Silence among Indians is that state reached when the mind of man is an absolute vacuum to the physical world, empty of physical selfness. The silence is often referred to as the absolute self, or the divine individuality without a center, outer dimension, or interruption. It is an ultimate in human achievement, since the disciplined mind must rest in perfect and absolute balance in the stillness that passes all understanding, before the right answer rushes in to fill the emptied mind with true knowing, or truth. It is an active detachment, for the potential nature of self awareness is still very close to the surface, super-sensitive to that which is near and minute, or to that which is as remote to the realm of the stars. It is indeed a paradoxical awareness gained only after long hours of rigid removal of the attention from the physical senses, until entering the silence becomes as natural as the act of breathing.
Silence is truly the language of the spirit among the Indians who feel that it is only white men who require the turning on of the wind-mill machine, as I have heard them call the long-winded conversations of their pale-faced friends. Consider the awkwardness or even embarrassment which occurs in the non-Indian culture when two or more persons are gathered together and silence falls. Some type of verbal exchange is expected, even though it is completely without value. But the Indians of the old ways, who were in contact with the essentials of creation, could be perfectly at ease together in the silence, using only the waves of thought to contact each other.
Civilized man feels a loneliness and even an extreme melancholia in the jungle of the mind that may make stillness a terrifying experience, but he can pass through this barrier if he will learn to understand it. Then he would discover, as the Indian did long ago, that to stand in solitude on a mountain top at sunrise or sunset, or by a waterfall in some hidden canyon of ethereal beauty, and to absorb this majesty with utter peace and awe—in which the soul merges with creation and self is forgotten—is to become one with a joy and happiness so tremendous that no mere earthly pleasure can compare.
Among Indians the fear of loneliness was dissipated by gradually training the young one to be more and more alone until at last the young initiate could be sent for days or even weeks alone into the desert, the forest, or the mountains, and remain there without fear in silent and reverent contemplation of nature. This was a time for the individual to study deeply his own self, his strengths and his weaknesses, and so build the spiritual muscles to make his medicine (soul-power) too strong to be overcome by negative forces.
Almost from the beginning the Indian child learned a spartan discipline, but with loving warmth. A baby was prevented from crying by cutting off the air supply momentarily by gently clamping the nose (a matter of survival when hidden from the enemy). On the cradleboard he was taught to remain quiet, and, when breast-fed, his face was often covered with a cloth to prevent too much attachment to the mother alone, so that love and kindness could be associated with all creatures and men or women whose physical gestures and thoughts proved friendly. From the beginning the child was taught to observe in silence, learning that movement has a rhythm revealing the intent as well as the motive behind the mental thought pattern of any creature. Through his calmness he also inspired confidence in his little brothers, the animals.
While on the cradleboard, with arms and feet contained, the baby learns to use eyes and ears to stimulate imagination. The singing, dancing, and chanting of the parent both soothes and stimulates him, while the parent’s pointing at or imitations of the sounds of animals and birds draws the little ones attention to them. Always he is taught to love and respect and understand his little brothers. Finally, as he grows older, he is taught that man comes to fulfill the law of nature, not to break it, and that he may now teach some other child the exciting game of observation, identification, communication, and fulfillment with mother nature, who never betrays the trust of the loving heart, be that of man or beast.
After an early introduction to the many sounds and sights of nature, the instruction in smells and fragrances follows. Even on the darkest night one can hear and smell the call of the wilderness. In silence can be heard and felt clear-cut messages from both friend and potential foe. In silence is known their significance and reality.
The plant has a definite smell and taste, intensified when crushed between the fingers or touched to the tip of the tongue. The texture of the clay, the sandstone or granite, is different than [that of] dirt or numerous other minerals or their mixtures. Some blind persons can readily identify even the color of a garment. Thus, through the steps of silent training and concentration, the Indian has fostered many of his seemingly uncanny perceptions, even in darkness.
During the initiation ceremonial, the Indian father or other older man takes the teenager out on the trail in total darkness and, silently, the older one picks up objects and passes them to the younger. Both make a mental note of the sounds, the fragrance, the feel, and tastes of the vegetables, flowers, branches, roots, ground, and rocks on the silent trail. Upon returning to camp, the young initiate recites what, where, and when, and imitates what he has heard. Naturally his expert witness can verify his deductions. When all the initial training is completed, he is ready for the big survival test. His initiation rituals may be climaxed by spending up to three full moons (months) alone and away from his people. In some tribes the young adolescent would wear a loincloth and a knife. At the end of this time his worthiness as a full-fledged hunter and warrior could be judged by the materials in the way of garments, pelts, bows and arrows, and so forth that he brought back with him.
