"Silence: How to Find Inner Peace in a Busy World" by Christina Feldman
"Silence" is an unusual book for a Buddhist. For one thing, it's gorgeous -- there are 230 photos and as many pages of photos as there are pages of text; it's beautifully designed and produced, with sharp, well-reproduced photos and heavyweight, shiny paper. It looks at first to be more of a coffee table book, to be leafed through and admired, than a serious text.
You could, in fact, get a lot out of it simply by paging through, reading the captions and contemplating the photographs of clouds, landscapes, details of nature. But you would lose a lot by skipping the text.
Christina Feldman is a Buddhist teacher, but this book presents a broad view of the spiritual path, noting many common elements among the sages and mystics of wisdom traditions. The journey into silence -- in pilgrimages, walkabouts, retreats, monasteries -- is a path to individual transformation that can lead to societal transformation, she writes.
Silence is the home of compassion, of kindness, awareness, acceptance, calmness. In silence, she writes, we come face to face with our criticisms, judgments, preconceptions, and fears. We learn to connect with the present and find equanimity.
But silence is becoming an elusive quality in modern society. In this book, Feldman lays out ways to cultivate silence or stillness (she uses the terms interchangeably). While she honors all spiritual traditions, her path is Buddhist. That's not surprising as Feldman's bio says she's trained in Tibetan, Mahayana, and Theravada Buddhist traditions since 1970, and has been teaching meditation throughout the world since 1974.
Feldman starts with a history of silence and its role in spiritual journeys. She begins to head down the Buddhist path when she identifies thoughts as noise that disturb the silence. "As long as we view silence as the opposite of sound we will always feel intruded upon and assaulted by life," she writes.
Along with history and philosophy, Feldman offers practices -- essentially, meditation techniques -- to help the reader create "sanctuaries of silence." Buddhist teachings permeate the work -- mindfulness of body, concentration, non-duality, impermanence, non-self, and emptiness, the three poisons, the eight vicissitudes -- but without being identified with Buddhist labels. If you know Buddhism, you'll recognize it here. Her writing offers a blend of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism simply as wisdom.
One of the things I really like about this book is that there's an entire section devoted to the fruition of the practices -- enlightenment and beyond. Often books and teachers talk about the work you have to do to become enlightened but not what the result of that would be. "Enlightenment does not divorce us from the world but teaches us to engage with it with the compassion and care it so desperately needs," she writes.
Feldman's final chapter describes how throughout time awakened, liberated sages and mystics have come back from their internal journeys to engage with and help the world, essentially the bodhisattva path.
Feldman doesn't shy away from the dark side of silence, noting the damage silence has done to victims of abuse and others who too intimidated to speak up. She doesn't present the path as easy or quick. She makes it explicitly clear that while she is describing a common path, the journey is a personal one, and each person's process of awakening will be different.
Feldman's writing can be pedestrian at times when she's speaking about philosophy, but that works when she's describing the meditation process and its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to follow. Her vast array of sources from various traditions could be confusing for someone on a specific path or looking for a particular authority, but I found it fascinating. I wouldn't recommend that book to someone who wants to learn about Buddhism. I would give it as a gift, though, to friends who have a grounding in a tradition and are open to other perspectives on the path.