Part III. Chapter I

Stilling the mind.

Walking with its rythmic repetition helps to regularise the flow of thought. If it is associated with the repetition of a sacred mantra it can even lead to the stillness of the mind and to a superior state of consciousness. Pilgrims in every country quite often practice repetitive prayer. "A Russian Pilgrim’s stories"1 in Christianity and Swami Ramdas’ "The Vision of God"2 in India are both well known in this context. So fascinated was I by this power of that repetition - whether of steps or of a sacred mantra - exercised over the mind, that I chose it as the subject of my M.D. thesis. Even as I began working on it, I sensed that repetitive techniques, normally associated with prayer or positive thought in the mind of people, could also make an important contribution to the development of psychotherapy. One of the limitations of psychotherapy is that it is based almost exclusively on the observation of the mind; but this represents only one half of the possible approaches to the mind according to the spiritual path. The other half is constituted by techniques of concentration consisting of a repetitive movement of attention which continuously returns to the object on which it is fixed. This prayer of Jesus has often been compared to the mantra and the hesychasm to yoga4. I shall return to this subject at the end of the article; in the beginning I will deal with the result of these techniques, peace (hesychia), which has been described as the backbone of the mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and means the stillness of the mind (citta vritti nirodah) which Patanjali considers to be the very definition of yoga (at the beginning of his aphorisms (I-2)) 5


I am happy to be in India, on the banks of the Ganges while writing on this subject just before entering into retreat for about five months. It may seem paradoxical to speak of silence, but others before me have spoken in praise of it 6: while aspiring to this silence as the ultimate goal of our experience, what better subject of reflection could there be to occupy our minds?

Psychology is no stranger to the virtues of silence : the abstention of the psychiatrist is efficacious in itself, because it constitutes an implicit acceptance of the mind and existence of his patient as they are; however the practice of meditation is necessary so that the subject himself might become silent. Therapists are too fascinated by the noises of the intellect, the false notes of psychopathology and the muffled roar of the disturbing impulses of the unconscious to even think of listening to the great calm that lies behind or beneath all these.

In this sense, it could be said that silence represents a suppressed subject of modern psychology. Besides, it had already been set well aside in philosophical and theological thinking. Nevertheless, in his liking for nature, ordinary man has the right intuition about silence. The images that nature presents are not burdened with intentional messages as in the case of advertising in cities. Nature has nothing special to say to him, this is why, perhaps, he likes its company.

To get to the heart of the matter, let us consider the vocabulary in use : in Sanskrit, silence is called "mauna", the word being associated to such an extent with sages of ancient times, that they were called "mounis". As for peace or "shanti", it is considered to be the ninth and last "rasa" (emotion) the basis of the existence of all the other "rasas". In Greek, the word "hesychia" is used to denote both peace and the life-style of the solitary hermits. We shall concern ourselves mainly with this experience of "hesychia" without going into details of the movement called "hesychasm" to which it gave birth and which has influenced the entire mysticism of the Eastern Church.

Another term denoting tranquillity is "apatheia" or "absence of passion". It certainly does not mean apathy or a state of laziness, but rather a state of purity, wherein all the movements of the mind are brought to a stand-still. It is a state of super-consciousness, basically analogous to the Hindu "samadhi". The Fathers almost always considered "amerimnia" or absence of anxiety as a virtue. In this context, Ma Anandamayee, a Hindu sage of our time, said : "Freedom from anxiety, this is the supreme meditation". Another word denoting tranquillity is "eremia", strongly resembling (apart from the accent on the first letter in the Greek spelling) the word "eremia" or desert. The two ideas are associated in the words themseleves. In Latin peace is called "pax", and such was its importance in the development of Western monasticism, that it became the motto of the Benedictine order.

In this text, I shall restrict myself to the direct experience of monks and nuns and shall not be involved in culturally determined theological speculations. The comparison of thought will show that the idea of a summit common to all mysticism is not a delusion. In my choice of the sayings of the Fathers and the Indian sages, I have allowed myself to be guided by my intuition, which is itself based on the inner experience which I have been able to develop during my eight years stay in India. I have also benefitted from the experience of Vijayananda whom I have known for about seven years. I memtioned him in the introduction. A former French doctor, having become the disciple of Ma Anandamayi, he lives and practises meditation according to Vedanta, and has been doing so for more than forty years in India. Not a Father of the Desert, he certainly merits the title of "Father of the Mountain", having lived alone in the Himalayas for seventeen years.

In these times when the West is opening itself up to diverse spiritual currents, this idea of an inner silence transcends the problems of dialogue, because it represents a reservoir which is common to all sacred texts and sayings. It is as vast as the sky. undisturbed by the different voices of groups participating in the spiritual pluralism of today. It needs no translation ...

