms our desire to be in intimate connection with our innermost self.
We remember, too, that this is not a time of striving; we are not trying to fix or achieve anything. In this spiritual practice, paradoxically, fullness is found simply by resting in heart’s silent radiance.
Habitual expectations, judgments, cravings and fears often arise during meditation, expressed through thoughts like: “This meditation is boring. Where did last week’s bliss go?” “The droning sound of that other meditator is so annoying!” “My staccato gestures are ugly—I wish I could move gracefully.” “I can’t stop worrying about my lecture tomorrow. I’m failing as a meditator.” “Why does the divine flow keep prompting me to spin like a dervish? I’m afraid I’ll fall down.”
In ordinary life, we often act to change situations that we find uninteresting, annoying, anxiety-producing, or frightening: we find something entertaining to think about, tell the irritating neighbor to quiet down, invent movements that we consider beautiful or safe, or rewrite our up-coming lecture one more time. But in spontaneous meditation, we open to our boredom, annoyance, anxiety, self-reproach or fear, allowing these emotions to merge with heart’s flow. In this way, we release habitual thoughts and emotions into heart’s care.
During meditation, we also make sure that we are not so overwhelmed by mental and emotional habits that we forget to feel our true nature. Our intention, our practice, our discipline, is to remain connected to heart—no matter what.
(20 – 30 minutes)
When the timer sounds, we spend several minutes in transition, allowing our experiences in love’s river to come to an end. If we have moved apart, we return to our original seats. Then, with eyes closed, we practice speaking from heart—from the still, small voice of God within. When we speak, we are willing to sound unsure of ourselves. In this awkwardness, we sometimes discover the voice of our true nature.
When we’re ready, we open our eyes and speak again, if we wish, about our time together. This conversation may include any difficulties we encountered during our inner journey. Before ending, we give thanks for the gifts just exchanged with heart and with each other.
After the timer goes off and we have taken a minute to become aware of our surroundings, we move to a nearby table where colored pencils or pens and sheets of paper are available. Without speaking, we draw either how we feel at the end of meditation or an important moment (or moments) that arose while we were immersed in the silence. For example, we might sketch the outline of a person, then depict our energetic, emotional, mental or bodily experiences within that outline. Or we might draw a circle (a mandala), placing colors, shapes or images inside the circle to illustrate our experiences.
As we draw, we rest in our felt silence, allowing ourselves to be led by spiritual and physical sensations—rather than by the desire to “produce a good picture.” Each time we focus on a sensation, we see whether it has color, weight, shape, temperature or texture, then add those perceptions to our drawings.
When we’re finished, we share the sacred art we’ve created.
Finally, while saying goodbye, we balance two needs: before getting into our cars and driving away, we make sure that we have fully returned to ordinary consciousness. At the same time, we’re careful not to chat so much at the door or in the parking lot that we forget the blessings just received from heart’s silent love.
* Depending on the person or the day, the order of these four phases may shift. For example, we sometimes begin and end a session with meditation, placing our conversation in between two periods of silence.
** In discussing the role of feeling in meditation, I often use words like “sense,” “watch,” “notice” and “witness.” Feeing—being a mode of perception—contains within it the experience of silent witnessing. Sometimes I speak of silent self-observation as the fifth interior action.