The following is a republished version of one of my first posts on this blog, updated here for those who may not be familiar with my Mindful Reflection workshops and writings. It was prompted by a recently podcast interview on the Present Moment website: listen here.
Ever since my Mindful Reflection Workshops started in 2002, students have asked me to write a summary of what I teach. They want a handbook for their own use. They also wanted something that would convey to their loved ones that what goes on in those ninety-minute sessions is not weirdly spiritual but utterly practical.
I determined to write reflectively about what I teach in everyday language. I wanted to avoid Buddhist jargon while using an entirely traditional structure. The result is It Begins with Silence, a guide to the teachings of the historical Buddha in just over a hundred pages.
I’d just completed a ten-week workshop and was on holiday in Cuba when the idea came to me to use the ancient Sanskrit style of verse and commentary. The verse, called the Essence, is terse; the commentary, in prose, goes over the same ground at length. There on the beach I composed ten sets of verse, and in the following year back home in Montreal I polished the verses and worked the commentary. The voice is more personal than classical, more reflective than conventional.
The book encapsulates a ten-week workshop, presenting the Buddha’s teachings in modern terms while sticking closely to the traditional outline familiar to generations of Buddhists. It teaches the skills of concentration and insight and presents the four tasks, the five heaps and eightfold path, the two levels of truth and the development of loving kindness and compassion. It also rephrases the often misunderstood teachings of karma, detachment, wisdom and nirvana.
It Begins with Silence is neither dry philosophy nor a superficial gloss. Written in the same personal style as my memoir The Novice, it’s designed for gradual contemplation — one sentence or paragraph at a time. The rhythm and voice is meditative, to trigger the very states of mind it describes. This isn’t a passive read but an active engagement in self-discovery and personal freedom.
To learn more about or to purchase It Begins with Silence, see Guidebook in the Mindful Reflection Workshops menu over on the left. To learn what people are saying about the workshops, see the Feedback page.
3 thoughts on “It Begins with Silence”
Hi Stephen: I’ve had this book since it came out but I do have a hard time with it! I open the page and feel stuck. Do you have a suggestion on how to use it? I sometimes open a page at random. If feel bad because I haven’t found a way to use this book yet!
Perhaps you’re expecting something right off the bat; the book doesn’t work like that. Let go of any expectations about what it can do for you and approach it instead with curiosity.
Try this: keep the book in your car. When you have to head out alone, read a sentence or paragraph first, so you can think about it as you drive. Remember: you don’t have to read the chapters in order. Look at the Table of Contents on page v and pick the chapter title that seems to speak most closely to your present situation. Start with the commentary (the part that follows the verses) and see what happens. Don’t read too much at a time. Put it down and let the thoughts penetrate your own. You don’t have to agree with them — just think about them.
The voyage you’re embarking on is one of discovery, not problem solving. The point isn’t so much to answer your questions as to see where they lead, nor to acquire new knowledge but to gather evidence.
Please let me know how it goes.
Stephen, it’s great to see that you’ve got another book ready for us adoring fans — can’t wait to read it! Especially with the approach of having it based on your workshops, that should make it extremely beneficial.