There have been periods of awakening where humans begin to discover new dimensions and possibilities of themselves. Silence often provides the conditions for these awakenings.
I identified four of these ancient awakenings, although there is no historical consensus. The Campfire, The Interior Room, The Inner Ocean, and The Quest were ancient awakenings that eventually led to the present time. I felt compelled to investigate the explorers and ideas that made possible the awakening to silence I experienced in 1971.
THE CAMPFIRE: The capacity for silence awakens First, humans needed to develop the capacity for silence – this was the First Awakening. This was a significant step in the evolution of human consciousness. Matt Rosanno, in his substantial Cambridge Archeological Journal article, describes a group of our Homo sapiens ancestors 100,000 years ago. Gathered around the central flickering flames of an evening fire, these adults and children are chanting, dancing, performing rituals, and entering into hypnotic silence. Outside their camp, they are threatened by real and imagined dangers. To hunt and to survive, they have learned to be very quiet, to sharply focus their attention, and to listen intensely to their surroundings.(1)
Evolutionary archeologists and neuroscientists speculate that over a long period of time an increasing number of humans, such as the group above, developed an advanced ability to silently focus, concentrate, and pay close attention. These advances were initiated by a pre-programmed evolutionary trigger, according to historian of consciousness, Ken Wilber (2) as well as experimentation with psychedelic vegetation and mushrooms.
These more highly evolved precocious humans tended to live longer. Eventually, the hypnotic silence of the campfire and the focused silence in the face of danger, became part of the brain’s evolution. In evolutionary developmental biology, this process is called the Baldwin Effect. The frontal lobes of the brain, which make it possible to maintain a steady focus, have been greatly enhanced over the past two million years. (3)
THE INTERIOR ROOM: The awakening of introspection
This new capacity for silence made possible a Second Awakening. Opening the door to the interior room that lay beneath the surface of their everyday lives most likely took place in silence, free from outside distraction. Between the years 15,600 to 1,200 BCE a few isolated individuals independently developed the new ability to reflect on themselves. (4) Silence provided the optimal conditions for the focus needed for introspection (literally “seeing within”).
Around 1,000 BCE, the archeological evidence (5) indicates a remarkable turning point. In the steppes and villages of Central Asia, the number of early bloomers, with the capacity for introspection, reached a critical mass. Spending time in silence came to be seen as normal and even desirable.
For the first time in human history, a significant number of people had the profound new ability to explore what lay deeply within themselves, and to seek its awesome powers.
A vision of a dramatic new interior world developed in Northern India. This expanded world view encouraged the exploration of silence. Exploring this new world became a significant part of this culture, according to historian of religion, Karen Armstrong.(6) The investigations of these seekers were seen as contributions to the spiritual development of the entire community.
AN INNER OCEAN: Maunam
The Third Awakening was to an inner universe. An Indian named Yajnavalkya was one of the first silent journeyers whose name we know. He is said to have lived around 700 BCE. Within the vastness of his inner world, Yajnavalkya discovered “an immortal spark” at the core of each of us. He discovered that the core of the self is not an individual “I”, but an ultimate reality. (7)
An “immortal spark” exists at the core of each of us.
This expanded state of consciousness, an “ultimate reality”, was called Maunam in Sanskrit. In English there is no word for Maunam, so a much narrower term, “silence”, is used. This lack of a clear translation created a major barrier for Western understanding.
<emIn English there is no word for Maunam, so a much narrower term, “silence”, is used </em
THE QUEST: Breaking from the past
The Fourth Awakening was to the possibility of an individual quest.
Some felt drawn to the deep sense of power and unity in the vast space of Maunam. For the first time in human history, explorers were using the state of Maunam to enter the wider spectrum of human consciousness. (8) To pursue this spiritual path some explorers, called Unity Seekers, made radical changes in both their external and inner lives.
EXTERNAL STRUGGLES: Some people felt limited by the superficiality of their everyday lives. When these “Unity Seekers” reflected on their lives in the village, they were not happy with what they found. They saw themselves limited by their desires, anxieties, and distractions.
They could become free and liberated if they could give up the superficiality of their old lives. They could exist in a larger and a fuller way . (9) They could be superhuman.
These revolutionary ideas rocked the communities. Certain individuals began behaving in some very shocking ways. (10) These Unity Seekers, sometimes called renouncers and samnyasins, were a ragged bunch who went beyond the pale. Dressed in dirty saffron garments, the men went unshaven with long loose locks of hair.