Silence is a sign of renunciation, and in this context can be quoted a sentence from what could be considered the spiritual testament of Swami Abhishiktananda who is convinced of the important similarities between Vedanta and Christianity : "The call to complete renunciation surpasses all religious boundaries... and it is in this call rising from the depths of the human heart, and which seems to transport all the great ‘dharmas’ (religions) beyond themselves, that these religions find a meeting-ground.7

Ramana Maharishi expressed the same idea through a more traditional image " "Silence is the ocean into which all the rivers of the religions flow.

After having discussed the stillness of the mind in the Vedanta and in Christianity, we shall take a look at the method (that is ascetism) by which this state can be achieved at through a critical study of the meaning of suffering and of the body, according to the Fathers in comparison to their meaning in Hindu tradition. Finally we shall compare the techniques of hesychasm and yoga.


There are three degrees of stilling of mind :

1) the silencing of inner verbal activity ;

2) the obliteration of all images ;

3) the stoppage of physical sensations.

When the last stage is achieved and the Self is revealed, it is called "samadhi". When the waters of a lake are still, its depths are clearly visible. This does not mean, however, that stillness or silence is a state of torpor. Ramana Maharishi said that people believed that the sage was lazy because he could remain immobile for a long time; but in fact he is like a top that spins so fast that it seems still. The silence of the true guru is the best teaching : it is through silence that Dakshinamurti, the adolescent sage, transmitted the knowledge of the Self to the four elder rishis. The crowds that used to see Ma Anandamayi, or who now come to see Ma Amritanandamayi, can stay for hours just looking at the guru, with no need for either discourse or preaching. Once someone asked Ma Anandamayi to relate her experience, to which she replied, "That would pre-suppose that there is always someone to experience, which is not the case here (this is how Ma referred to herself) ... All that can be expressed through words or language is a creation of the mind". 9

Silence is considered to be inactive, but in fact it is continuous eloquence. It could be compared to a free-flowing electrical current in a wire; from time to time this current reaches an appliance and makes it work, if not, it flows on by itself.

Meeting a true guru can give the experience of silence. Nisargadatta Maharaj said : "Before meeting my guru, I knew so many things ! Now I know nothing ... . I know myself and I find neither life nor death, just the pure being, within myself".10 Along with the divine "I am what I am " the sentence from the Bible which impressed Ramana Maharishi the most was : "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46-11)

One of the many methods of meditation consists of observing the mind between thought and perceiving the silence therein. This is a technique which is also used in the West, especially by the Carthusian friars. It must be understood that even though all spiritual practices lead towards silence, they do not create it, because it is already there being none other than the Self : "Someone who has lost his purse in a distracted moment can find it by calming his mind and asking himself where he could have misplaced it. When he has found it, it cannot be said that the fact of calming the mind had created the purse. In the same way, controlling your mind is not the cause of the Realisation of Self; the self is always there, but you do not recognize it, even with a controlled mind, because you are not used to it".11

In the Vedanta, the ‘samadhi’ is often compared to deep sleep, which, being a dreamless state, represents a silence of form. Besides, the distinction between the observer, that which is observed and observation, disappears as if mixed in a single mass of consciousness (‘prajnaghana’, the word used in the Upanishads). The ‘samadhi’ has the same great centripetal force as deep sleep, but instead of being unconscious, it is superconscious.

To organize a hierarchy among spiritual experiences in order to know what is to be achieved, a distinction must be made between ‘manolaya’ and ‘manonasha’ - the dissolution and the destruction of the mind respectively. Dissolution is defined a as a reversible phenomenon, while destruction is definitive. The seeds of ‘sanskaras’ (past conditioning) are destroyed as the seeds of plants are in boiling water or a hot oven. Ma Anandamayi often spoke of the distinction between the void (‘shunya’) and the great void (‘mahashunya’) which approximately corresponds to the difference we have just described. Christian authors speak of true and false hesychia. It is important to know this difference in order that an ordinary yet useful profound relaxation be not confused with that great silence which only a few sages know.

According to the Advaita Vedanta, which is the doctrine of pure non-dualism, even a thought on the subject of divinity is a limitation to a truly stable silence. Indeed if two persons are together (my idea of divinity and myself), after a brief period of silence, they will inevitably start talking ...

This fundamental importance given to silence is not specific to Indian non-dualism. It is also found in Zen, as Master Dogen says : "It must be known that if no thought occurs, the life-and-death question is resolved, and if there is neither unity nor differentiation, all phenomena are clarified"12 Another Zen master, Taido (XVth century) also said : "There is no Buddha except for this pacification. This Buddha has no special light, he does not fly. From the moment of our birth to the present, our being is similar to that of a Buddha, it is innate and serene. Do not doubt it!13

In the West, Plotin inspired those who wished to tread the path of pure knowledge, that is the realisation of the One beyond all questions, as in the Vedanta. He describes the supreme stage of spiritual experience thus :" All movement of the soul ceases; it makes no more effort, it is complete; possessing inner contemplation, unity is introduced within it; the greater the unity the greater is the tranquillity; then that part of the soul which knows becomes one with that which is known (hen toi gnoshyenti)".14


God prefers to manifest himself through hesychia - "the voice of a subtle silence", as he made Elias understand on Mount Horeb (1R, XIX - 12). Elias having just killed four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1K XVIII - 40). By not manifesting Himself through earthquakes, hurricanes or fire, God made it clear to His prophet that He was not in favour of violent methods. In the same way, at the end, Christ, taking leave of his disciples, said to them, "I bequeath my peace to you". The Desert Fathers can enlighten us about the meaning of this peace. Their wisdom, directly oriented towards practical advice for retreat and achievement of mental silence is of greater universal value than theological speculations and christological and ecclesiastical elaborations. Obviously the scope of the definitions of hesychia is limited; these definitions are like the knocker on the door of a house: one knocks without knowing whether the door is going to open or who is going to open it.

Isaac the Syrian (also known as Nineveh) defines hesychia as "the cessation of all prayer, when the soul prays outside prayer... The saint then forgets himself completely, renouncing all worldly ties, there is no more movement within him towards anything".15

There are three degrees of silence : the "cloister" where the novice gets a taste of the peace of nonastic life; the "arena" which corresponds to the period when inner energy is awakened through different spiritual practices and when it is necessary to control this energy and direct it towards the Divine with full awareness ; the third degree is the "port" or haven, where the monk, being in possession of "all blessings and of the source of light is even referred to as ‘God and brother of Christ’".16

John Climacus, who spent his life at the Saint Catherine Monastry situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai and whose work, "The saintly ladder" inspired all later monasticism, never ceased to praise conscious silence : "silence along with knowledge, is the mother of prayer, the deliverance from captivity, the preservation of fire... the companion of hesychia, the enemy of the desire to teach .... the architect of contemplation, an invisible progress and a secret ascent". It is interesting to note that the two last stages of the ladder of progress according to John Climacus are ‘apatheia’ (absence of mental movements), and charity, which correspond to vacuity and compassion, the two supreme and inseparable qualities in Mahayana Buddhism as well "Apatheia is the very nature of the soul. Passion has been added to it ..."18, which is the same as saying that the goal of spiritual practice is to find one’s true nature, an expression which brings to mind a Zen teaching that says that each being has the nature of Buddha.19

Hesychia is born from the death of prayer in the usual sense of the term. Isaac the Syrian says, "Prayer and all that it consists of is only one side of spirituality. That which is spiritual excludes movement and prayer".20

The Pseudo-Denys is even more laconic when speaking of this type of experience "Ecstasy beyond oneself and beyond everything".21

For the ordinary being silence represents a breaking away, for the monk, it is an union. This state of being has to be sought after intensely, because in itself it is deifying. "To thirst for deifying hesychia" was how one of the Fathers put it. To achieve this state, a feeling of the irreality of this world, as is advocated by Vedanta, is a necessary phase.

To take another example of the striking analogy with Hindu non-dualism the monk transforms himself into pure consciousness through mental pruification; some moments before his death, Abbot Bessarion declared : "The monk ought to be like the cherubs and the seraphim, only eyes.

Hesychia is a process of death and resurrection. The ego should really disappear. When he was just a monk, Abbot Poemen complained to his master Ammonas about the noise his neighbour was making. "Are you still alive, Poemen?" Ammonas asked "Do sit in your cell and impress on your mind that you have been in the tomb for a year".23 This state of death corresponds to complete liberation : "With this science and the humility which comes from it, all struggle and temptations cease, because the demons cannot fight someone who considers himself to be nothing".24 This superior knowledge comes from faith and excludes action : this is the Vedantic perspective in which actions do not arise from superior knowledge nor indeed are they produced. There is a separation of the two levels, actions serving to purify the mind before the great experience and to express a spontaneous compassion afterwards.

