What is the role of silence?

Question: What is the role of silence (stilling the mind) in the practice of A Course in Miracles?

Short answer: Silence, the practice of stilling the mind and experiencing the quiet peace of God, plays a prominent role in A Course in Miracles. There are three broad aspects to this practice: First, we still the mind by withdrawing our attention from the chaos and conflict of the external world, and the ego thoughts that normally occupy the mind. Next, God enters our still, open mind and gives us His gift of peace. Finally, we return to the world, bringing the peace of God with us as we act in the world, extending that peace to everyone.


(Note: Two of the most time-honored ways of stilling the mind and allowing the peace of God to enter are meditation and prayer, both of which are featured prominently in the Course.

The cultivation of silence is indeed a vital part of the practice of A Course in Miracles. (I am speaking primarily of inner silence—a peaceful, silent state of mind—though outer silence can certainly help facilitate inner silence, and is a prominent part of most Course practices aimed at bringing about inner silence.) In fact, it could be said that the Course's path as a whole is essentially one of silencing the clamorous voice of the ego, allowing the quiet, peaceful message of God's Voice to replace it, and extending that peace to the world. Let's now take a closer look at the three aspects of this practice:

We still the mind by withdrawing our attention from the chaos and conflict of the external world, and the ego thoughts that normally occupy the mind.

From the Course's standpoint, our "normal" state of mind is not a pretty picture. The picture of our ego mind that the Course presents is similar to what the Buddhists call "monkey mind": a mind that is constantly leaping from one thing to another, endlessly chattering, never still. The thoughts which normally occupy this mind are described in the Course as "raucous screams and senseless ravings" (T-21.V.1:6). This mind is constantly occupied with "the frantic, riotous thoughts and sights and sounds of this insane world" (W-pI.49.4:4). In a nutshell, this mind is in a state of conflict. It is constantly at war, both with the external world and within itself.

This picture of our normal state of mind may sound extreme. It can be hard to believe that the everyday content of our mind is comparable to the bedlam of an insane asylum. Yet if we pause and examine our ongoing stream of thoughts, we can see that this is so. We are focused almost exclusively on the task of surviving and hopefully triumphing in a chaotic external world. Our days are spent devising battle plans to successfully combat the myriad external forces that threaten us at every turn—hunger, thirst, germs, injury, traffic, obnoxious co-workers, you name it. It seems as if the whole world is against us. Yet even when we look within, we don't see a united front: our own thoughts are in conflict. Part of us wants to do this, part of us wants to do that. Our ego thoughts conflict both with our spirit-based thoughts, and with each other. In the midst of such conflict, peace of mind seems like an airy-fairy pipe dream, a delusion of naive people who hide their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the senseless chaos of the real world.

But according to the Course, this conflict is entirely unreal. The conflict of the external world is an illusion, a projection of the conflicting thoughts in the mind. Moreover, the conflicting thoughts in the mind are illusions as well. Both the world we see and the conflicted thoughts that produce and maintain it are completely divorced from reality (see W-pI.45.1). Therefore, if we want to end the conflict and find peace, the first step is simply to turn our attention away from both the cacophony of the outside world and the constant stream of warring thoughts in our mind. This is what the Course wants us to do when it asks us to still the mind: to empty the mind of its usual conflicted content, so that it is open to receive new content. The Course frequently invites us to take a moment and let go of everything that normally occupies our mind, as in the following passage:

Let us be still an instant, and forget all things we ever learned, all thoughts we had, and every preconception that we hold of what things mean and what their purpose is. Let us remember not our own ideas of what the world is for. We do not know. ( T-31.I.12:1-3; see also T-31.II.8 and W-pI.189.7)

I think it is vitally important to see passages like the one above not just as pretty, poetic words, but as an invitation to do a real spiritual practice. The author of the Course really wants us to take some time to still our minds here. Given how often he instructs us to do this (the phrase "be still" occurs 36 times in the Course), it is clear that he really wants us to do it. The Text encourages us to still our minds frequently. The Workbook introduces meditation practice (though it never uses the word "meditation" to describe it) starting with Lesson 41; as we advance through the Workbook, regular extended periods of quiet time with God become a staple of our practice, until they become the main practice of every lesson in Part II. This quiet time is a major part of post-Workbook practice as well (see M-16). Given the chaotic nature of our normal state of mind, it is not hard to see why this practice is important. As anyone who has tried to still her mind can tell you, monkey minds need a lot of training to set aside their incessant chattering and be still. And it is this stillness, this openness, this willingness to set aside what we think we know, that paves the way for something new to enter.

