Types of silence you’ll find in meditation

When I’m not writing about Scala and functional programming, I’m often meditating and/or practicing yoga. The following content is something I wrote about silence in meditation back in 2018.

Fake Absolute Silence

These days in meditation I spend a lot of time in a place I call “Fake Absolute Silence.” In this state you might be fooled into thinking that you’re in the real state of Absolute Silence, but that’s part of the problem — you’re still thinking. Things are definitely quiet in this state; there aren’t many thoughts, and your concentration is focused on your breathing without distraction. However, I find that I’m still very aware of my body and outside noises. But despite that, it’s generally a mentally quiet place.

A key characteristic of this state is that despite being quiet, you feel some sort of mental pressure. I can’t explain it well yet, but it definitely feels like a pressure in your brain, like something is blocking you. It feels like there’s some sort of barrier in your brain, like a wall, or that you’re pushing against a wall — or maybe more accurately, a door.

Really, it doesn’t really feel like you’re pushing on a door, it feels like the door is pushing on you, if that makes any sense. I don’t know exactly what this is — where the pressure is coming from — but I suspect it’s the Little Ego saying, “Hey! You need to know that if you go past this point there are no cookies!”

But despite that feeling of pressure, you push on. Ram Dass shares a quote from the Maharaj-ji that applies here: “Bring your mind to one point and wait for grace.” So you push on, you keep doing what you’re doing, and wait for that grace.

At this stage, or at the next stage, another way to describe this feeling is that you know there’s some sort of mental activity around you, but you don’t know what it is. It’s a bit like being in a room at your home or at work, and you’re being very quiet, but you know there are people in the other rooms around you. Maybe you can hear them just slightly, or maybe you just know they’re there.

You’re Almost There Absolute Silence

The next state (for me) is “You’re Almost There Absolute Silence.” In this state you may or may not have noticed it, but while you are intensely focused on your breath, the breathing of your body has slowed down dramatically and involuntarily. I find that I may or may not notice this because my primary focus is on the breath. I think of this as being mentally focused “on the breath” like a dog on a new bone, so the only time I notice what’s going on with the body is when I lose that focus.

Even though you thought it was quiet in the previous state, in that state you really had no idea what “quiet” really is. In this state — when you lose the intensity of focus and pay attention to the body — you realize that the mental pressure you were feeling before is gone now, and your brain really is very, very quiet; not a creature is stirring. That’s why I refer to the previous state as Fake Absolute Silence. In that state you may have faked yourself into believing your mind was quiet, but that’s because your brain has never been this quiet.

Also, while the previous state may have required you to count the breaths or forcibly pay attention to the breath, that feeling of “forced effort” is now gone. Your effort now is intense, but it’s not something you have to manually force. When I’m at my best I find that all there is is pure concentration. If, for example, I’m focusing on the Anapana Spot, there is no separate mind that’s saying to me, “Hey, look at you, you’re focusing on the Anapana Spot really hard. Keep up the good work!” Put another way, there is no reflecting mind, no self-consciousness.

In retrospect, being willing to give up self-consciousness during this state was a big — no, HUMONGOUS — step for me. It turns out that silencing that critical Little Ego bastard is the key to open the door and relieve the cranial pressure.

When you’re really intense in this stage, your awareness of the body is either gone or almost completely gone. Whatever there is of “you” that remains is the concentration/awareness on the thing you’re concentrating on. At its best, you are awareness.

As awesome as this is, it’s not the end. AFAIK, the thing to do is to keep pushing on in the same way.

Real Absolute Silence

Finally you reach a place I call “Absolute Silence.” (Or Real Absolute Silence, if you prefer. There’s a temptation to call it Eternal Absolute Silence, but I have no way of knowing that it’s eternal, so I stick with what I know.)

Because there’s absolutely no self-reflection or self-consciousness, there’s no way to describe what it’s like when you’re there. The only way you can attempt to describe it is by what you are aware of immediately after you regain some semblance of self-awareness. The things I can say are that you were somewhere else, and it feels like you merged with something enormous. Because there is no reflection of thought, you just are (or in this case, “you just were.”)

The very first thing I can remember during the coming back is that “I” (my consciousness) was somewhere out in the universe (or multiverse) and now I’m whooshing back to somewhere. Because I feel incredibly refreshed when I come back, it feels like I was “resting” in the absolute silence of deep space (or spacetime, or a multiverse, or somewhere else indescribable). But, because there was no self-reflection during that time I really have no idea what happens out there; I can only say what it feels like immediately after I regain awareness.