Their struggles sparked a radical revolution of deliberate homelessness. They walked away from their homes and began lives of extreme simplicity. They developed a radical vision about how to find unity by transcending human limits.
INTERNAL STRUGGLES: The old religion had been external. For most people, reality was still just something “out there”. A person’s spiritual progress meant performing these practices in a precisely correct way. (11)Everyone’s lives had been anchored in rituals and ceremonies conducted by the priestly class.
Their struggles sparked a radical revolution.
It was earth-shattering to learn that religion could be internal. This revolutionary discovery by the Unity Seekers (12) turned people’s worlds inside out. Now, spiritual advancement depended on individual internal work. Many practices were developed to enter the inner ocean. These methods could be conducted in the mind.
Old ways were turned inside out. Now rituals and practices took place in the mind.
The internal struggle for enlightenment required intense concentration. The new religion required them to be directly engaged in their own inner work. They must plumb the mysteries of their own nature. (14) This work could not be done for them by priests. They made the crucial discovery that inner freedom and unity required internal work. They developed unique ideas and processes about how to navigate and explore this new world. Words could point the way, but ultimately words must be discarded and the path must be followed silently.
It was a monumental discovery that the inner world could be a laboratory for radical experiments and discovering the truth. This awakening sparked a new world of possibilities for evolving human consciousness.
In their inner laboratories they experimented and developed spiritual technologies. Their mental workplaces yielded an array of brilliant and sophisticated methods of yoga and meditation. Silence was an essential condition and integral part of these methods. The earliest texts, like Patanjali’s yoga-sutras and the Bhagwan Geeta, stressed the need for “silence of mind” to escape time and to expand one’s existence. (15) The Unity Seekers recognized the power of quiet space, concentration, and freedom from distraction. These experiments were usually done in peaceful and beautiful landscapes, often in temples and monasteries on the banks of rivers or tops of hills.
By 750 BCE they had developed practices to eliminate distractions. They found silence to be a powerful tool, a source of great insights, a workshop, a path, and fuel for an expanded existence The human spectrum of possibilities widened with the discovery of this far larger self.
An access point into this greater silence was one startling discovery. The sacred sound of AUM opened the door. Millions chanted its four syllables: ah – a beginning, oo – a middle, um – an end, and then silence. Chanting AUM became a way to glimpse “eternity”. (16)
“With their own being as laboratories, they have conducted numberless experiments.”
Some took solitude to a more extreme level, ceasing to talk altogether to strengthen and balance their inner unity. These radical explorers were called the Mu-ńi, Sanskrit for “Silent Ones”. They were ancient explorers of inner space. They discovered that they could live in a richer, more interior way if they didn’t talk so much. But they also made the disconcerting discovery that they could not stop talking to themselves! They called this continuous internal conversation, “monkey chatter”. They would discover the exquisitely difficult challenge of turning it off. (17)
The Unity Seekers and the Mu-ńi’s were prolific experimenters. They developed many paths to liberation and unity. These practices had a common revolutionary characteristic: individuals can transcend their limited selves and explore the fuller spectrum of their humanness. Truths could be found in individuals’ own silent worlds. (18) In quiet space they could escape finality; they could return to “Sacred Time” and find unity.
New Life Stages: The Mu-ńi were among the first to observe and develop ideas about how humans develop and evolve. Much later their ideas would be codified in the Laws of Manu, the celebrated ”instruction manual” of 100 CE. This book acknowledged the importance of silence in discovering truth, in addition to other seminal ideas.
The Laws of Manu described four ashramas, or stages of human development. The first two stages were that of the student-apprentice and then the householder. The latter two stages were that of the forest dwelling hermit and the sannyasin – the wandering recluse.
Since the quest for inner unity would take years and life-times, these latter stages of life were designated as the time to follow one’s true path. This was the time when the roles and the ways of being that had been required in the first half of life, could be dropped. This is where one’s spiritual journey could begin in earnest, when the inner silence and spiritual discipline for opening the depths of the self could be cultivated. (19) It was the time for the silent quest.
So, humans awakened to new dimensions of themselves as they evolved. When they learned to be quiet, to focus, and to listen, they developed the ability for introspection and discovered the vast inner ocean of silence.
Indian society provided a rich soil where people discovered a new and far greater existence. Some felt that they had gained access to the power that held the universe together. (20) Some saw themselves being held back from their own inner reality, and they developed radical and unprecedented ways to overcome these limits. Scriptures and priestly ceremony were insufficient.