God enters our still, open mind and gives us His gift of peace.

Once we have stilled the mind and emptied it of its old content, God (through the Holy Spirit) fills it with His new content. God Himself takes the place of the conflicting illusions that battled in the mind before, bringing His truth with Him:

An empty space that is not seen as filled…[becomes] a silent invitation to the truth to enter, and to make itself at home….For what you leave as vacant God will fill, and where He is there must the truth abide. (T-27.III.4:1,3)

God lays His gifts into the mind that is open to receive them. The Course tells us of a number of gifts that we receive when we still the mind: the miracle, the holy instant, forgiveness, healing, God's Word, the Holy Spirit's guidance, our function, etc. But the greatest gift of all, the gift that all the other gifts bring with them, is the gift of peace. The conflict that raged in the mind before is gently replaced by "the stillness of the peace of God" (W-pII.273.Heading). This peace is above all what the Course is speaking of when it uses the word "silence" and its many synonyms: quiet, stillness, calmness, tranquility. This peace is the deep, abiding peace that dawns on the mind when the truth behind the mad illusions of the world stands revealed. This peace is the Course's goal.

How does God's gift of peace come to us? In some Course passages, the implication is that God's gifts come to us automatically once we open our mind to them, while in other passages we are invited to actively ask for those gifts. An example of God's gifts coming to us automatically is the above quote from T-27.III, in which the very openness of our mind invites God to replace our illusions with the truth. This makes a lot of sense, since the truth was always there to begin with, awaiting only our recognition of it; stilling our mind automatically puts us in touch with a part of our mind that is always at peace. An example of actively asking for God's gifts is the following prayer, which is typical of the prayers in Part II of the Workbook. We ask God to speak to us and give us His gift of peace, and then wait in silence to receive it:

Father, I come to You today to seek the peace that You alone can give. I come in silence. In the quiet of my heart, the deep recesses of my mind, I wait and listen for Your Voice. My Father, speak to me today. I come to hear Your Voice in silence and in certainty and love, sure You will hear my call and answer me. (W-pII.221.1:1-5)

But whether the gifts are given automatically or we actively ask for them, the key is that we must extend the invitation to God by stilling the mind and clearing a space for Him. Actively turning away from our conflicted ways of thinking and seeing is the gateway to the peace of God. It is our stillness that opens our mind to His stillness. In "this empty space…is Heaven free to be remembered" (T-27.I.10:1).

We return to the world, bringing the peace of God with us as we act in the world, extending that peace to everyone.

All of this withdrawing attention from the world, stilling the mind, taking quiet time, and inviting the peace of God to enter may sound very self-absorbed and impractical. After all, most of us are not solitary Himalayan masters who can spend all day contemplating our navels; we have to actually relate with other people and live in the rough and tumble of everyday life. How can ordinary people actually live this teaching? The Course's answer is that we are not to turn away from the world for good. Once we have received God's gift of peace (in our practice, our quiet time of stilling the mind and inviting Him to enter), we are to come back to the world, bringing this peace with us and extending it to others. Extending our peace to others reinforces our peace, for it is in giving that we receive. All of our gifts are thus gifts to the Self we all share, and so the Course encourages us to return from our quiet time to the world and be thankful for the opportunity to give our gifts to others: "Be grateful to return, as you were glad to go an instant, and accept the gifts that grace provided you. You carry them back to yourself" (W-pI.169.14:1-2).