His honor was much greater if all he accomplished was done without contact with any human soul, friend, or foe. The more remote his austerity, the greater his potential as a true leader, for the original Indian training spelled awareness that leadership is of necessity a lonely life, one of decisions and responsibilities. The earlier this spartan training began, the better the opportunity to discover the true self of the individual. The personality, like a flower, must burst into the fullness of its springtime potential and be exposed to the high noon sun of tests and difficulties. Silence and solitude endured under the handicap of suffering and forced limitation makes the initiate find and rely upon his own moral strength. Only through fortitude, perseverance, endurance, keen observation, resourcefulness, ingenuity, swiftness, and above all, friendly and generous understanding with all beings, can he emerge from such an ordeal. The best Indian scouts came out of this masterful type of training with the marked ability to readily read the book of life before them and, in turn, leave some imprints of their own upon the trails of time. They were indeed the masters of what we moderns term visual education!
One of the most vital items an Indian brought back from this experience was his Medicine, often a small bag or bundle filled with things he felt were very important reminders of the trip, or which entered into his dreams. Such things might include a buckskin bag of soil, an eagle feather, a bit of mountain mahogany bush bark, or a sumach leaf. In his later years, he would often lift [these] to his nose to smell, and the rich aroma, filled with deep memories of his first true awakening to the meaning of life, would give him renewed strength and moral courage to meet and understand his difficulties.
Whenever one or more Indians departed on a long and perilous journey, there was always one or more elders who volunteered to remain in the Medicine Lodge and keep the vigil of the mystic silence, when the twin self (soul) went on a spiritual journey (astral-projection). These people of vision chant and pray constantly for the success of the initiate, or the expedition. Between, there are long periods of absolute trance-like silence, when their eyes dreamily close with a steady focus upon the slowly burning fire in the center of the lodge. The physical bodies are present, but their minds and thoughts are far away with the wandering kinsmen, ready to protect them with a loving and prayerful spirit.
Without a word, those left behind in camp or in the village could also know what was going on far away, for they could see the white smoke coming from the Medicine Lodge and, as long as it was white, the omen was good. But, if it should become black or fail to rise altogether, then there would be another sad story to tell. Other parents, from many places, whose beloved sons have been far away in a war, have kept similar vigils of prayer and they too may have sometimes sensed what has happened to their loved ones.
At sunset or at sunrise, sometimes there would be a bulletin forthcoming from the Medicine Lodge in the form of a chant. If one would listen carefully, or pay very close attention to the smoke signals, the silent puffs eloquently conveyed the messages to everyone. These venerable ones, sitting serenely in trance, would take turns chanting the story of the absent clansmen while ceremoniously dropping bits of fragrant green incense herbs into the fire which would turn into voluminous white smoke, controlled by a small ceremonial blanket woven especially for the occasion.
These descriptive visions, with their many witnesses, were verified later on when the absent members returned to camp. These so-called paranormal or extrasensory perceptive experiences of the American Indians are readily acceptable as the normal experience of all those dedicated souls who walk the Beauty Path.
When the Twin Self (soul) goes on a Spirit Journey, it enters into what has been called the fourth-dimensional plane, an awareness where one can feel, see, and know or have rapport (spiritual connection) with plants, animals, and people at once! Your soul is of that single element in unity with the spirit (reality) of all things. (Science has proven the interchangeability of all the atoms in all the kingdoms.) The spirit can be everywhere at any given time at once, and the mind open to that mirroring reality, and can go through rocks and mountains or into the roots, branches. and flowers of the plant. What or who one sees in this spirit vision may as well be encased in pure crystal, for there is nothing hidden in body, mind, or thought. There is oneness everywhere, no separation or division by time or space. This is what some American Indians call Orrenda—affinity, universal rapport, oneness, all words being limited in comparison to the comprehensive interpretation of their meanings. These spiritual qualities of the silence, developed through the harmonious kinship with all life, augmented by prayer, meditation, and fasting, are truly a part of the silent Path of Beauty.”
