Recently, I attended a five-day interfaith spiritual retreat held at the Global Retreat Centre (GRC), Oxford, England, as a guest of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU). Thirty five religious leaders, scholars, spiritual teachers and peace advocates of many religions from all over the world gathered to share and learn about the power of silence.
We exchanged views and learned from one another; and also received guidance from our hostess and main facilitator, Dadi Janki, head of BKWSU.
The GRC is situated in the countryside just at the edge of Oxford town. It was the palatial home of British aristocrats, and had hosted the monarchs on several occasions. Its grandeur has been painstakingly preserved although it is now fitted with all the modern amenities. It sits on 55 acres of beautifully-landscaped undulating land, through which the river Thames meanders.
It was the midst of summer and the weather was perfect. The roses, lavender and other colourful flowers were in full bloom. The gardens and fields were lovingly tended by the gardeners, and the huge old trees added mystery to the whole place. There is even an old church on a hillock that is preserved as a heritage.
A perfect setting for movies, and indeed some scenes of the Harry Potter series were shot here.
The "House" itself has many august meeting and dining rooms, and many more bedrooms. Since its conversion to a retreat centre, the rooms are like comfortable hotel rooms, with plush beddings, minus the TV. The fresh air and the extremely comfortable bed made waking up quite a challenge!
Our main meeting room was like a royal chamber, with grand chandeliers and huge paintings adorning the walls. Under this "royal" surrounding, we deliberated on how to achieve inner silence, to connect with the inner voice, and to achieve inner peace; and how to incorporate this into our lives and our work. The theme was "The Inner Voice - Exploring the impact of inner stillness in our lives and in the world".
At the GRC, we observed a minute's silence at the start of every hour. Soothing music would be played, and we would stop everything, and just retreat silently into ourselves, clear our minds and be ready to continue whatever we were doing with a fresh clear start.
This hourly minute's silence is regarded as "traffic control" - that is, it serves to unclutter the traffic jam that often exists in our minds the moment we wake up and start thinking about the things we have to do, and the problems that surround our lives, and our world.
Every session and every new discussion began and ended with a minute's silence. Thus we never rushed into the sessions nor ended in a huff.
The silence made sure we were settled and grounded before we deliberated. Even when there was so much to discuss, we never missed the silence breaks.
The main purpose of the retreat was to practise inner silence so that we can start to listen to our inner voice, and to discover the power that this inner silence can bring. But we cannot hear the inner voice if we are also talking at the same time. We can also listen to others better if we can silence ourselves.
The silent mind
All of us have experienced being silent, but it is not just the silence of the voice that is required, but also the silence of the mind - from all the clutter, worries: personal, family, work and a million other matters. If the mind is preoccupied with worldly issues, even the silent person is "noisy" inside. The challenge therefore is to have a calm, silent, and peaceful mind. Vocal silence is only the first, but essential step.
Dadi Janki had been officially declared as having the world's most stable mind many years ago, after a series of tests were done in the US. So we had the most qualified person to guide us on how to achieve this. But her method was not to wire us up to sophisticated mind machines or put us through tenuous meditations.
Instead she guided us on how to achieve a stable, calm and peaceful mind the way she achieved hers - by always connecting with the Divine; having purity of heart and purpose; being at peace with oneself and the world; being loving and doing things with sincerity and love; and being happy and making others happy.
These four attributes gave her the power to be in charge of her mind - her thoughts, her feelings, her actions and her reactions; and ultimately, having the power to be in charge of her life.
Meditation is important, but only as a practice to remove all distractions so that we can reflect upon these virtues, imprint them in our hearts and minds, and then live according to them. Meditation, prayers and rituals are useless if they do not transform your personality to become more virtuous, and for believers, more God-conscious too.
The inner voice
What is the inner voice? It is the voice of your conscience. It is the voice that will only speak the truth and what is good. It is the voice that is free from prejudice, emotions and bias. It is the voice of your pure, uncorrupted soul. For believers, it is the voice of the Divine spirit in them.
If you listen to this voice, you will have wise guidance on how to lead your life harmoniously and successfully. However, most of us are too busy with so many things, and our minds are full of criss-crossing thoughts (even when we are alone in silence) that drown our inner voice.
So most of the time we don't even hear the inner voice; and the times that we do hear, we are most likely to ignore it as there are too many other voices speaking in our mind and we cannot discern which ones are inner guidance and which ones are rubbish.
Two major prerequisites are needed to hear and be able to listen to the inner voice - a clear mind and a pure heart. The clear mind can be trained to focus, and the immense potential of the mind can be unleashed. The clear mind does not necessarily co-exist with a pure heart. Thus it is possible for the trained, focused mind to use its powers for evil.
The pure heart is bathed by the spiritual virtues of purity, peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, happiness, etc.
The pure heart, however, always co-exists with a clear mind, as the pure heart always clears and stabilises the mind, but the reverse is not always true.
Those who practise meditation or mind training and are able to control their minds, but do not have pure hearts, will acquire some powers of the mind but will not be fully guided by the inner spirit.
Since some readers may not believe in the existence of the Divine or in the unseen, and this is not a column on spirituality, I will not delve too much into what can be achieved by the spirit empowered by a pure heart.
However, while we are aware of some incredible things some individuals can do with the power of their minds, these pale in comparison to what the spiritual masters can do with the power of their spirit.
The power of the mind
It is said that what the mind conceives and believes, can be achieved. In other words, you are what you think; you create your life - you are what you are today because of the consequences of your thoughts; you have the power to determine the future; change your thinking, and change your life.
The above are some familiar motivational quotes, which may sound too simplistic. However, all the statements are true. All actions begin within the mind as thoughts. An action that is repeated becomes a habit. Many such habits create your character. Thus a person who is habitually truthful, kind, conscientious, punctual, disciplined, compassionate and generous develops a praiseworthy character that is certain to bring success.
Likewise, all bad actions also start in the mind. Even wars begin in the minds of the leaders who have the power to move their armies. Bad thoughts, if not suppressed, will translate to bad actions, bad habits and bad character.
All bad thoughts can be suppressed and replaced by good thoughts. Bad habits can be stopped and bad character improved through retraining the mind.
But can the impact go beyond the person? Certainly so. Spiritual masters have shown us that their good teachings, as exemplified by their own sublime characters, can change their followers, their communities, and even the world.
Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles.