Even though he’d only recently arrived at the secluded monastery, a young monk went to see the senior abbot. He took great care to explain how, no matter what he did to get away from noise, someone or something was disturbing the peace he had hoped to find there.
The wise old abbot listened, saying nothing. And when the young monk finished lodging his complaint, the two of them just sat there in silence, together, for about twenty minutes. Then the abbot broke the silence.
“Tell me of your mind, son; has it been quiet sitting here with me?”
The young monk squirmed under the question. He knew his mind had been nothing but a riot from the moment they had first sat down. “No, sir, it has not been quiet—not at all.”
“I see,” said the abbot, as he closed his eyes. Again they sat quietly.
The silence in the room grew painful, and before the young monk even knew he was talking, he could hear himself defending himself. “But master, surely my mind would more easily find its peace if things weren’t so noisy here, wouldn’t it?”
“Perhaps, perhaps …” said the abbot. “But not all is as it seems at first glance. For instance”—and he waved his arms around in a gentle circular motion, creating a small, cool breeze—“this air moving around us also carries with it the noise coming from the kitchen just down the hall.” He paused to listen for a moment, then continued. “Can you not hear the noise of those who are preparing our afternoon meal?”
“Yes, I can, sir” he replied, glad that the abbot seemed to be taking his side.
“All of these different sounds travel through the air and, without the air to carry them, no noises would reach our ears to be heard, do you agree?”
The young monk nodded. The old abbot continued. “And yet the air itself is perfectly silent; its nature makes no noise.” And he raised his eyebrows as if to ask yes or no.
Once again the young monk agreed.
With that, the old abbot stood up from the chair where he had been seated, indicating their time together was over. Smiling ever so gently, he said: “I trust you now understand the real source of what’s disturbing you, but if not, let me make clear the truth of your condition: nothing is louder than some noise you don’t want to hear. The real source of what disturbs your peace of mind is not this or that passing sound but your resistance to its appearance. You’ve yet to see it, but the noise stealing the stillness you seek is nothing but the sound of your own mind talking to itself about how to rid itself of its own noisy thoughts.”
And just like that, the meeting was over. But as he walked back to his small room, the young monk knew that his quest to realize true stillness had now begun.