Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The noise of silence

How often have we heard people say that “Silence is golden”. In fact the Tremeloes even dedicated a song to silence.….bet you are humming it right now.
Didn’t realize how noisy and scary silence can be. All our lives we are surrounded by so much external noise that the internal noise gets buried somewhere in our subconscious. The moment the external subsides, the internal starts rearing its ugly head.

I decided to brave my way into silence for the second time. I had attempted to do this a couple of years ago ( Attended Vipassna – a ten day course in silence and meditation) and despite everyone challenging me that I could not do it , I had somehow managed to survive the 10 days with minimal talk and minimal interaction with the outside world. I had however cheated on few occasions as I could not understand the logic behind the exercise.
Since then however, something in my chemical makeup must have changed as I now willingly look for opportunities that take me away into silence and allow me to commune with my inner self.

Having said that; it still is extremely noisy and scary to be in one’s own company.
I was recently in an ashram in India where on offer were Panchakarma treatments. I had heard a lot about the Ayurvedic Panchakarma treatments, so I decided to give it a try. Panchakarma literally translates into “five actions” actions that work towards cleansing and rejuvenating the body, mind and consciousness.
It is well known that our mind plays an extremely important role in influencing the health of our body. By controlling our mind we can control our body. Many life threatening diseases have been overcome by way of positive thinking, repetition of affirmations and visualization techniques.
Panchakarma works in the opposite way. It works on the body and thereby brings about desired results in the mind and eventually helps to raise ones consciousness. The therapies include full body and head massages with oil and herbs, oil baths, pouring of Ghee ( pure rarified butter) into your eyes, nose and ears and other orifices if one is brave enough. Back massage, shoulder treatments, powder massages and synchronized massages by two therapists.

It all sounded extremely exotic and relaxing.

My friend and I quickly signed up for a 10 day program. This was however no 5 star luxury, the accommodation and the food was as basic as it could be. One saving grace was hot water and toilet paper! We had beetles and spiders for company and the variety of beetles was pretty impressive!
I was mentally prepared so took it all in my stride. I was paying – a mere 500 USD for my 10 day stay which included all meals and treatments. The same in a fancy spa would have cost me 4000 USD. I had no right to complain.

The first day was a beautiful full body massage followed by steam. I felt great and started looking forward to the rest of my days.

The second day , I was made to lie on my stomach and a moat of dough was made all over my back. Warm oil was then poured on to my back and I was asked to stay still, both in mind and body. The body somehow managed to stay still but the mind started racing at the speed of 180 mph per sec (The take off speed of a jet). My mind went everywhere and anywhere. I could not bring myself to relax. I thought of all the silly things, my pains, my joys, my past and my future. In 45 minutes I had relived my life a lifetime over.

Next day was the Shirodhara treatment, where warm oil is poured constantly for 45 min on your forehead in soft sweeping motion. Again I was to lie still and let my mind and body rest. I went into panic mode at the thought of having to keep up with the 180 mph speed of my thought waves. Yet again it came to pass, but by this time I was completely exhausted and spent trying to muffle the noise of my internal clutter.

Two more agonizing days of wonderful therapies and crazy thoughts, and by the fifth day I had come to terms with the noise of silence and was ready to face it. It must have shown on my face, because as soon as I walked in to the therapy room, the therapist commented on how calm and peaceful I looked.
The therapies were finally producing results. My body and my mind were getting rid of all the toxins. The physical had finally transformed into the mental. By way of externally treating my body, my mind had gotten treated as well. It was not easy though. At times it felt as if my head would explode with all the thoughts that kept coming to the surface. I had extremely nasty headaches and my nose would not stop running, but somehow I was convinced that it was just an outlet for all the clutter and toxins to leave my body. I became a masochist. I started looking forward to pain and misery.

My friend had a similar experience and during our evening walks we used to compare notes. All was wonderful except the internal noise. Why were our thoughts running at this insane speed? Why was our whole life being packed into 45 minutes a day? All our fears and aspirations were coming to the surface and we had to finally deal with it.

Often we put things away in a little part somewhere in our minds, hoping that the unpleasant would not come to the surface and the pleasant can be visited on demand. Life unfortunately does not work that way. Both the pleasant and the unpleasant are a part of life and both play an equal and important role. We never value the pleasant if we have never experienced the unpleasant. It is the combination of both that gives life its meaning.

In my silence and solitude, I experienced the emotional roller coaster of thoughts buried under layers of external debris. All our lives we try and muffle the internal noise by indulging in external activities. We drown ourselves in work, in our children, in parties, in alcohol, in books, in TV anything that will keep us occupied and keep us away from our own internal chatter. The fear of coming face to face with one’s own self is far greater than any fear from the outside.

I met a 26 year old lady from Slovenia who was also visiting the ashram; she would sit quietly outside the temple and not speak with anyone. One day out of the blue, she came and started talking with me and told me that she was here trying to run away from herself. She was mortally afraid of her thoughts and was trying to drown the internal noise in the ringing of bells and the chanting of mantras in the temple. She said she had experienced glimpses of happiness and peace, but most of the time she had to face the demons of her mind which were convincing her of her fallibility and constantly reminding her of her past indiscretions. There was nowhere she could run to escape this noise. A friend recommended “silence therapy” and that is why she was here. She seemed extremely distraught and unable to cope. The noise persisted and got worse, but as the saying goes “It is always darkest before dawn”. I guess she was going through a catharsis and she had to dig really deep.

Talking to her made me aware of my own fight with my emotional baggage and sure enough I decided to start putting it away. Often it is easier said than done, but habits are formed bit by bit, so they can only be broken bit by bit.

I had read somewhere that “when painful thoughts visit , one should immediately try to supplant those with some neutral or nonsensical thought such as a pink elephant or red rose or repetition of a word like dig, dig, dig…anything that will take away the attention from the painful thought . Of course it would be better to think of something positive, but at times it is easier to think of nonsense than to think of something positive. The technique is called “brain switching”. Concentrating on a neutral or nonsensical thought will jam the sad thought and eventually get one out of the depressed state. Our brain has limited capacity in this regard. It can only think one thought at a time. Mind jumps from thought to thought, but at any one time it can only think one thought. So when faced with the noise of painful thoughts, immediately switch to nonsensical thoughts.”
I had forgotten about this technique, but as I was revisiting my silence and dreading the onslaught of 180mph thoughts, it suddenly came back to me. I immediately put it to test. Lying with my face down and body still, enjoying the warm oil being poured on my back I started to recite a mantra. Before I knew it, my mind had gone into silence and I was at peace. I was not afraid of the internal dialogue any more. I had found a way of dealing with it.

It’s true, what we resist, persists. I was trying so hard not to think of the painful memories that, that is all I kept thinking about. The moment I accepted those memories and decided to switch my focus on the mantra, the thoughts slowly but surely started to dissipate. By the 5th day, I was completely at peace and not afraid of the internal chatter any more.

Our 10 day sojourn eventually got shortened into 8 days as by the 7th day both my friend and I had enough of the bugs and the beetles and had probably had enough decluttering that we were ready to go back to our respective lifestyles full of clutter and chaos ….. All the stuff that makes life worth living!
We decided that, it was enough for the first time and that next time around we would brave the internal chatter, but indulge in a real spa and have some gorgeous hunks for company instead of the bugs and the spiders.


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