Process and Silence
The Habit and Practice of Silence in Process Theology
The philosopher Whitehead wrote a book called Process and Reality, and his philosophy is often called process philosophy. On behalf of the Center for Process Spirituality, indebted to Whitehead's philosophy, I offer some reflections on process and silence, building upon a Whiteheadian or process point of view. My hope is that my reflections will be springboards for your own reflection, in conversation with others or alone, informed by the habit of silence.
The habit of silence is not the absence of sound; it is the presence of generous listening. There are degrees and modalities of sound in our lives all the time. If we walk in a contemplative mode, the sounds are always with us: the sounds of wind and birds, the sounds of water tugging at the heel, the sounds of the city, the sounds of music, the sounds of our own heartbeat, the sounds of pain. The habit of silence is listening to these sounds in a generous and loving way, without needing to have them refer back to yourself when they belong to others. When we walk in the habit of silence, we are good listeners.
The Sounds of the Divine
As we partake of this habit of silence, there are two more sounds that can only be heard with the ear of the heart. Here the word sounds is a metaphor for the felt presence of something that is not visible to the eye, but which has energy of its own; and the phrase ear of the heart, borrowed from the Benedictines, is a metaphor for pre-auditory feeling that unfolds within the depths of the heart.
An example of such feeling is proprioception: the feeling we have of our own internal bodily states. We do not hear them with our ears but we feel them nonetheless.
Similarly, so process theologians suggest, we can feel the presence of the divine with modes of perception sometimes called "faith" or "reverence" or "wonder" or "trust" or "gratitude." In a pre-auditory way we can have (1) a feeling of being loved by something more than us: God as an everlasting companion to all the world's joys and suffering, and (2) a feeling of being inwardly beckoned toward whatever fulness of life is available to us, given the circumstances at hand. This inward beckoning is God.
In process theology the feeling of being loved is what process theologians call the consequent nature of God, the Deep Listening in which the universe unfolds. The second is what they call the "initial aims" that we receive from the the Deep, relative to the circumstances of our lives. When we feel the love of the Deep, we have a sense of a Harmony of Harmonies, a Peace, that unfolds within the depths of the universe: a peace that includes tragedy. When we feel the initial aims in a relatively continuous and adaptive way, we enjoy what Christians call the habit of discernment. We are naturally and often spontaneously open to divine guidance: that is, to the inner Teacher within our heart.
In short, the habit of silence involves two things: (1) listening to the world in generous and loving ways and (2) listening to God in one or both of the two forms named above: a sense of being loved and receptivity to guidance in the silence of the heart. The first is sometimes called The Contemplation of Nature in the Christian tradition, and the second is called The Contemplation of God. Often they go together: we feel God in nature and nature in God.
Sabbath from Work
In order to enjoy the habit of silence -- the habit of generous listening to the world and to God -- it helps to have moments in our lives, built into each day, that are intentionally silent: moments of prayer or meditation. Whereas the habit of silence is something that can be part of our waking hours, and perhaps also our sleeping hours, throughout the day, the moments of silence are periodic, helping anchor a day. They are the practice of silence.
These moments are what the Jewish tradition calls sabbaths. In these moments we are intentionally disengaged from the need to get things done, disengaged from the need to acquire information, disengaged from the need to communicate with others or even with God. We take a sabbath from work.
Moments of silence are forms of prayer, but they are not prayers of address. Rather they are forms of what Christians and others call contemplative prayer. Here contemplation does not mean rumination; it is not thinking about things or mulling things over in a thoughtful way. It means resting in silence itself, resting in the listening. The purpose of the rest is not to "get somewhere" or to "accomplish something" or even to "acquire wisdom." In moments of silence the purpose is to rest, pure and simple. The disengagement, the resting, is rarely if ever absolute. We may be resting to some degree, with part of our minds and hearts, and yet engaged and even anxious with another part. That is fine. The resting is partial, but the partiality is itself sufficient.
A practice of intentional disengagement can take the form of a twenty-minute walk in the morning, or gardening, or yoga, or tai ji, or seated meditation. It always helps to bring your body with you, and let the movement or the stillness of the body be a spiritual guide for the disengagement. As they say in Zen Buddhism, a quiet body helps bring about a quiet mind.
A practice of intentional disengagement can also be communal. There are many contexts where people rest in silence together, and where the very "resting" has an osmotic effect. One person's silence can deepen another person's, and the very act of being silent together can have a richness lacking in isolation. In Islam, for example, collective prayer in a mosque can be an occasion for the welling up, however subtly, of a silence in the heart for all who pray together. The very moments of the body help elicit the silence helping individuals make contact, however fleetingly, with the cavern in the heart.