Our 115-year-old friend, Tatzumbie du Pea, from the Paiute Indian Tribe, has told us many wonderful stories of her life. One, among many, concerns her great grandchildren. Whenever these children misbehaved she would give them fair warning that she would go away if they persisted. If they did not obey her promptly, she would completely ignore them, not speaking, nor even moving, but remaining in the trance-like state of a wooden Indian. The children would soon come to the realization that Gramma had gone away.
Gramma is not here, they would say sadly to each other. We should have obeyed. Now she is gone, and Gramma can tell the funniest stories!
Very apologetically they would come to her. We are very sorry, Gramma, and hope you will come back soon.
Following this apology, Gramma might wait for a time before returning from her absent-silent-state, to find the repentant children moving about as quiet as little mice.
Many Indians are capable of this type of passive withdrawal when approached condescendingly by someone. Indians are taught to be polite, but if pressed by circumstances, they will withdraw, and, even though they may be able to speak English, an interpreter must be found for communication. I have known of anthropologists doing research who treated these people like backward children. Consequently, Indians did nothing to change this opinion, with the subsequent published manuscripts perpetuating a misunderstanding.
The ability to turn themselves off is so remarkable among some Indians that the lie-detector apparatus registers on them almost at a standstill, and many have had operations and teeth drilled without anesthesia, relying on their ability to withdraw completely. A few years ago a psychiatrist ran into a dozen or so Indians from a reservation who were brought to a California hospital. Not understanding the Indian and his trained ability to retreat into the silence, he diagnosed them as having catatonic schizophrenia![see note]
The Indian feels that when an orator delivers a truly inspired discourse, nodded heads during the speech show he is deeply touching his audience, but the greatest tribute that can be paid him is an absolute aftermath of silence, as—in their hearts—the listeners continue to follow him devotedly on the pathway he has led them. The rude crash of applause is a shattering force, breaking the timeless spell.
A wonderful experience and a rare privilege to witness among some American Indians is when a member of the immediate family, a beloved friend, or two young lovers return home after a long separation and, finally coming before each other, are transfixed in a sweet silence, savoring the ecstasy of unquenchable delight! They let their spirits dance to the rhythm of their thoughts for a long while before their silence is broken....
A personal experience with One-Who-Knew-The-Silence.
As a young artist many years ago, I edged my way through the milling throng at a Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona with an unexplainable feeling of mounting anticipation. I was drawn by a magnetic force to one spot on the grounds. Here would be a Navajo Medicine Man making one of the very rare ceremonial Sand Paintings ever done before the public.
As I hurried along, my memory slipped back to embrace those years I had lived among the Indian peoples. It was then that I had first watched the Navajos make their sacred Sandpaintings. Touched by the depths and magnitude of the philosophy embodied in this transitory art, the flame of inspiration had been kindled in me to someday make this beauty permanent. But long years of experimentation followed before this ideal became visible.
I gripped more tightly the flat brown parcel beneath my arm, for it held silent testimony to the realization of this dream within me. With a plyboard base and plastic adhesive, those ephemeral sands of natural color at last had formed a bond of permanence. It was a good feeling to know that, through recognition of this new medium and technique, my first one-man show was then scheduled for exhibition in New Yorks American Museum of Natural History. But most important of all to my young heart was that this new art form, the inspiration for which I had received from the Indian, be approved and used by the Indian himself.... In only a few more yards I would meet a Medicine Man straight from the heart of the Navajo country!
For a moment I paused in the doorway. On every side of this large well-lit room were Indians of the Southwest, brought directly from the reservation under the sponsorship of the Fair Association to display and demonstrate their native arts and crafts. These silent and colorfully costumed people were busily at work at the loom, basket making, silverworking, fashioning leather objects. and painting. In the very center of the room was a fenced-off area about twelve feet square surrounded by a horde of onlookers. There sat a venerable Navajo Medicine Man painting loosely upon the silken sands the age-old traditional symbols of the Living Spirit. The looks of wonderment on every hand, however, revealed plainly that there were few who realized that sandpainting is a very old Indian art, or that it has a special and sacred significance.
For many hours the old Navajo sat silently upon the sand in Buddha fashion, evolving a design of unbelievable precision and beauty. All day long I kept hoping for the opportunity to speak with him. But the Indian knows that the language of the spirit is silence. In silence he always makes the Sandpainting, for the Sandpainting itself is a visual prayer, and one should not interrupt a prayer with words.
