Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Into kinda-good silence

The day after watching Into Great Silence Joanna commented that we didn't talk much about silence, per se. While asceticism, selfless, sacrifice, and isolation were all recognized, we didn't even hit on the title aspect of the film. So, ignoring for the moment the irony of talking about silence . . . what's so great about silence? And how could we have more of that in our own lives?

The film itself only made one reference to silence, by quoting a passage from I Kings 19:
The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD,
for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

God manifests in the whisper, the "still small voice," and that we usually need to abide in silence before we are able to hear it. Nothing really new, there . . . a chestnut of spiritual traditions. Nor would I be adding much by talking about the opposite of silence, which is noise. Yes, these are indeed noisy times, with an exponential increase in the sheer volume of communications competing constantly for our attention.

I would add that silence is as much about energy conservation as it is about tuning into Grace. We grossly underestimate how much energy is consumed in communiction. When I was in a ten-day Vipassana retreat, we were forbidden to speak, read, write, or even make eye contact. As a result, I built up a tremendous amount of energy, so much that I could barely sleep at night. One the final day of the retreat, when we were allowed to talk again, I could feel all that energy go PSSSSSSSTTT right out of me again. It was a little humbling, as someone who had dedicated much of my life to spiritual conversation, to realize that talking used up so much power and focus. Nor did silence compromise intimacy, either . . . deprived of all small talk and personal stories, I found myself in rapport with all the others in the retreat. I knew who was sick and who was healthy, who was having a good meditation and who was frustrated. All kinds of subtle knowledge from unspoken cues becomes conscious when you are liberated from the gross.

Are we talking about literal silence, here? Do you need to take a vow of silence to realize the spiritual benefit of stillness? Or can you abide in stillness in your daily routine, as a gush of slim self-help books proclaim? Well . . . yes, I think we're talking about literal silence, or at least, minimal noise. Many teachers have witnessed to the capacity of maintaining stillness-amid-noise -- even, as Fleet Maull describes, stillness-amid-sheer-hell. But that only comes from becoming comfortable with periods of real silence, within and without. Like the monks, I'm a big fan of doing spiritual disciplines in the early morning hours, when the world is asleep and your own stillness has not yet been stirred up by the day.

And then, if you can establish yourself in some stillness at the beginning of the day, the trick is to not give it away. The Buddhists have a notion of "right speech," which really breaks down "don't say anything you don't have to say." If you eliminate gossip, complaining, and small talk, you could do away with 80% of all typical conversations. And if you could do the same with your internal dialog, you could probably cut out a similar percentage of distracting thought. That's actually an enormous challenge . . . and you may find it easier, as the monks do, to be completely still.


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