Again, nothing I write here should be construed as anything but developing considerations; I only hope that they reflect something of experience and reality. You won’t find any solutions to your problems here or strategies with universal application. And anything I write has been impacted by two contributions already. Kurt’s post said that if we’re really serious about finding silence, we’ll make a place for it. In my own words, we’ll sacrifice to insure that there is silence. So that has become one point of reference for me. And yesterday I received an email from Jesse, his reflections on silence, in which he asks himself, “What am I looking for in silence?” That has prompted me to ask, “Do I recognize the silence I might already have in the palm of my hand?”
Of course I can easily imagine situations and lives in which silence is hard to come by. For example, the mother of a young family may only know silence when everyone’s asleep, herself included; and even then, don’t children wake up in the night and call for help or attention? Or someone who has become the care-taker for a family member can be overwhelmed with duties, with phone conversations to doctors and pharmacies, with insurance companies that, even were there a moment of silence would there be any energy, any focused attention to employ it? Health-care professionals, social-workers, teachers, might have to spend most of the day talking, talking, talking, then squeeze in mountains of paper-work, shopping and family before the day ends. I think it would be as disrespectful to any of you in these or similar situations to say, well, that’s your state of life–pour yourself into performing your duties with charity. What about re-charging? What about a much needed break? On the other hand, does everyone need the same amount of silence or are we really dehumanizing ourselves with constant sensory overload? constant verbal connections? constant information? Is the only answer to enter a monastery?
As Kurt pointed out monasteries are busy places and yet silence is possible because it is an intentional priority. Perhaps we’re “lucky” that our lives and life-style is not as slow-paced and simple as eighty years ago. Since we have to insure silence in our lives, before our technological and media-driven culture overwhelms us, we, the monks, might have some useful. practical suggestions to offer.
Perhaps it’s true that if I really want silence I’ll make a time and a place for it–not always as much as I want but at least something. Maybe it’s good to start small, to squeeze out what little I can get. I say this because often people arrive at our Retreat House for the first time saying, “I need this quiet time” and by the third day are feeling anxious or ready to leave early because it’s a little too silent. What do you do with it? especially if you’re not used to it! So perhaps I could start small, maybe wake up ten minutes before everyone else in the house and savor a quiet cup of coffee–dare I write a meditative cup of coffee?–before I start getting organized for the day. Just concentrate on the coffee and don’t worry whether that’s prayer or not, whether it’s “quality” silence or not, as long as it’s intentional silence. It could be no more (and no less) than realizing this always has been silence, right there at the start of my day. It’s not just a pause between this task and that. It’s silence once I’m attuned to it.
I wonder how many of those opportunities I have throughout my day along the lines of this analogy: if I see my average day as a symphony, can I then recognize the silences that punctuate and structure the symphony? No piece of music is all sound. The pauses of silence may be brief or prolonged but they are there or the music would have no shape. Just watch the tympani player: in many compositions he or she just stands there observing 36 or 87 bars of rest before there’s anything to do. That instrument is silent for most of the piece. In a very real sense, there is even that silence as part of the sound. So can I find silences hidden in my day? Is taking out the garbage just a chore or is it a moment by myself uninvaded by words and distractions? Aren’t there silences even in a conversation? Can they feed my soul too?
OK, I haven’t really addressed Kurt’s suggestion in the concrete or approached Jesse’s question, but this is long enough for one post. That leaves more to reflect upon in the next post.