Towards Contemplative Silence amidst Nature
Urban living allows no space for inner exploration depriving us from ever discovering the treasures within, is there a way that we can bridge this expanding gap? This piece speaks of a unique experiment that tried to explore these fundamental issues and raises many more insights that we must think about.
Dr. Monica Gupta, Dr. Jyoti Raina and Dr. Sailaja Modem teach at Department of Elementary Education, Gargi College, University of Delhi, New Delhi
As a species humans seem to be in an immense hurry – hurry to grow up soon, to find success quickly and not to miss out on any excitement that life offers. The hurried pace is often reflected in the way we breathe, eat, learn and enjoy. The demand of contemporary life is that we produce positive results and outcomes that are valued by society. The anxiety of achievement is often imprinted within our bodies – in the muscles, in the heart beat and the breath. The hurry can be seen in the way we educate children- pushing them beyond their limits, with little time for assimilation, wonder and tolerance for failure or setback. Further, when a group of under-breathed, over-tense and impatient persons come together -they create collective stress that can disturb the psychological balance of any individual. The educational groups are stressed about assessing ‘what we do not know, leaving little time to contemplate, deepen and express ‘what we do know’. David Elkind (2006) uses the term ‘the hurried child’ for the way we push children to grow up too fast and too soon.
This is coupled with the tendency in conventional education to create minds that simply conform. Conformity to the authority structures that exist around us, to the pursuit of reward whether by way of high scores or success that is defined by external achievement and to the overall established pattern of our educational system. This makes independent thinking, personal growth and steping back into ones inner being rather difficult. The propensity to be like those around us, always reflects in school children’s competitive spirit.The societal values also require this hurried pursuit of knowledge to be qualified by positive results and direct outcomes in order to be considered as legitimate.
It was the concern for ‘slowing down’ and recovering our balance and connection with all that exists around us that became the seed idea of a research project and several workshops conducted with pre-service and in-service teachers and a retreat on ecological living for a group of B.El.Ed students at Gargi College. In this article we share the insights from the short camp on ‘Ecological Living’ in Dehragaon near Ramgarh in Uttarakhand. Our aim was to explore a different rhythm of knowing, experiencing and living which could deepen awareness and the intensity of observation.
Learning to be: As we planned the camp, we realized than we need to avoid the danger of over-planning – to keep spaces that were open and can let everyone breathe without crowding them with unnecessary tasks and activities. The spaces and routines needed to be flexible such that we could ‘let go’ of our over-programmed selves. To see thesunrise, sunset, set one’s own pace with the rhythm of nature, to learn to breathe differently, loosen the knots of the body and the mind… to just ‘be’. A student participant who initiated this process of ‘loosening up’ described it as a need to have a routine that is ‘devoid of all tautness’ that is externally imposed on our being.
To be in a realm where there was not too much to care about so as to make time to just stand, look and be. The paths that we would walk upon were not predefined or planned so each of them offered their splendid beauty to us. It could be any of the many, we could cull the waters deep or shallow, more or less; in each case filling up our selves, with whatever came our way. “Life is a well of deep waters. One can come to it with small buckets and draw only a little water, or one can come with large vessels, drawing plentiful waters that will nourish and sustain .” (Krishnamurti 2008:45) experience was elevating. We can ask – why is there little space for silence and contemplation in our learning spaces? What is this great rush ‘teach’ and stuff the mind with all kinds of irrelevant details that gags and strains its imagination? Why not let the open skies and the living trees whisper to us their teachings – that nourish the soul and the sensibilities?
The power of silence: It is indeed easier to be silent on mountaintops – the grandeur inspires awe and one feels like speaking in whispers. We experienced this on the very first day – a mountaintop meditation when the orange – blushed sky was just a step away. The silence seemed to seep into the being and all creation seemed to be imbued with a presence. Yet, we noticed that our city-bred bodies became impatient after a while – we could not collectively sustain the silence beyond a point. It seemed to have seeped into our minds but not into our bodies – to make us stable and still from within. Yet – the
The practice of silence is not just a valuable tool for mental sharpening and raising awareness but it can also open our consciousness to truth, beauty and liberation. The enlightened sage Ashtavakra in his quest for freedom asked the questions: ‘Where is the world and where the aspirant for liberation is; where is the contemplative man and where is the man of knowledge; where is the soul in bondage and where is the liberated soul for me which is non-dual by nature? Where is the knower, the means to knowledge, the object of knowledge, or knowledge itself? He is reported to have discovered the answers as he listened carefully to his own silence.
Deepening awareness: We took time to deepen our awareness, to be more mindful – to live in the immediate. Each leaf and blade of grass, the perfection of the spider’s web, the music of the trees, the colors of the birds and the rocks became alive. We feel that in hurried lives, we have lost the trust on our senses to carry the rhythm and wonder of nature to us. Our senses have become used to an artificial, over-structured, plastic and conditioned environment created by a consumeristic society which is geared towards enhancing sensation based thrills of life. We move from one packaged ‘thrill’ to another -with the ‘been there, done that’ philosophy. Our senses are often overburdened with the need for ‘pleasure’ which enervates us in the final analysis.
