The 8-Fold Path – Step 7: Focus on Now

The Ego is a ruthless attention seeker. It drives our mind down all manner of non-productive paths just to get the attention it craves. And one of the ways it does this is by creating problems for the mind to solve. The solution, in order to promote silence, is to focus on NOW.

Our brain is a complex system and is, in a sense, three brains in one. Paul MacLean put forth the three brain model, which he developed in the early 1950s. His theory of our “three” brains became very popular in the ‘60s and, as with all things, has been modified over time in the light of new knowledge and understanding.

Nevertheless, for our purposes here, his model works just fine. The oldest part of our brain is the “reptilian brain”. The brain stem and cerebellum. It controls vital functions and basic responses: temperature control, fight-or-flight, hunger, defending territory, keeping safe, fear. This part of our brain tends to be rigid and compulsive. Our obsessions originate here.

The next development, evolutionarily speaking, was the limbic brain. This brain first emerged in early mammals. We could call it the “mouse brain”. Or the dog or cat brain if you prefer. This brain records memories of behaviors that produce agreeable or disagreeable results. The emotions are found here. Value judgements originate here, as well; which we often make without being consciously aware we’re making them — and they exert a strong influence on our behavior.

The final brain is the cortex or neocortex. The “primate brain”. This is the brain that differentiates primates from all other mammals and humans from primates. This is where language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness originate.

Okay, back to the clever Ego. The Ego is something we make up. It is a construct of who we think we are, or believe we are.

The Ego is not me and it is not you.

The Ego is what creates the emotional drama or firestorms in our lives. Why? Because it wants to be the center of our attention.

The Ego is the culprit that robs us of inner silence and peace of mind. It does this by creating false problems for us to solve. This is easy to do because the “primate brain” is a problem solving machine and is easily tricked by the Ego to solve non-problems: problems that are imaginary and don’t exist. Such as worrying about the future that hasn’t happened yet and obsessing about the past we can do nothing about.

For example, your boss, or spouse, or best friend chews you out for some reason. The Ego goes to work. It draws on your needs, your fears, your sense of fairness — and creates drama so you keep chewing on the event. Criticizing the other and defending yourself. Excusing what you did to set them off. Justifying it, making it “right”.

There’s no silence in your mind, for a raging argument is going on in your head. There’s no peace in your soul, because you feel hurt, wounded, mistreated. You’re a victim. And undeservedly so.

And the Ego is doing its happy dance.

Why? Why does the Ego want drama? Discord? Mental noise?

Think for a moment of a time where you weren’t thinking of anything. Of a time when you were filled with peace. Doesn’t matter how long or short the time was, or what was going on to induce the peace. Just think about it for a moment.

Where was the Ego? It wasn’t around, was it? There was just You and you were enjoying the tranquility. All was right in the world.

The Ego is the “Big I” and it doesn’t want competition for center stage.

The way to deny the Ego, the Big I, center stage and get drama out of your life is to focus on NOW.

Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now was a vital contributor to my current thinking, as was his follow-up book A New Earth. Tolle didn’t come up with anything new. Mystics have been saying the same things for millennia. It was how he said what he said.

Another book that was very influential was Games Zen Masters Play: Writings of R.H. Blyth, edited by Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr. Sadly it’s out of print and used copies tend to be expensive. The book, though, is nonpareil.

Focusing on NOW is the secret weapon to getting the Ego off stage, to getting control of your life back, and to experience ongoing inner silence and peace.

There are many techniques for focusing on NOW and shoving the prima donna Ego off stage. Many books have been written detailing these techniques. Next week I’ll talk about my favorite. Today, I’ll give you a simple suggestion that works very well.

Your boss has just chewed you out. And you think unfairly. He or she didn’t even hear you out! You’re seething with anger. No silence in your mind, is there? The debate is still raging in your head as you go back to your cube or work station.

What do you do? Continue to seethe? Continue to play out the scene in all of its unfairness? You could, although it’s not a good idea. Such raging emotions are bad for you physically and emotionally. They cause high blood pressure, increase stomach acid, give you a headache. The reptile brain is preparing us to flee or fight. We’re keyed up. We can’t think straight. Not a good situation to be in.

