When Hazrat Inayat Khan first arrived in New York, it made a deep impression on him. The crowded masses of buildings rising ever higher, the busy hooting of ships in the harbour, the constant noise of horse and motor traffic, people hurrying here and there, the thundering subway, and the overhead racket of the elevated trains, all showed him a picture of uncontrolled activity. And, to his amazement, when people had a few moments of enforced stillness–sitting on the subway, for example–they immediately took out a newspaper and began to read. In his view, they did not understand the meaning, let alone the benefit, of repose.
Generally speaking, our culture has not improved in this regard. We tend to think that ‘repose’ is an activity, and we have organised it on a grand scale. The leisure industries employ thousands of people, supplying many thousands more energetic ‘consumers’ of leisure. It is even possible to earn a doctorate degree from a number of universities for studying leisure. In this view, repose is something measurable,quantifiable–and freely available, as long as you can afford it!
To understand better what a Sufi means by repose, we could look at music, which depends upon a regular rhythm of some sort to carry the pattern of tones. The time signature may be a western standard, like ‘four-four’, the widely employed sixteen beat ‘tintal’ from north India, or some other more or less complicated arrangement, but once established, the rhythm should remain consistent. Changing the rhythm in the middle of a piece of music will only lead to confusion. Put simply, the succession of stressed and unstressed beats, or ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ pulses, should be regular, and not erratic. This is clearly related to the idea of physical balance; although we usually have one side of the body that is dominant, the two sides must be able to work together in harmony, or there is a loss of grace and beauty.
The contrast between strong and weak, or between active and inactive, is fundamental to all our experience. Claude Debussy said that ‘music is the space between the notes,’ and it is chiaroscuro, or the treatment of light and shadow that allows an artist to portray three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. We can understand from this that our life should be neither unlimited, intense activity, nor a complete absence of it; there must be a regular, appropriate alteration. To do ‘nothing,’ though, is a difficult challenge to many people. We have a long habit of activity and sensation, so that the relaxing of the mind and body into stillness, and forgetting about the chatter of the senses seems unnatural, and even frightening.
Nevertheless, inactivity reveals something that activity cannot. One can verify this by teaching young children to sit quietly for a few moments. Properly taught, they will enjoy sitting still, closing their eyes, and ‘thinking nothing’ for a minute or two. If it is done regularly, they can incorporate it in their daily rhythm and it will help them throughout life, both in their recognition that rhythm can indeed be changed, and in their appreciation of stillness.
Sitting quietly and allowing silence within oneself is very similar to sitting in silence in nature. If one walks hurriedly through a forest, one may have a general impression of trees and bushes, and perhaps a brief glimpse of a bird or two, but not much else will be apparent. If one sits down and waits, more and more of the life around one will become evident; with enough time, even the slow rhythm of the seasons and the long life of a tree will start to emerge. In the same way, if one simply sits and patiently allows one’s thoughts and feelings and actions to subside, one will begin to discover an inner life of which one was mostly unaware. In the forest, discovery depends upon self-effacement, and the same self-effacement is the essence of the inner discovery. With time our stillness becomes a luminous emptiness, and all boundaries disappear: one we are, and were, and always will be.
Is this what is meant by ‘meditation’? Perhaps – but in the interests of silence, it is might be better to leave it completely unnamed.