Here is a wonderful reflection of a teacher – “ As teacher of middle school children several decades ago I often asked young students to write on Happiness. Most of them would write about the joy at receiving cherished gifts, others would describe the satisfaction of receiving high marks at schools some others would revel in days of family holidays or festivals. One boy wrote that he felt happy one day as he opened his window and saw a bright yellow leaf that circled and circled and then fell. It made him smile and feel happy like he had never felt like before. This awareness of the falling leaf, like life itself was everything and nothing. A moment of cosmic serendipity leading to pure happiness. The boy explained – you may have intelligence, knowledge, wisdom and imagination. But they will not make you experience a falling leaf. It only needs awareness. He seemed to have undertaken an inner voyage at a young age. The leaf of course is not only a leaf, it is beyond us yet helps us in understanding ourselves, a cosmic individual and a falling leaf.” (Kamat 2008:177-178)
Experiencing care: We spent some time to plant grass in a small patch of land adjoining the cottage where we were staying. The aim was to learn to work with hands so that they can feel the grass ,the sunlight, the pebbles and the soil. A participant reflects on this experience. “I tried to plant the grass at the same pace but found my movements to be jerky, my hand full of impatience and tense as though they wanted to skip over this act and do something more enjoyable. I realised this was a result of my inner psychological state – full of nervous energy that is used to flitting from one activity without enjoying anything by being fully present in an activity.” There was a gardener planting grass along with us – just observing him was meditative – his movements were slow and he seemed to be in no hurry. He lovingly prepared the soil and planted the grass very gently as though he had all the time in the world. And then I observed us as a ‘group’ – we quickly finished the ‘task’ wanting to release our bodies from the unfamiliar postures of bending and planting. The gardener planted grass well into the early evening and stopped only when day faded into the evening – he ensured that the entire patch of land was evenly planted and watered. On observing him I realized that if I can learn to plant grass with full attention and gentle care – maybe I can do all else well.” This is the deep Buddhist wisdom that Thich Nhat Hahn (1992) talks about- Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.” We need to ask – are there too many ‘important’ things that we have burdened ourselves with? Are they really important? In the hurry to do ‘too much’ – is there something that falls aside unnoticed and unnourished – children’s questions, grass to be planted, a phone-call to a friend in distress and our own self that seeks to find meaning and significance of all that it experiences.
On melodies wise and old: On a calm summer evening, we invited a group of men from the close by village for a collective singing session. A small group of men arrived with their musical instruments – all employed in some work during the day – as masons, contractors, farmers. They sang folk songs of Uttaranchal and bhajans of Kabir. There is something very interesting about their singing – they sang without any excess care for the tune or meter – there was just the sheer ‘joy’ of collective singing. Their bodies sang along with them – and particularly emotional points of the song were expressed by their voice and movement of their bodies. They told us that they often come together and sing in the evening when the day’s work is done. Do we have spaces for collective sharing, telling of stories, collective cooking or singing in our busy city life? Where is the time for the happiness of just ‘being together’? Even the meal times in a family fail to bring people together– everyone seems to have their own little private world- Whatsapp, Facebook, television, phone calls keep people physically together yet emotionally disconnected.
Also, in world that aims at ‘perfect children’ and ‘all-rounders’– where is the space for the imperfection of an abandoned singing that does not call for an audience or for an applause?
Our Forgotten Selves: We found that we have to recover much – health for our bodies, peace for our mind, relationships that need care and tending to become alive and a pristine balance with nature that can make a ‘positive force’ in the web of interdependence that we are all parts of. We do have a collective destiny. The Upanishidic wisdom of ‘So- hum’ reminds us that all that exists outside of us is also an intrinsic part of our own self. If we exploit, mutilate, overuse and neglect any part of the creation – its effects are likely to reach us too. A student participant reflects – ‘We have not nourished nature in urban spaces and so it has stopped nourishing us – everything seems so dull and tired here”. Interestingly, we find that the incidences of clinical depression have been on the rise in urban India for quite some time. (Reddy & Chandrasekhar, 1998).
We can speculate about the reasons but our disjointed mental, emotional and bodily routines and disconnect with nature may well have something to do with this. We suspect that in wanting ‘too much, too soon’ – we have lost our capacity for ‘delaying gratification’ and waiting for fruition of seeds that require time and care to grow well. We have become consumerists by orientation and propagate the ‘use and throw’ culture that discards too quickly materials things, ideas and people who no longer are of ‘use’ or ‘in current fashion’. There is a part of us that has become lost and forgotten – a part that needs leisurely time to be with others and oneself – a part that still sometimes sings in the hills.
Elkind, David. The Hurried Child:
Kamat, Vinay (2008) The small boy and the leaf In every man’s speaking tree The TImes of India 177-178.
Krishnamurti, J. (2008) Education and the significance of life Chennai :Krishnamurti Foundation India.
Reddy MV & Chandrashekhar CR. (1998). Prevalence of mental and behavioural disorders in India: A metaanalysis. Indian J Psychiatry. 40:149–57.
This article is published in The New Leam, OCTOBER Issue( Vol.2 No.16) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at firstname.lastname@example.org