If you can, go to a different location. One that is fairly quiet. If you can’t do that, take a bathroom break and sit in a stall. If that’s not possible, that’s okay. Stay in your cube or at your work station. What you do next is what’s most important.

Take a deep breath, hold it a moment, exhale. Repeat until you begin to feel at least some of the anger drift away. Then focus on NOW. The very moment of time you’re in. The quiet around you or the task at hand, whatever your job entails. If your mind drifts, say “no”, and bring it back to NOW.

This practice is no different than what an actor or actress does going on stage. I am waiting in the wings. My cue is coming up. I take a deep breath, empty my mind as I exhale, take another breath and become my character. When I hear my cue, I go out on stage. I’m no longer me. That person and his problems were left in the wings. I’m now the character I’m playing.

It’s the same when your boss chews you out. Or you have a fight with your spouse. Or something happens to upset you. Empty yourself of Ego and let the real You take over. And of course this is something that takes work, until you do it often enough for it to become habit.

As always, questions are welcome. And until next time, take time to silence the Ego and enjoy peace.

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The 8-Fold Path-Step 2: Avoid Talking

 

Unless we are hermits or are living in an eremitic cloister, it’s going to be fairly difficult to avoid talking altogether. And I don’t think we should as long as we live in the broader human society.

Therefore step 2 on The 8-Fold Path for Living Daily in the Silence is to

Avoid situations where I’m obligated to talk.

However, we can’t always avoid talking. We have spouses or partners, parents and siblings, bosses and coworkers, customers or patients — and all of these folks generally expect us to talk to them. And to avoid them would probably cause us more problems than any amount of silence might benefit us.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can minimize getting ourselves into situations where we have to talk.

For example, with spouses and partners we can often substitute a non-verbal gesture for a verbal one. Touching can often communicate far more than words.

When my mother was alive avoiding verbal communication was nigh impossible. However, I could often go to a different part of the house or go for a walk. With my father, since he talks very little, there’s no problem living daily in the silence. Although, he does like music and he plays it rather loudly. That’s where those earplugs come in handy.

Work is perhaps the biggest challenge. But even there, we can pursue silence and we’ll get into this more in the next three points.

When I was employed, talking was part of my job. So it was difficult to avoid it completely. However, since my schedule was somewhat flexible, I could come in early when no one was around and leave early before the Chatty Kens and Cathys came around.

However, you may not have the luxury of a flexible schedule. If not, then over the next three weeks I’ll give you some tools that will at least promote the spirit of silence.

While work may be the biggest challenge, living with other people can be equally daunting if we want to avoid situations where we are obligated to talk. Non-verbals can help. But they can’t eliminate the fact that most people like to talk. It is then incumbent upon us to find ways where we don’t hurt feelings in order to promote silence.

Going for a walk or hanging out in a different part of the house can help. But if those don’t work, then you may just have to ask for some silence time and there’s nothing wrong with that.

As always, comments are welcome. Let me know if you have other ideas or other techniques that work for you. Until next time, listen to the sound of silence!

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The 8-Fold Path: What is it?

The 8-Fold Path for Living Daily in the Silence is an 8-Step program for quieting our world — the world without and the world within.

The “Path” grew out of my own experience of silence and solitude retreats and my attempt to duplicate the peace and tranquility of the retreat environment after my return to daily life.

The 8-Fold Path does work, but as with any lifestyle change it takes work and perseverance to make sure it does work for you.

Why 8-Fold?

When I analyzed what made my retreats successful, I discovered 8 elements worked together to ensure that my time of silence and solitude was productive.

Those 8 elements are:

  1. Talk as little a possible
  2. Avoid situations where I’m obligated to talk
  3. If I must talk, be brief and to the point
  4. In group settings, remember even the fool appears wise when he says nothing
  5. My speech should be infused with the odor of silence
  6. Value silence over man-made sounds
  7. Focus on the immediate to promote silence
  8. Practice shikantaza during “downtime”

Notice the first five points of the path are about talking. If we control our talking, both verbally and mentally, those times we spend talking to ourselves, we can achieve a large measure of quietude with that alone.