The extension of peace to others can happen in two ways. The first of these ways actually takes place before we return from our quiet time to the world: Just as God's gifts are extended to us automatically once we still our mind, so those gifts are extended automatically from our mind to other minds once we receive the gifts. One Workbook lesson which speaks of this is Lesson 106. The lesson instructs us to frequently take time out for quiet listening to the Voice for God, but also reminds us that our periods of quiet time are not for ourselves alone. On the contrary, "For each five minutes spent in listening, a thousand minds are opened to the truth and they will hear the holy Word you hear" (W-pI.106.9:2). Simply by taking the time to quiet our mind and allow truth to enter, we automatically extend truth (and the peace that comes with it) to other minds as well.

The second way is extending this peace actively. This active extension may take the form of a purely mental practice, as when the Course instructs us to mentally say to specific people, "Let peace extend from my mind to yours, [name]" (W-pI.82.2:2). But while all extension is ultimately mind-to-mind, the Course definitely sees us communicating our peace behaviorally as well. The Course would have us literally go out into the world and perform miracles, and by so doing extend God's peace to those whose minds are still torn by the conflict and chaos of the world. The following prayer from Part II of the Workbook is a beautiful evocation of this extension. This prayer is both an expression of the uplifting truth that our peace blesses all who come into contact with us, and an invitation to God to bring to us those who particularly need our help:

Your peace surrounds me, Father. Where I go, Your peace goes there with me. It sheds its light on everyone I meet. I bring it to the desolate and lonely and afraid. I give Your peace to those who suffer pain, or grieve for loss, or think they are bereft of hope and happiness. Send them to me, my Father. Let me bring Your peace with me. (W-pII.245.1:1-7)

The form this communication takes is to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and could be anything that gets the message of peace across to the one in need of peace. It could be an act of kindness, a word of reassurance, a gesture of forgiveness, or simply our peaceful presence. Many of us have had the experience of a stressful situation being instantly defused simply by the entry of a calm, peaceful person. If you are such a person, just being there may be enough to extend stillness and peace of mind to others: "You bring [God's] happiness to all you look upon; His peace to everyone who looks on you and sees His message in your happy face" (W-pI.100.6:5).

One section of the Course which describes all three aspects we are discussing— stilling the mind, allowing God's peace to enter, and bringing His peace back with us to the world—is the well-known section of the Text, "I Need Do Nothing" (T-18.VII). The basic message of this section (based on the original context of its dictation, in which Helen was faced with a distressing situation in her life and was worried about what to do), is that when we are in such a situation, we should remind ourselves that we need do nothing (T-18.VII.5:5-6). In other words, we should take time out and still the mind by withdrawing our attention from the external situation and letting go of our worries about what to do. This creates an opening in our mind, an empty space free of the mind's usual focus on externals (T-18.VII.7:7). God then places His gift of peace into this empty space, through His Voice, the Holy Spirit (T-18.VII.7:8). We now have an abode of peace within us, a "quiet center" (T-18.VII.8:2). But once we have found this place of peace, we don't just sit there in solitary bliss, permanently oblivious to the external world. Eventually, we return and bring this peace with us as we go about our business in the world, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us to where we can best bestow the gift of peace we have received: "This quiet center, in which you do nothing, will remain with you, giving you rest in the midst of every busy doing on which you are sent" (T-18.VII.8:3).

Thus even in the external situation we were originally worrying about, we won't necessarily do nothing externally. We may be guided to do something about it, or we may not. But whatever we do externally, we will in essence be doing nothing, because all of our actions will be coming from a place of deep stillness within us. Even as we go about our work in this tumultuous, chaotic world, we "will be more aware of this quiet center of the storm than all its raging activity" (T-18.VII.8:2). Before, our mind was buffeted about by the storm, thrown here and there by its fierce winds, seemingly at its mercy. But now we are in the eye of the storm, so to speak; even in the midst of the often frenetic activity of everyday life, we will be still, basking in the peace of God. And this peace is a gift to everyone we meet. By stilling our mind we allowed God's stillness to enter, and now we extend that stillness to the world. We have become the living embodiment of peace.