As this process of returning is happening, the feeling is that your awareness is rapidly coming back to a physical body (i.e., the “whooshing” feeling). Your consciousness was somewhere else and now it’s on the way back. Eventually it comes all the way back.

Even as this happens, you stay somewhere within this realm of Absolute Silence. Just like a computer being shut down, it’s like your brain has been shut down. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that your brain has been rebooted, and right now you’re aware that you’re in the initialization state that happens immediately after the reboot. You know that the mechanisms are restarting, but right now there’s nothing in your RAM, your CPU is just barely starting to function, and nothing is shown on the display. The only thing going on right now is an initial “awareness of awareness,” i.e., the beginning of self-awareness. Your brain hasn’t re-engaged with any concerns of the physical world.

At this point you may not know who “you” are; all you know is that “you’re back.” (Slightly before this you know that you were “coming back.”) At first you might not be aware that you have a body, but that feeling comes back, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. If it’s loud where you are, unfortunately you’ll come back quickly. Conversely, if it’s quiet, this can happen very slowly, at your leisure.

In time you’ll become aware of sounds and smells around you, and a most excellent thing about this is that your senses have been purified and the sensations are extraordinarily intense. (As the band Foreigner once sang, “It feels like the first time.”) Suddenly you can smell every smell that your body has been conditioned to ignore — so hopefully you’ve showered recently and your home is clean! (If you have any sort of partner in your home, this would be an awesome time to have cookies baking in the oven.)

Once you’ve re-engaged with the body you’ll eventually realize that you just had this experience, and now it’s ending. It’s sad to know that it’s ending, but I find that the feeling of euphoria from the experience outweighs any sadness. I tend to give thanks that it happened, and vow that “I’ll be back.”

Now that you’re back in a body you’ll eventually want (or need) to move, and when you do so this is also an incredible feeling. Just as the senses of smell and hearing have been rebooted, your “touch” senses are wickedly raw and heightened. At this point I like to just move one finger because just those tiny little sensations can bring more feelings of ecstasy. My guess is that this state is like when a newborn baby does something for the first time, and they think, “Holy crap, this is so freaking cool!”

Life today

These days I spend most of my daily life in Fake Absolute Silence. I’m starting to touch You’re Almost There Absolute Silence more often, and I only get to Absolute Silence on spontaneous occasions, such as yesterday. Because of physical problems I’ve never gotten to Absolute Silence while in seated meditation, but when I meditate while laying in bed at somewhere around a 30-60 angle, this has happened quite a few times now.

2024 Update

Yesterday I saw this tweet that shares an audio recording of a man named Culadasa (nee Dr. John Yates), where he spends 10-15 minutes talking about what I call Fake Absolute Silence.

Editor’s Notes

At some point I hope to update this article to use more conventional terms than what I’ve used in this writing ... but not today. :)

That being said, some terms you’ll find on the internet are things like access concentration, kensho, satori, hishiryo, samadhi, absorption, jhana (or jhanas), transcendence, non-duality, etc.

Illusions, Makyo, and special effects

I’ve found that strange things (Makyo, illusions) happen somewhere around the Almost There Absolute Silence state. I’ve had a couple of Exploding Brain phenomena happen in this state. Recently I was in this state, really focusing on the Anapana Spot, when suddenly I found myself in the middle of a crowd on a sunny day. I stayed there until I began thinking, but once I started thinking I came all the way back to what you might call Normal Consciousness. The event surprised me so much that I didn’t handle it well, and I was no longer meditating at that point.

Another time — many years ago when I had been meditating very hard — I was in the middle of a business meeting and accidentally slipped into Almost There Absolute Silence. Someone in the meeting was talking, and suddenly it was as though their voice had been disembodied, and the only thing I was aware of was their voice, and it felt like I was becoming their voice, it was just me and this ethereal voice. I looked around the room and I could see everyone, but 99% of my focus was on how this voice was completely filling my consciousness. Eventually I thought, “Hey, you’re a high paid software consultant, you need to focus on this meeting,” so I came back to Normal Consciousness, but that was a pretty awesome meeting.

Other times, even in Fake Absolute Silence, sensations can feel extraordinarily pure. I was on a group retreat one time and the speaker was talking about something I wasn’t particularly interested in, so I decided to focus my awareness on my body. I started with my breathing and then kept thinking, “Go deeper, go deeper, it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about.” At some point a little breeze blew onto the skin of my right forearm, and in that moment I turned my awareness to that spot. Like my newborn baby analogy, it felt like this was the first time I had ever had this sensation, and the hair on my arm in that area stood up, and that sensation was even more intense.