Silence Starts With Us

We have total control over whether we live in a noisy world or a [relatively] silent world.

Bertrand Russell, the late British philosopher, wrote in his book The Conquest of Happiness:

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live.

We all want happiness. We all want tranquility in our lives. We all want to feel at peace with ourselves and the world. It is the quiet life that enables us to experience joy and happiness.

To achieve that quiet life for myself, I formulated The 8-Fold Path to Living Daily in the Silence. And now I’m sharing it with you.

If we want to be happy, we must take charge of our lives. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the great Stoic philosophers, wrote that life is what we make it to be. We are the key to what can be a fabulous future.

Daily

Russell notes a happy life must be … a quiet life. Implied in the word “life” is daily experience. This is not something one does once a month or only on the weekends. For the 8-Fold Path to produce its fruit, one must practice it every day and throughout the day to produce the silence, the quiet, which in turn produces joy and happiness.

In that sense, I’ll be the first to say silence does not come easily. Old habits die hard, as they say. However, persistence does win the day. And in a couple weeks you will begin to notice subtle differences. You might be calmer. Or less disturbed by people and situations around you. You might find your mind is less prone to chatter; less prone to worrying things, like a dog a bone.

 

The 8-Fold Path to Living Daily in the Silence can gain for you that quiet life Russell wrote of and with it joy and happiness. And who doesn’t want that?

As always, your comments are welcome. Until next time, take time to enjoy the silence.

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The 8-Fold Path

Noise is all around us. It is part of our daily lives. Silence is a rare commodity. Something not true up to 100 or 125 years ago.

And with all that noise pollution our bodies suffer: hearing loss, tinnitus, and sleep problems to name but three.

A few years ago I went on two silence and solitude retreats. I’m lucky to have a retreat center about an hour’s drive away. Both times I spent a week at the center. The retreat was unguided. Just me, my hermitage, and a beautiful lake, prairie, and woods.

Unfortunately, even there in that pristine environment urban noise could be heard in the muffled distance. But inside the soundproofed hermitage, there was no noise. There was silence and a beautiful view out the picture window of nature in all her glory.

For a time I owned a hobby farm in very rural northeastern Iowa. Beautiful country. Hilly, wooded, and dotted with small farms. Spring and autumn did bring with them the sounds of tractors at work. Summer, the sound of insects and cattle lowing. However, it was in winter that silence reigned. For many minutes at a time one might hear absolutely nothing. Nothing. And then a pick up truck might drive by on the road some distance away. When it was gone, the silence returned.

In those moments of absolute silence in the winter on my hobby farm or sitting inside my hermitage, looking at the trees and the lake, a peace would descend upon me and fill my soul.

I’m not one for organized religion. To tell the truth, I’m not into religion at all (although I do have an affinity for mysticism). However, in those moments of silence, it was as though I’d been transported to something beyond myself. The experience was indeed mystical. “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist was definitely on to something. Or Elijah, in the cave, where he heard God — not in the noise — but in the still, small voice.

Silence is golden. In the cacophony surrounding us that truth is easy to forget. In stillness, free from sound, I am free to know myself. In solitude, away from others, I must come to grips with who I am. Then and there I come to the realization if I’m truly someone whose company is desirable. For if I’m not likable to myself, how can I like others? If I do not love myself, how can I truly love others?

Not all of us, though, can take the time off to go on an extended retreat. Although I do recommend you give it a try. The experience can be life-changing. But for those who can’t afford a retreat, there is an alternative.

Over the next several weeks I want to share with you a way I found to capture the beauty of silence and to live in that silence every day. And you don’t have to become a hermit or retire to a cloister to do it. The method will work for everyone everywhere. It is independent of faith or philosophy, although either can enrich the method.

I call it The Eight Fold Path For Living Daily In The Silence.

I hope you’ll walk with me on this path and in so doing reap the benefits of silence, and its companion solitude.

Comments are always welcome. If you’ve experience the joy of silence and solitude, please share your experience. Until next time, peace!

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