Discoveries and disciplined methods of human development came from the direct experience of individual explorers. “It is far better to follow one’s own path, however imperfectly, than to perfectly follow someone else’s path.” (21)
They were richer inside if they didn’t talk so much.
The period from 800 – 250 BCE was an intense and fertile time in India marked by rapid urbanization and much spiritual debate and development of spiritual practices. Silence was seen as central to the practices of yoga and meditation. During this period an astounding paradigm shift took place in India as well as elsewhere. This new era was named The Axial Age by the great historian Karl Jaspers. (22) During this period of time a new level of consciousness became part of the collective human experience. Astoundingly, a few men and women in various parts of the earth suddenly and independently developed this new capacity for self-reflection. (23)
Our awareness of silence had begun. (24) Silence was recognized as an essential condition for spiritual growth. Virtually all spiritual traditions adopted the practice of silence as a tool, a path, and a source. Silence was an integral part of practices like meditation and yoga. Silence and direct experience would become central to Zen.
This new reality, much greater than the individual, would become a central insight in every major spiritual tradition according to Karen Armstrong. (25) This expanded spectrum of human experience was a foundation for all world religions.
Simultaneously, in China, the Middle East, Greece and Rome and isolated spots around the world, there was a re-awakening to new levels of ourselves.
Revolutionary insights emerged from silence. But, these from here, things went in different directions. The silent discoveries were largely kept secret. There was little sharing or cross-fertilization of ideas and practices for awakening.
Out of the rich new culture of Axial Age India came a Mu-ńi named Siddhartha. He was known as “The Awakened One”. His extensive discoveries laid the foundation for my experience in Korea.
The practice of silence is essential in all spiritual traditions.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
● Find an image (from magazines, a Google image search, art work, etc.) that says something about your own monastic nature. List a few words that describe your monastic nature.
● What is an object you might put on your desk as a reminder of your monastic nature?
(1)Rossano, Matt J. (2007), “Did Meditating make us Human?”, Cambridge Archeological Journal 17:1, 47-58.
(2)Wilber, Ken, (2007) Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, p. 197 +. https://amzn.to/2QLJEKi
(3)New Yorker Magazine (April 29, 2015) “Parts of the brain were indirectly enhanced, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, according to one researcher (Rossano, 2007)”.
(4)Friedman, Harris, (2010) “Transpersonal and Other Models of Spiritual Development”, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 29 (1), p 86.
(5)Rossano, Matt J. (2007), “Did Meditating make us Human?”, Cambridge Archeological Journal 17:1, 47-58.
(6)Armstrong, Karen (2006), The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 130+. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(7)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 120, 128. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(8)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 130. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(9)Chaddha, Roshan, personal communication, 7/30/2013. “Then they could reach their ultimate goal of unity (with the universe) and with the Time of Great Silence (during the Upanishad period)”.
(10)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 238+. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(11)Wilber, Ken, (2007) Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, p. 197 +. https://amzn.to/2QLJEKi
(12)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 123. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(13)Balcom, David (2004) The Greatest Escape: Adventures in the History of Solitude, p. 48-65. https://amzn.to/2A60zBu
(14)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 131. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(15)Chaddhary, Ved, personal communication, 12/17/2014.
(16)Campbell, Joseph (1987) in Bill Moyer’s Interview. Personal communication from Roshan Chaddha 2/24/14.
(17)Wayman, Alex, “Two Traditions of India: Truth and Silence”, Philosophy East and West,
Vol 24, No 4 (Oct 1974), p. 389-403. www.jstor.org/stable/1397800
(18)Balcom, David, The Greatest Escape: Adventures in the History of Solitude, p. 138. https://amzn.to/2A60zBu
(19)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 136. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(20)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 123- 5. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
(21)Zimmer, Heinrich, Joseph Campbell (Ed.) (1969) Philosophies of India, p 159-160. (Bhagavad Gita – 3.35) https://amzn.to/2IPMefh
(22)Jaspers, Karl, (1953), The Origin and Goal of History, p 2. https://amzn.to/2CcEH91
(23)Friedman, Harris, (2010) “Transpersonal and Other Models of Spiritual Development”, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 29(1), p. 86.
(24)Gross, Daniel A., “This is your Brain on Silence”, Aug 21, 2014. Cites Joseph Moran, 2013,
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
(25)Karen Armstrong (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 128. https://amzn.to/2RJF28L
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD