An Architecture For Silence

Today I would like to share with you a guest post from Marc Thomas Shaw. Marc is an author and instructor focusing on the contemplative path as a means of inner transformation. He has been a Centering Prayer Practitioner for over a decade and is a commissioned presenter with Contemplative Outreach. He is also the author of Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul (Gold Medal, Nautilus Book Awards 2020), drawing on Lectio Audio, and Poetica Divina as aids to this transformational process. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, a member of Spiritual Directors International, the Ignatian Spirituality Project, and Executive Director of Contemplative Light.

I hope you enjoy his reflection as much as I did!

One primary focus at my organization Contemplative Light over the years has been communicating helpful practices for entering into or abiding in the contemplative space. 

An image that helps us frame this process is that of building a temple, from the Latin templum, a space cut out for augural observation, a sacred space.

Through our ongoing practice we’re building a little sacred space internally, a space where transformation becomes possible. Poet Li-Young Lee writes of his own work as “building the architecture for a kind of primal silence.” 

That’s what we’re up to in the daily contemplative practice. Clearing out a space for the primal silence.

In fact etymologically, the word “contemplation” also has its root in this templum. But so too does the word temporal. And whether we practice for a 20 minute stretch twice a day, or much longer, or even sit sesshin for a week or go on an intensive Centering Prayer retreat at a Franciscan monastery, this is still liminal space, a temporary dwelling for most of us.

At some point, the kids have to be picked up, we have to check our inbox, the sink fills up with dishes, the kids track mud into the house. Or in our current situation with shelter-in-place orders, all of this is happening simultaneously with the additional possibility of catching and passing along a dangerous infection.

Now Eastern teachers remind us this level of practical concern is not separate from the sacred space; they like to burst the mind’s dualistic bubble with the aphorism “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

On the absolute level, fair enough, and on the level of consciousness it’s helpful to think of the contemplative and the everyday as existing on a continuum rather than sharply demarcated. This serves as a helpful reminder to cultivate the capacity to go about our everyday tasks mindfully, but there is still a sense on the experiential level that we have to be intentional about this act of clearing out a space during our contemplative practice in whatever form.

Especially during this trying season of shelter-in-place orders where the boundaries between public and private, work and family, commercial and domestic, and even leisure and worship spaces have now become so blurred and our lives reconfigured. 

One way to expand the sense of abiding in this contemplative space is through three distinct but interdependent aspects of contemplative dwelling: clearing the space, building the structure, and dwelling within it.

The first, and where we place a lot of emphasis traditionally, is the contemplative practice itself. For some of us, this is Centering Prayer, where we consent to the presence and action of God within through returning to the sacred word when thoughts become a distraction. 

But others in our community practice Vipassana, others loving-kindness meditation. Others still work through the Self-Realization Fellowship lessons with kundalini and kriya yoga practices.

Though there are subtle distinctions to be made between each of these, at their heart contemplative practices help clear out a space for the inmost self to experience the primal silence. For many, this results in the separate-self sense dissolving altogether as we experience a radical inflow the divine presence and the ego becomes dislocated.

In our experience as contemplatives and spiritual coaches over the years, though, this is often a brief flash, a temporary state, not yet a shift to a permanent stage of perpetual contemplative dwelling and awareness.

During this time in particular so many of us are inundated with new stressors and pressures and have to reconfigure the structures that help facilitate balance and growth in our lives. 

So how do we build the structures that help us maintain an awareness that we are not this body-mind with its narratives, its mental-emotional preoccupations, its neediness and resentments?

For centuries monastics put structures in place to maintain a sense of balance and devotion, whether through the canonical hours, daily offices, or the ringing of the bell at regular intervals to remind the monastics to turn to God, to return to the breath, to return to the present moment.

There is a sacred rhythm embedded within the life of the monastic community. 

One of the challenges of being a contemplative outside of a monastic community is this structure is absent, and we tend to take an ad hoc, DIY approach, using an app here, an alarm there, sometimes slipping up altogether in setting aside regular times to withdraw from practical preoccupations, from the ten thousand things, and have a devotional moment of inviting the silence.

For my schedule, I’m able to set aside a couple minutes at 10:15 AM and again at 2:30 PM. I like to keep a copy of either Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart, Matthew Fox’s 365 Readings and Meditations from the Christian Mystics or even Contemplative Light’s short 150 Meditations From the World’s Mystics ready to hand. Something short and without too much commentary for the mind to latch onto.

For these little intervals, I find a short reading to facilitate the movement back into the space I’ve cleared out through my evening and morning sit to be very helpful.

But there is yet the third element of this contemplative dwelling, which I sometimes call a micro practice. 

So here are three of these micro practices you may want to try out.

The first, often referenced by Ram Dass in his teachings is simply noticing the breath at a particular location on the body. It could be the rim of the nostrils (my personal preference), the inside of the nose, or the back of the throat. In any case there is a shift of energy from mental-emotional preoccupation to a much subtler physical sensation taking place in the present moment, so helpful for those of us who struggle to get out of our heads.

Another micro practice mentioned by contemplative poet Stephen Levine is that of naming. As we go about the day, and a stressor comes, and we begin to experience fear, or anger, or insecurity, or start to indulge in fantasies that help us feel more secure, or desired, or accomplished, we simply name the experience of the emotion. “There’s resentment.” “There’s insecurity.” “There’s lust again.” Or whatever the pattern is. That way, we zoom out from the imagined self and its sense of having been threatened, or wronged, ignored or neglected, and simply observe that experience without judgment, and allow ourselves to notice the mental-emotional dynamic, its habitual reactions, and the physical experience of them. It creates a little space.

Yet another method is to bring some aspect of our ongoing contemplative practice into everyday life. It could be a sacred word, a mantra, a welcoming prayer, or some repeated phrase like the Jesus Prayer. I’d go with an extension of whatever you already practice in miniature. That way it becomes a portal or entry point to this architecture of silence you’ve already gone about building. Through this invocation, we return home to the interior silence, the space of divine presence and luminous awareness. 

As Fr. Keating wrote the contemplative life is not a short-lived retreat from our problems but a commitment to a life rhythm. May you find ways to clear the space, build the architecture of interior silence, and return to that dwelling even as the winds howl about us during this turbulent time.

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