Stilling the mind, receiving the peace of God, and extending it to the world: a practice

Let's now take time out to do a brief practice which incorporates all three elements of stilling the mind, receiving the peace of God, and bringing His peace back with us to the world. This is a simple practice which uses the prayers from Lessons 221 and 245, reproduced above. I would suggest reading through all of the instructions first, and then giving the practice a try. Let us begin:

  1. As a prelude to entering into a period of silent listening, close your eyes and slowly say the prayer from Lesson 221 to God. Don't just read the words, but offer it as a personal invitation to your Father, an invitation for Him to speak to you and give you His peace. Bring as much sincerity as you can to the words you say. Use the prayer to still your mind, to turn your attention away from the thoughts of the world and toward God. Use it to enter the quiet center of your mind, where God your Father abides.
  2. When you have concluded the prayer, sink into the silence at the center of your mind and listen for God. Patiently await the gift of peace that He has promised you, confident that you will receive it. When your mind wanders and thoughts of the world enter (as will almost certainly happen), quietly reaffirm your commitment to be silent and listen for God. You might repeat a short line from the prayer, such as "I come in silence" or "I seek the peace that You alone can give" to refocus your mind each time it wanders from its intent. Or you might use a variation on a technique given in the Introduction to Review VI of the Workbook: When you have a distracting thought, say, "This thought I do not want. I choose instead the peace of God" (based on W-pI.rVI.In.6:2). Spend as much time in this silence as you like; you might want to set a specific time, perhaps 15 minutes.
  3. When you are ready to leave your quiet time and return to the world, open your eyes and say the prayer from Lesson 245 to God. Again, don't just mouth the words, but make it a sincere prayer of the heart, addressed personally to your Father. Use this prayer to affirm your commitment to bring God's peace with you as you return to the world. Really see yourself bringing peace to all the people God sends to you today. If particular people come to mind who are in need of the gift of peace, mentally extend peace to them now, and also see yourself extending that gift behaviorally to them. When you have concluded the prayer, return to the world, committed to bringing the peace you have found in the stillness of your mind to everyone you meet.

Obviously, we won't have a deep experience of peace every time we do this practice. Our monkey minds can be pretty stubborn, and so we should be patient with ourselves. Most of us are pretty inexperienced at stilling the mind, and so it will take time to learn. But that is exactly why it is called practice. We need practice, and the more we practice, the more skilled we will become. And along the way, we should take heart in whatever small gains we make. If we do nothing more than strengthen our desire to find the peace of God, we will have accomplished something worthwhile. For if the desire is there, it is only a matter of time before we find the stillness and peace we seek.

In fact, the Course traces our entire journey to peace from beginning to end in Review I of the Workbook (see W-pI.rI.In.3:3-5:2). This journey consists of four basic phases of learning:

  1. At first, we will need externally quiet situations in order to find peace. In other words, we will need to get away from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and create "special settings" for quiet time with God. I suspect that most of us are still at this step much of the time.
  2. Then, we will learn how to bring peace with us into our everyday lives, and use it to deal with whatever difficult situations we are confronted with.
  3. In time, we will learn that peace is part of us, and so it is always with us, wherever we are.
  4. Finally, we will learn that our true Self is everywhere, and so peace is everywhere.

All we are asked to do is begin this journey. If we take the first step, the others will follow. The peace of God will be ours.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I encourage you to really do the practice of stilling the mind and inviting the peace of God to enter. Make it a habit. In addition to the short practice I put together above, the Course itself contains a treasure trove of other practices and prayers to choose from. If you would like further guidance, I again recommend Robert Perry's material on Course-based meditation and prayer, mentioned above. For those aiming to really experience the essence of silence in A Course in Miracles, this material is a good place to start.

Ultimately, the practice of silence in A Course in Miracles can be boiled down to an exceedingly simple formula: Withdraw your attention from the world, and place your attention on God. By silencing the voice of the ego and its world, we open to the deep, eternal silence of God's peace. And it is here we will find our Father, and remember our true Identity as His Son:

There is a resting place so still no sound except a hymn to Heaven rises up to gladden God the Father and the Son. Where Both abide are They remembered, Both. And where They are is Heaven and is peace. (T-29.V.1:3-5)

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