An idea prevalent in India is that the highest love (‘parabhakti’) leads to knowledge (‘jnana’) A monk at Mount Athos who certainly knew nothing about Indian non-dualistic teaching reached the same conclusion as well : " ‘Apatheia’ is the goal. It is then that man becomes like God. There are no more bad thoughts within him, no passion enslaves him, he is the embodiment of love without emotion or desire: he is". 26 This silent being is as vast as a sky without clouds and without wind : "Just as a cloud cannot form without the blowing of the wind so can passion not be born without the movement of thought".27

In order to find this space of freedom and silence the monk can also go abroad (xeniteia). There, he will no longer be disturbed by the milieu which he has left and he will understand little or nothing of the language around him. However not all the Elders seem to have attained this state of hesychia; one of them confessed : "In the seventy years since that I have donned the habit, not one day have I found rest ..." .28

Either because of this difficulty or perhaps for other reasons later monasticism seems to lay less stress on hesychia than did the first Fathers. Ritual and recitation of texts, certainly good for calming the minds of novices, but of questionable importance for mature mystics, seem to have come to the forefront. In this context the condemnation of quietism in the West during the XVIIth century, which was mostly linked to the intrigues of the French Court, has been quite damaging. It seems that the mysticism of monks has been reduced to the level of the mysticism of ordinary parishioners to a grand extent ; perhaps most of the monks submitted to the surrounding pietism fearing that hesychia would cause them to lose all those visions and consolations which their image of Jesus brought them ; not all of them however : a monk of Mount Athos hinted at a more mystical approach when he said: "Some have understood the words of Jesus; very few have understood his silence".29

1) Les Recits D’un Pelerin Russe (A Russian Pilgrim’s stories), collection Points - Sagesses, editions du Seuil, as well as Trois Recits Inedits (Three Unedited Stories) same collection.

2) "In the vision of God" Swami Ramdas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Les Carnets de Pelerinage (Pilgrimage Notes) coll. Spiritualites Vivantes ed. Albin Michel.

3) Vigne Jacques, La Repetition, (Repetition) doctoral dissertation Saint Antoine, Paris, 1983.

4) Monchanin Jules, Mystique de l’Inde, Mystere chretien (Indian Mysticism Christian Mystery) ed. Fayard, 1974. See in particular the chapter on "Hesychasm and Yoga".

5) Patanjali, "Yoga Sutras" see for instance the commentaries of Vivekananda in Raja Yoga, Advaita Ashram 5 Entally Road, Calcutta 700014, 1990,P115.

6) Marc de Smedt, "Eloge du silence" (In Praise of Silence), ed. Albin Michel, Coll. Espaces Libres.

7) Quotation by the poet Thaymanavar in "Talks with Ramana Maharshi", Ramanashram p 457, Tiruvanamalai 1984.

8) Shri Ma Anandamayee, "Words", P60 Sri Anandamayee Charitable Society Calcutta, 1982.

9) Shri Nisargadatta "I Am That" P 266 Chetanya, Bombay 1973, 1987.

11) "Tripura Rahasya, The Mystery Beyond Trinity", Ramanashram, Tiruvanamalai PP. 67-68, 1989.

12) "Sermons sur le Zen" (Sermons on Zen) translated by M. and M. Shibata, P 49, ed. Albin Michel, Coll. Spiritialites Vivantes, 1993

13) Ibidem, P 134.

14) Lossky Vladimir,"Essai sur la theologie mystique de l’Eglise d’orient" (Essay on the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church), P-205, ed. Le Cerf, Coll. Foi Vivante, 1990.

15) Deseille Placide,"L’Evangile au desert" (Desert Gospel) P 254, YMCA - Press/O.E.I.I. Paris, 1985.

16) Saint Jean Climaque, "L’Echelle sainte" (The Holy Ladder) P 342 Abbaye de Bellefontaine, coll. Spiritualit’e orientale, 1987.

17) Kadloubovsky E. and Palmer G.E.H. (Translators) "Eaerly Fathers From Philokalia" P.188, Faber and Faber, London, 1954, 1981.

18) In Taisen Deshimaru, "La Pratique du zen" (The Practice of Zen), ed. Albin Michel, coll. Spiritualites vivantes.

19) Hausherr Irenee, S.J. "Hesychasme et Priere" (Hesychasm and Prayer) P.11 Orientalia Christian Analecta no. 176, Rome, Pontificalum Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1964

20) Guy Jean-Claude "Paroles des Anciens -Apophtegmes des Peres du Desert" (Words of the Ancients-Aphorisms of Desert Fathers"). P.45, ed. du Seuil, coll. Points Sagesses 1976.

21) Ibidem P.45

22) Ibidem P.120

23) Deseille Placide P.322

24) Kadloubovsky —— P.204

25) Leloup Jean-Yves "Paroles Du Mont Athos (Words from Mount Athos) P.34, ed. A. Michel, collection, Spiritualites vivantes.

26) Kadloubovsky quoting Mark the Ascetic, P.84

27) Guy J-C P.64

28) J-Y Leloup P.82