The Cavern as Mosque in the Heart
The cavern is itself both dark and light. It is like a sanctuary, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque in the heart. It is dark in the sense that it is a womb-like place beyond words, dwelling deep within the heart, and it is light in the sense that it is filled with potentialities (see below) for living fruitfully in the world, It is cavern with candles. The candles are fresh possibilities from God: initial aims, The mosque in the heart part of what process theologians would call the pre-verbal or pre-linguistic side of every occasion of experience, where empathy for the world and hybrid prehensions of divine love well up.
The Mosque as Divine, Creative Space
The cavern is both within the self and more than the self. It is within the self in that it is part of the realm of the subconscious mind: the place from which dreams emerge, including dreams from the personal past and dreams from a collective unconscious. And yet it is beyond the self insofar as it beyond conscious control and, for that matter, conscious awareness. In process theology as in depth psychology, conscious awareness is but one form of experience, of which there are many others. In the language of the philosopher Whitehead, "consciousness is a form of experience, but not all experience is conscious."
The cavern is not the whole of the subconscious world; it is that part of the subconscious world that is always already in touch with the divine, consciously recognized or not. It is the deep within the Deep. The cavern is the place in the Heart where God is immediately present in the depths of the human heart.
Sensitivity to the mosque in the heart likewise involves a sense that the Deep is everywhere at once, not simply "within" as opposed to "without." It is in the depths of the self, to be sure, but also in the width of the universe: in the hills and rivers, trees and stars.
The sanctuary is the everywhere-at-once-ness of divine space. The mosque in the heart it the earth, too,
The Fruits of Silence
To the degree that we are in touch with the mosque, within and without, potentialities for richness of experience emerge that are born from the mosque itself. These are the initial aims of which process theologians speak. They are the fruits of silence. How many fruits are there? At the Center for Process Spirituality we speak of thirty-seven of them, borrowing from the spiritual alphabet of Spirituality and Practice. Some are ethical, some are aesthetic: all are conducive to the fulness of life.
attention - beauty - being present - compassion - connections - devotion - enthusiasm - faith
forgiveness - grace - gratitude - hope - hospitality - imagination - joy - justice - kindness - listening
love - meaning - nurturing - openness - peace - play - questing - reverence - shadow - silence
teachers - transformation - unity - vision - wonder - x, the mystery - yearning - you - zeal
When we enjoy the habit of silence in daily life, to the best of our abilities, these fruits well up naturally. They emerge from our habits of listening to others in loving and mindful ways, from our listening to the still small voice of God within our hearts, and from listening to nature. Listening to God need not be sharply separated from listening to others, because the 'others' are part of the very body of God. When we listen to other in pain, and respond in loving ways, we are listening and responding to God. And when we share in the joys of others, we are likewise listening and responding to God. God is more than the world, but not less.
The Active Contemplative
The habit of silence can be part of a very active life. The habit is by not means limited to introverts over extroverts, or the other way around. Each person has his or her way of developing a habit of silence, and each person has his or her own form of practice. The habit and practice of silence are available to people with different religious affiliations and to people without any affiliation at all. Indeed, the habit and practice need not be considered "religious" if the word religion is an obstacle. They are simply human, part of our evolutionary heritage.
It is often said that there can be no peace without justice. We might add that there can be no peace or justice without listening. When we listen deeply we share in the Deep Listening. The tough part is not listening to wind and surf, that is easy. The tough part is listening to the pain of living beings who suffer or who challenge our comfort zones with their anger, sometimes directed at us. It can seem easier to block out or dismiss them -- to wear ear plugs.
Nevertheless, listening to the world, without ear plugs, is the beginning of justice and compassion, which are the fruit of deep listening. Justice-making without listening lapses into the will-to-power, we mold the world into our own image in the name of what we want to hear. But justice-making that unfolds from listening always and forever begins with allowing the unfamiliar and surprising voice of others into the heart and then responding, not with "This makes me feel good" but with "Here, let me help in whatever way I can." It is often said that there can be no peace without justice. It is also true that there can be no justice without listening.
Ecological Civilizations as Listening Civilizations
In our time "justice" must include listening to other animals and the earth as well as listening to people. It finds itself committed to the well-being of all, in response to the needs of the world and the Wellness at the center of silence. Practically speaking, this is is to help build local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, diverse, inclusive, humane to animals, and spiritually satisfying -- with no one left behind. These are the building blocks of what process theologians and others call "ecological civilizations." Truth be told, these communities cannot be built or sustained without people who have the habit of silence, that is, the habit of listening. In the beginning, in the end, and everywhere in between, there must be receptivity to the sounds of the world and the callings of the Deep. Ecological civilizations must be, they have to be, listening civilizations. They can well up, not only from hard work and fervent strategies with clearly-defined goals aimed at helping mend a broken world. but also, and more deeply. from the silence, human and divine.
-- Jay McDaniel, April 2020