Functioning Without Silence: The Mistake of the Intellect

In 1969, when I was dumb and bold, I talked my way onto a crew hired to sail a boat from Hawaii back to the mainland after the boat had under-performed in the Trans-pacific yacht race. Two days out, after having made myself indispensable with carpentry and substituting for a seasick cook, the captain discovered I had no clue how to sail, and paired me on my watch with himself, a waterman in his forties who had survived the first solo-around-the-world race. He had capsized and didn’t finish.

During the one-month trip I studied him with fascination, noting his uncanny ability to simultaneously steer, navigate, watch for gusts on the water, trim sails, curse and bark orders at me, all the while nursing a coffee, chewing tobacco, singing a chanty and thoroughly enjoying himself. Years of culturing his nervous system to the sights, sounds and routines of the sea allowed him to effortlessly juggle all his critical tasks in chorus.

It therefore came as no surprise to me that Takeo Watanabe and his group of neuroscientists at Boston University reported that people concentrating on numbers flashing across a screen were simultaneously and unwittingly learning about the movement of dots on a screen off to the side. This study shows that we are able to process information through several cognitive pathways, not that doing so makes us more efficient or improves our lives. Marketers are certain to bombard us with even more subliminal messages and employers, educators, and parents may encourage more multitasking.

Vedic neuroscience, a branch of the Vedic literature affiliated with Ayurveda, the oldest science of medicine, is adamant about doing only one thing at a time. This science holds that problems such as poor memory and concentration, attention deficit and hyperactivity, anxiety neuroses and depression are caused in part by poor mental habits.

According to Vedic neuroscience, the three states of consciousness recognized by modern psychology — sleeping, dreaming and waking — are considered to be lower states of consciousness, not a true measure of human dignity and potential. A fourth state of consciousness, called turiya chetana in Sanskrit, is characterized by inner wakefulness without any content of consciousness such as thoughts, emotions and perceptions. This is the state of consciousness that we may be momentarily aware of as we slip into or out of sleep or in other instances, such as the moment of discovery or rapture, when we feel that everything goes still inside. It is this fourth state that we attempt to culture to be longer, more frequent and more systematic for patients in our practice when we advise yoga and meditation. The serenity of this state of pure wakefulness that you experience morning and evening during your regular practice, however, disappears with the stresses and problems of the day.

In the fifth state of consciousness, called turiyatita chetana, the inner silence or pure wakefulness has been cultivated by regular meditation practice to the point that it cannot be overshadowed even by the most demanding tasks. Dipping one’s nervous system into the silence and exposing it to the dynamic activity of the day is akin to dyeing a white cloth in a yellow dye and exposing it to the sun: the color fades except for a hint that remains. If one continues to dip it in the dye and expose it to the sun, eventually the color becomes fast. No matter how bright the sun, the color won’t fade. This is the logic for the tradition of observing regularity in one’s spiritual practices or meditation.

Like my captain, who had trained himself to monitor simultaneously the minutiae of his boat, the sea and the weather while performing complex motor tasks, the human nervous system has the ability to maintain two distinct modes of consciousness simultaneously: activity and silence. More importantly, trying to function without the silence is the root cause of most disorders, both physical and mental, according to the medical text Caraka Samhita. This state is called prajnaparadh, or the mistake of the intellect, because the intellect forgets in the midst of the hectic activity, that silence exists both in one’s awareness and in nature, and that deluded intellect makes poor decisions about diet and lifestyle from a state of mind dominated by stress. Without silence you begin to formulate concepts and lifestyles that don’t coincide with your birthright: a life that is fundamentally effortless, royal and fulfilling.

How meditation cultivates the ability to simultaneously maintain the opposites states of silence and dynamism is remarkable. A thought settling down is like a wave settling on an ocean: just before it disappears it has become broad and expanded. Similarly, a thought settling down in our awareness becomes both subtler and more expanded. The mind observing this activity becomes more cultured in its ability to focus sharply while maintaining expanded awareness, just the qualities needed by people functioning at the highest levels of responsibility, like my captain. Vedic neuroscience prescribes that you should only undertake one task at a time, but as your nervous system evolves, you begins to function in two modes: pure wakefulness and the task at hand.

The first mode, pure wakefulness, becomes a silent witness to your waking activity. This is the first stage of enlightenment. From the Vedic perspective, the common spiritual practice of attempting to perform activity while trying to remember the higher Self, thinking of God, or thinking a mantra simply divides the mind. It may even be dangerous if one is performing delicate tasks, driving, and making decisions. Instead, you should simply meditate daily and in between focus on your task.

Similarly, encouraging distracted work habits in children may be one fast way to promote cognitive styles of mental functioning found in ADD, such as letting them do their homework with a headset or the TV. You can be a good example to kids by starting to enjoy activities more one at a time. Try sailing.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.

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