One topic requested from the post It’s Your Call was finding silence in our busy and overactive society. I find this question is often raised by visitors to our Guest House, too. In some ways it’s very hard for a monk to answer this question because we live in an environment with a schedule and a routine, with structures, conventions and peer-pressure to insure silence. That said, however, I could never pretend that our life is not invaded by noise, by useless words, by distractions. I could never pretend that it does not take effort or discipline or even strategies and vigilance to guard silence in a cloister necessarily located in a bigger, noisier and more vocal society.
So I propose to introduce a series of reflection on silence, beginning with a consideration: what are we talking about when we use the word “silence”? Is it just a question of sounds and noise or do we mean words and conversation? Do we mean interior noise and distractedness? Are we referring to sensory overload? Does silence include the fast pace of our life? Do we need to address all those practices and forces beyond our control?
I must state from the start that, like any other post, these are but personal reflections. I have no magic solutions, I have no answers. At best I may only be able to frame the question for myself with a little more precision and hope that the question has relevance for more people than myself. Your own feed back and experience and reactions will be helpful to all our readers; please don’t be shy!
Let me just propose–or identify–some points for our discussion. First, an idea from St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries: the Rule refers to silence in one form: restraint of speech. That’s what the Latin word (taciturnitas) St. Benedict uses means: not speaking. He is considering the abuse of language–let’s say in gossip, in speech that’s never serious, in wordiness–that damages another individual or the community or the individual speaker. There’s a question of moral culpability. But there’s more: there’s the problem of a disordered, distracted mind that just cannot shut it’s mouth. There’s the lack of judgement to know the right time and place to speak. Most of all for St. Benedict, too much speech indicates the inability to listen. And on another level (when the rule mentions the Great Silence, for example) there’s restraining speech to contribute to an environment of recollection. So, one area of silence is the restraint of words.
Second, I can think of the problem of noise. St. Benedict wrote in a pre-industrial age. We can’t imagine getting through the day without mechanization and technology; air-conditioners, boilers, cars and trucks, lawn mowers, car alarms, back-up generators, subway cars, sirens, trash compressors, exhaust fans, airplanes all have their functions and we depend on them. They also all produce noise, louder persisting noise than our ancestors could never have imagined three hundred years ago. Some urbanites coming to the country or on a camping trip can’t deal with the lack of noise. How many people do you know who need “white noise” in the background to fall asleep. Are we uncomfortable with the lack of sounds? Or course not everyone is. Computers are not noisy but they are another source of music, Youtube, and words, words, words and more words. They’ve even been known, in their malfunctions, to engender a colorful stream of verbal invective in their owners. In any case I propose we also consider noise when we consider silence.
Third, there is that interior turmoil, the workings of an overstimulated brain; there are the distractions that pull my attention in contradictory directions. Buddhists refer to the “thousand monkeys in a tree” to describe our distracted minds. Is it possible to have a recollected mind in the middle of exterior noise? Some people claim that if you can’t meditate deeply in the middle of Times Square you can’t meditate anywhere; and in saying that, they imply that they could. There can be an overlap here with restraining words: is a silent mind one that is “beyond” or, at least, outside the realm of words and concepts? However these questions can be answered interior silence is another consideration.
to be continued