We spend a lot of time looking for happiness when the world right around us is full of wonder. To be alive and walk on the Earth is a miracle, and yet most of us are running as if there were some better place to get to. There is beauty calling to us every day, every hour, but we are rarely in a position to listen. The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body, are full of noise—then we can’t hear beauty’s call. There’s a radio playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life, the call of love. Our heart is calling us, but we don’t hear. We don’t have the time to listen to our heart.
Mindfulness is the practice that quiets the noise inside us. Without mindfulness, we can be pulled away by many things. Sometimes we are pulled away by regret and sorrow concerning the past. We revisit old memories and experiences, only to suffer again and again the pain we’ve already experienced. It’s easy to get caught in the prison of the past. We may also get pulled away by the future. A person who is anxious and fearful about the future is trapped just as much as one bound by the past. Anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about future events prevent us from hearing the call of happiness. So the future becomes a kind of prison, too. Even if we try to be in the present moment, many of us are distracted and feel empty, as if we had a vacuum inside. We may long for something, expect something, wait for something to arrive to make our lives a little bit more exciting. We anticipate something that will change the situation, because we see the situation in the present moment as boring—nothing special, nothing interesting.
Mindfulness is often described as a bell that reminds us to stop and silently listen. We follow our in-breath and our out-breath, making space for silence. We say to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.” Breathing in and out mindfully, paying attention only to the breath, we can quiet all the noise within us—the chattering about the past, the future, and the longing for something more. In just two or three seconds of breathing mindfully, we can awaken to the fact that we’re alive, we’re breathing in. We are here. We exist. The noise within just disappears and there is a profound spaciousness—it’s very powerful, very eloquent. We can respond to the call of the beauty around us: “I am here. I am free. I hear you.” What does “I am here” mean? It means, “I exist. I’m really here, because I’m not lost in the past, in the future, in my thinking, in the noise inside, in the noise outside. I’m here.”
In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking, free from the anxieties, free from the fear, free from the longing. “I am free” is a strong statement, because the truth is, many of us are not free. We don’t have the freedom that allows us to hear, and to see, and to just be. The practice is easy. If we are talking, we are talking. But if we are doing something else—such as eating, walking, or working—then we do just these things. We aren’t doing these things and also talking. So we do these things in joyful noble silence. In this way, we are free to hear the deepest call of our hearts.
Silence like this can be called thundering silence, because it’s eloquent and powerful. In this silence, I could hear the wind and the birds so much more vividly. Before that, I’d heard the birds and the wind, but not in the same way, because I didn’t have the deepest kind of silence. Practicing silence to empty all kinds of noise within you is not a difficult practice. With some training, you can do it. In noble silence, you can walk, you can sit, you can enjoy your meal. When you have that kind of silence, you have enough freedom to enjoy being alive and to appreciate all the wonders of life. With that kind of silence you are more capable of healing yourself, mentally and physically. You have the capacity to be, to be there, alive. Because you really are free—free from your regrets and suffering concerning the past, free from your fear and uncertainty about the future, free from all kinds of mental chatter. Being silent in this way when you are alone is good, and being silent in this way together is particularly dynamic and healing.
When you’ve been able to still all the noise inside of you, when you’ve been able to establish silence, a thundering silence, in you, you begin to hear the deepest kind of calling from within yourself. Your heart is calling out to you. Your heart is trying to tell you something, but you haven’t yet been able to hear it, because your mind has been full of noise. You’ve been pulled away all the time, day and night. You’ve been full of thoughts, especially negative thoughts. In our daily lives many of us spend most of our time looking for comforts—material comforts and affective comforts—in order to merely survive. That takes all our time. These are what we might call the daily concerns. We are preoccupied with our daily concerns: how to have enough money, food, shelter, and other material things. We also have affective concerns: whether or not some particular person loves us, whether or not our job is secure. We worry all day because of those kinds of questions. We may be spending 99.9 percent of our time worrying about these daily concerns—material comforts and affective concerns—and that is understandable, because we need to have our basic needs met to feel safe.
But many of us worry far, far beyond having our needs met. We are physically safe, our hunger is satisfied, we have a roof over our heads, and we have a loving family; and still we can worry constantly. The deepest concern in you, as in many of us, is one you may not have perceived, one you may not have heard. Every one of us has an ultimate concern that has nothing to do with material or affective concerns. What do we want to do with our life? That is the question. We are here, but why are we here? Who are we, each of us individually? What do we want to do with our life? These are questions that we don’t typically have (or make) the time to answer. These are not just philosophical questions. If we’re not able to answer them, then we don’t have peace—and we don’t have joy, because no joy is possible without some peace. Many of us feel we can never answer these questions. But with mindfulness, you can hear their response yourself, when you have some silence within. You can find some answers to these questions and hear the deepest call of your heart. When you ask the question, “Who am I?”—if you have enough time and concentration—you may find some surprising answers.
Thich Nhat Hanh