The healing power of silence

“Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise” by Thich Nhat Hanh

According to the Buddhist tradition, there once lived a deity named Avalokiteshvara. It is said that he can listen to all kind of sounds and he can also utter 5 different types of sounds that can heal the world.

The first is the Wonderful Sound. It is the sound of the wonders of life such as the sound of the rain, birds singing in the morning, and so on.

The second is the Sound of the One Who Observes the World. It is the sound of listening and silence.

The third is the Brahma Sound. It is the transcendental sound, om, which has the innate power to create the world.

The fourth is the Sound of the Rising Tide. It symbolises the teachings of the Buddha. It can remove affliction, clear away misunderstanding, and transform everything.

The fifth is the Sound That Transcends All Sounds of the World. It is the sound of impermanence, a gentle reminder not to get too attached to particular sounds or words.

And according to Thich Nhat Hanh, if we can find silence within ourselves, we can hear these 5 sounds. So, how to achieve this? The key is to control what we consume.

“There are four kinds of food that every person consumes every day”, said Hanh. “In Buddhism, we call these kinds of food the Four Nutriments. They are edible food; sense impressions; volition; and consciousness, both individual and collective.”

The edible food is the food that we eat every day through our mouth. Sense and impression is the sensory experiences we receive through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind such as reading books, listening to music, the sound of the bus outside our window, our phone’s alerts, all of the information and ideas that we consume everyday and come into our consciousness.

The third source of nutriment is volition. It is our will, our desire, our concern that feeds our decision making and actions. And lastly, consciousness. It is the way our individual mind feeds itself and feeds our thoughts and actions. It also includes collective consciousness and how it can affect us as an individual.

Hanh then elaborates that “[a]ll of these foods can be healthy or unhealthy, nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption.”

Just as we can get sick if we eat too much junk food, or drink too much alcohol to distract ourselves from our suffering, we can experience the same thing with other nutriments. We can engage in too much video games, movies or series, gossip, or other dopamine inducing activities to avoid facing our problems. Volition can also be unhealthy, where instead of having constructive motivation we indulge on craving and obsession. And likewise, collective consciousness can bring out the best in us or we can get dragged by the group’s ugly moods such as anger, gossipy, competitive, etc.

Therefore, because each nutriment affects us profoundly, just like controlling the healthy food that we eat, it is important for us to be aware what exactly we consume for other nutriments and how much we consume them. This, in short, is the essence of mindfulness.

As Hanh remarks, “[m]indful awareness is like a sunscreen protecting the sensitive skin of a newborn baby. Without it, the skin would blister and burn. With the protection of our mindfulness, we are able to stay healthy and safe and take in only those nutriments that help us thrive.”

It is about deliberately curating what we read and see and hear. It is about refraining from our indulgences. It is about stepping back and observing our environment and consciously joining or avoiding the group mood. It can even be as simple as sitting down and meditating on our breathe or absorbing the energy of our surroundings.

Indeed, mindfulness is a form of meditation, but the book teaches us that it does not have to be done through only meditation but can also be conducted through everyday activities such as washing dishes, walking, eating, brushing our teeth, etc.

As Hanh concludes, “[p]racticing 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.”

Because it is only after we get rid of all the distractions and noises, both from outside stimulants or inside our own head, that we can once more hear our deepest thoughts, get in touch with our innermost feelings, and eventually listen to the 5 types of sound. And this is what this soothing book is ultimately all about.