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 6: Valuing the Sound of Silence

For the past few weeks we’ve talked about talking. Specifically, how we can limit it or eliminate it altogether. Both our own talking and the talking of others.

Today we’re going to look at Step 6 on The 8-Fold Path for Living Daily in the Silence, which is

Value Silence Over Man-Made Sounds

Most of us willingly bombard ourselves with sound. Whether it be the radio, or the TV, or the iPod, or streaming movies and music, we rarely find ourselves soundless. And that’s not counting things such as the dishwasher, garbage disposal, or vacuum sweeper.

Now we probably don’t want to go too long without running the dishwasher or the vacuum. The making of those sounds we pretty much can’t do without. Although we do have the option of earplugs to dampen or eliminate their noise.

I’m more concerned with the first items I mentioned, which are often used as white noise machines. Noise producers to cancel out unwanted noise. Of course, we often want to listen to music, or stream a TV show or movie. And that’s perfectly alright.

What I’m getting at is more the notion that instead of valuing sound, we value no sound — that is, silence. Instead of always having music playing in the background or the radio or the TV, we shut off the sound producers and revel in the sound of no sound, other than that which naturally occurs.

Why? you may ask. White noise is noise. It’s a bit oxymoronic to make noise to cancel out noise. If you don’t want sound, then eliminate the sound and if you can’t do that, then block it from being heard. Why make more noise to block noise?

Now you may be saying, my white noise is more pleasant to listen to than the noise I don’t want to hear, which is disturbing me. Okay. I get that. But does your white noise totally block out the other noise? If not, then you haven’t really achieved your goal. You’ve only added more noise to your world.

When I was a working stiff, I resorted to headphones and music to cancel out the work noise that I found annoying. The problem was, I still heard the disturbing noise unless I had the volume up to painful levels. Which also meant others could also hear my noise and when they in turn complained about my noise, I had another problem on my hands. In addition, the noise around me came through loud and clear during soft spots in the music or between songs. So, again, the white noise wasn’t a very good solution.

The better solution was the use of earplugs — which eliminated the unwanted noise altogether. I felt much calmer and more at peace when there was no stimulation of any kind. And who doesn’t want more calm and peace in his or her life?

Now I love music and that shows up in a lot of my writing. However, the older I get the more I find I value silence over sound. And as my hearing continues to deteriorate and I have to up the volume to uncomfortable levels just to hear the sonata over the hissing of my tinnitus, I find it much more peaceful to simply eliminate the sound altogether.

Ultimately, if we want peace and tranquility in our lives, we have to promote peace and tranquility. It won’t happen by magic. We have to work for peace and tranquility in our lives. Noise pollution is real and it does cause physical damage as well as create emotional tension and anxiety. And we live in a very noisy world.

Besides, the music we love we’ll appreciate that much more if we aren’t constantly hearing it. Ever play a song or a concerto after not hearing it for some time? Doesn’t it sound fresh and exciting again?

Valuing silence over man-made sounds will bring us greater peace and tranquility — as well as greater appreciation of the sounds we love. A win-win in my book.

Comments are always welcome and until next time spend some time valuing the sound of silence!

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The 8-Fold Path: Why Silence?

Last week I touched on the benefits of silence. And that we don’t have a lot of silence in our daily lives. We are inundated with sound: some of our own choosing, most not. While I’m writing this, the “roar” of the forced air heating is quite significant. When it stops, there is a noticeable return to quiet for a few moments until a truck roars by on the busy county road I live just off of.

A quick search of the internet will give us dozens of reasons why silence is beneficial; physically, mentally, and spiritually. Let’s take a look at a few of the physical and mental benefits daily periods of silence can give us.

THE BRAIN

Daily periods of silence can improve our brains. A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that walking three times in a week for 40 minutes improved spatial memory.

If we can change our setting, we give the brain something different to focus on and correlate with known data.

Most of us live in urban or suburban settings. If possible, take a walk in a park or some other natural setting. The greater the difference between the manmade and the natural, the better for our brains. Manmade noise tends to grate on our nerves. Natural sounds are much more soothing.

Go walking — without the iPod — in a natural setting. Let the natural sounds lave you with peace and tranquility.

In addition, regular periods of silence can actually stimulate brain growth.

A 2013 study, published in Brain Structure And Function, found sitting in silence for at least two hours a day could stimulate the creation of the new brain cells related to our ability to learn, remember, and emotions.

At least two hours, you may say? Who has time for that? Indeed. We live busy lives. Although some of us may have the time and that is a wonderful thing. However if you do not, I think the 8-Fold Path can help you by giving you a lifestyle of silence.

STRESS

Almost all of us are stressed. We live in a stressful world. Noise can lead to elevated levels of stress hormones — and who wants that?

Sometimes we resort to relaxing music or white noise to try relieving the stress we feel. The problem is music, no matter how relaxing, and white noise are still noise.

Silence, on the other hand, is the anti-noise, as it were. A 2006 study, which appeared in Heart, found that just two minutes of silence can release tension buildup in the body and in the mind. That sounds like a good deal to me. After all it’s only two minutes. Surely we have that much time to give to relieving stress.

INSOMNIA

It’s the pits when you can’t get to sleep. I used to hate it when it happened to me. There was nothing left to do but get up and perhaps read for a while until I felt tired.

On the other hand, daily silence can come to the rescue.

A 2015 study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found older adults who meditated had fewer episodes of depression, fatigue, and insomnia. And meditation is done in silence.

Sitting in meditation breaks the routine of busyness and noise in our lives and can break the never ending monologue our minds at times embark on.

I know from personal experience sitting in meditation and letting my mind just drift through thoughts and feelings, not focusing on anything, eventually results in my mind stopping the thought process and that’s when the stress and anxiety falls away.

SENSITIVITY

From personal experience I can tell you silence increases one’s sensitivity to outside stimuli. After a week of silence and solitude, my whole body became more sensitive. More sensitive to sounds, touch, sights, and even thoughts, my own and others. I even think my poor hearing improved for a time. At least people could speak a bit more softly, until things went back to normal.

SUMMARY

Daily practice of silence can be very beneficial, both physically and mentally. A lifestyle of silence even more so. And that’s just on the physical and mental plane.

Whether you are a person of faith or not, I believe the practice of silence, coupled with its companion solitude, can do wonders for your soul. In a sense, silence can pull you out of yourself and take you to a place where you can, even for a moment, touch that which is beyond us.

The late Canadian psychiatrist, Dr R.M. Bucke, wrote of his experience in his book Cosmic Consciousness. Dr Bucke wrote that after a wonderful evening with friends, on the long ride home, late at night, he was “in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind.” In other words, Dr Bucke was unconsciously meditating in silence. What happened next changed his life forever. Here are his words:

All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life.

Those of faith will see Dr Bucke’s testimony as evidence of their beliefs. Those not of faith will possibly attribute his vision to some other cause. For myself, I see a man who was not especially religious in the span of a few moments suddenly become convinced there is something beyond himself. Dr Bucke’s experience is, however, indicative of what many mystics have found to be true: silence and solitude can connect one with the beyond.

Most of us, though, are probably seeking a more day to day benefit. And silence certainly provides that. However, as with any practice, you get out of it what you put into it. If you simply want less stress and better memory, silence can help you achieve some of that. And less stress, along with better mind function, is a very good reason to start your journey into silence. And who knows where it may end.

Next time we’ll explore just exactly what is this silence I’m talking about.

Until then, take some time, each day is preferable, to just unplug and get away to a place with minimal noise. Then just let your mind drift, not focusing on anything. Let me know what you think.

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