At last, after six and a half hours, there came the long-awaited moment. Slowly he rose and left the arena for his one break of the day. Momentarily the crowd which had surrounded him dissipated as if by command. Returning, he paused for an instant at the fence. In a flash I was behind him. Briefly I spoke of the beauty of the Sandpainting and what it had meant to me, and asked him to view my own permanent sample.
Regal as a flute, the old Medicine Man stood listening. Without a flicker of change in expression, he nodded only in assent. And still without turning he took the painting into his hands and looked at it long, in silence.
For me, what followed was a moment of magic. The encroaching crowd seemed to recede into nothingness, and there hovered a sense of expectation that was transcendental. For a brief moment the serene features of that bronzed old Indian were an embodiment of a whole proud people, a magnificent race who had understood the silence, and had been rewarded by its priceless secrets.
A slender dark sensitive finger began to move. With deliberation, it touched a tiny raised dot upon the surface. The other fingers joined in, and—held just a fraction above the painting itself—they patterned a circle all the way around—clockwise, slowly, silently, back to the very beginning.
Only then did the old man turn to me. The radiance of the sun bursting from behind a cloud was in that smile and, in the calm dark eyes, knowingness and wisdom shone. My heart sang with joy, for, through this moment in which I had been accepted fully and completely, I had felt the pulse-beat of the infinite. Through the old Medicine Man, who had consciously attuned himself to the language of the spirit in silence, there had been given back from out of the silence a speech more eloquent than could ever be spoken!
As all of us impregnate that which we do with that which is ourselves, the Medicine Man was, in reality, picking up the vibrations from the painting and registering them in his own keenly attuned awareness. Through his sensitive fingertips he had contacted my spirit and knew my innermost feelings, integrity, and the motive which lay behind.
Even as radio (a man-made instrument) can pick up the fine vibrations from out of the ether and translate them into meaning, why should not we, who are much finer instruments, fashioned by the Maker-of-All, clear our channels like this old Indian, and register the greater and more subtle vibrations?
There are those who do not recognize the paranormal qualities of extra-sensory perception, and yet they are common between many husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and those who are very close to each other. How very great is the seed of potential within each of us, were it but recognized, disciplined, developed, and attuned!
Does it seem surprising that on meeting an Indian by chance in the desert he might tell you that your visit had been expected for some time, state briefly long forgotten incidents from your past, and conclude with a prediction for the future? Following several such experiences on the Navajo Reservation, I had the eerie feeling that nothing one ever does is hidden from some people, and my admiration and respect for these rare ones has increased with the years.
My earliest childhood recollection of psychic phenomena was at the age of about four-and-a-half. It was early morning and my mother and I were alone in the house. Standing near to her, my mouth was expectantly watering with hunger as she stood by the kitchen stove frying an egg for breakfast. As she lifted the pan and turned to place the egg on my plate, she suddenly dropped the utensil with eggs and all, and ran towards the outside door, crying, Mi hijo, mi hijo (my son, my son)! I ran after her screaming without knowing why.
Outdoors I could see nothing, nor could she. After an hour or more, my twelve-year-old brother was brought in with a bullet through his head, killed in a hunting accident a few miles from home at the moment my mother had dropped the egg, and cried out Mi hijo! From out of the silence he had come to mother to say farewell....
[NOTE:] This incident was reported in a lecture given on February 17, 1959, at Boston University on Navajo Indian Paintings: Symbolism, Artistry, and Psychology, by Leland C. Wyman, Ph.D. [Return]
Silence was originally published in the book Tapestries in Sand: The Spirit of Indian Painting, ©1963 David V. Villaseñor; published by Naturegraph Company, Healdsburg, California. Reprinted with the kind permission of Jean G. Villaseñor.
The paintings, by David V. Villaseñor, are Father Sky and Mother Earth, The Whirling Rainbows, Southern California Indian Sandpainting (funeral), Wind and Snakes, and Sun and Eagle.
David Villaseñor was part Otomi Indian and part Mexican and was educated at Cruz Galvez, an Industrial and Graphic Arts School in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. He moved to the United States at age 16 and, for the first time, witnessed a Navajo medicine man create a sand painting. Villaseñor became an expert sand painter, artist, and sculptor and led a successful career lecturing on the explanation and exposition of Indian sandpainting. He had one-man shows in 1951-52 at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.