In Praise of Silence


zen garden

From the outset I should say that although I am about to argue that silence is A Good Thing that does not mean that I am advocating it as a sovereign universal remedy. Broccoli is also an excellent thing but some people just can’t eat it. This does not represent a personal flaw or defect in that person, it just happens to be the way that they are constituted. In a similar fashion there are people who experience silence as oppressive or disturbing. For them there must be another means to approach optimal functioning (perhaps the Lukan anecdote points a way.)

There is a distinction though between difficult and disturbing. Living silently, or more silently, is not something which is easy to achieve. You are likely to have to struggle somewhat to get there. That is no reason not to try. The only reason not to try is if silence causes you harm. If you have experienced occasional moments of silence as a soothing, healing balm in the midst of your life then you are the demographic for whom I am writing. I propose to look at why you have had such an experience and how you can make it a more permanent feature of your life.

So, what is this thing that I have now mentioned several times without defining it? Another word we could use is ‘stillness’ because silence is not merely or even mostly the absence of external sounds assailing your ears. All noise is experienced in the mind and it can come to us through our eyes or our memories or our plans for the future or our fantasies just as much as it can through barking dogs or pumped up sound systems. Stillness is that state where our mind is free of all such intrusions and the chatter has all stopped. As such it requires a positive act of creation not just a negative act of exclusion.

Why is such an experience of stillness so soothing? As St Augustine noted about fifteen centuries ago the default human condition is restlessness. This is not necessarily A Bad Thing, it can lead us on to discover stuff, to explore, to innovate and to bring about significant changes. Some of this is decidedly beneficial, discovering penicillin for example, and some much less so, like discovering America (only kidding. Honest.) Mostly, of course the restlessness operates at a much lower level and the chief result of scratching an itch is to discover another twenty or thirty itches that also need scratching. We begin to long for rest, but every attempt to secure it, through succumbing to this or that impulse which our restlessness suggests, results in, at best, a momentary satisfaction as prelude to more restlessness.

Although this constant motion of mind or body or emotion or all three is characteristic of humans it is not the entirety of what a human consists of. The experience of silence or the state of stillness is what happens when we cultivate those parts of ourselves which do not contribute to, or benefit from, our restlessness. We experience this as soothing because these are precisely the parts which are geared towards the condition of rest as an achieved end and not merely a distant aspiration. Augustine characterised this resting point as God and it is certainly true that it is religion which has historically pointed people towards stillness as a desirable way of being. More recently there have been some secular arguments which point towards the therapeutic benefits of silence, particularly in relation to the ability of the internet age to routinely bombard people with much more noise in the form of sound, pictures, text and demands on time than the human mind has the capacity to deal with in any meaningful way.

Those aspects of ourselves which we should cultivate are, I think, chiefly the ability to be fully, entirely and exclusively in the particular moment of time which we are experiencing and also the ability to be completely conscious of ourselves or, more properly, of our Self. Arguably these two things are really one thing but that requires too long a digression for the purposes of this blog. Normally we are never fully present either to the moment or to our Self because noise has distracted us. Often, indeed, we generate noise specifically (though perhaps unconsciously) for the purpose of avoiding just such an awareness. Yet, paradoxically, on the rare occasions when such noise fades away we can find the experience of what is left behind, a sudden silence, enormously soothing, calming and a source of genuine happiness. These oasis moments are thoroughly enjoyed yet we rarely make the necessary act of will to transform these from random accidental incidents in our lives to a regular part of our existence and a condition of our thriving.

How can we incorporate silence into our lives? Authors on this topic often include a sentence which goes ‘of course I’m not suggesting that you go off and live in a desert or a monastery.‘ By contrast I say ‘get thee to a nunnery.’ Sometimes shock therapy is the best therapy. The only way to know what silence can do for you is to experience it fully. A wide variety of religious, spiritual or philosophical traditions offer silent retreats in convents, monasteries or dedicated centres and if you haven’t already done so I would suggest that you head of to one of these at the earliest opportunity. Ideally you should spend at least five days in such a place because your first two days will be detox and your last day will be demob happy so you will only manage a couple of actual proper days of silence, which isn’t much but more than you would get on a weekend break. An additional advantage of such an experience is that these places are staffed by people who know what they are doing, so if you hit snags or need advice for your return to the ‘real’ world then they can help you a great deal.

Once you have done this you can then start to build the things you have learned into the brickwork of your daily life. My suggestions for what they are worth would be-

  • Have regular noise free days. Ideally once a week but at least once a month don’t switch on your phone, don’t connect to the internet or watch TV or play computer games or listen to dance music or read newspapers. Admittedly this may not result in stillness as such, you may end up speaking to your loved ones, playing with your children, that kind of stuff, but it creates the opportunity for silence which, by the law of averages must break out sometime. It also breaks the habit of exposing yourself voluntarily to noise, and habit is a powerful thing.
  • Have a daily period of silence, if possible for at least fifteen minutes. Be on your own. Be still. Be passive. Wait. I find that early in the morning, after I’ve inhaled my first coffee of the day, is the best time for this but, of course everyone is different.

Of what does silence actually consist? When you’ve created the space to be still what do you actually do? For humans there is no such a thing as an unconditioned silence. We ourselves form the condition of our silence. That is, we give it its content, that content is our Self. The influence of the external environment only has significance to the extent that we allow it to penetrate our mind, to  form our Self. Therefore, in our stillness we are whatever we might be in our essence plus whatever we have imported from outside. Most of what is outside of us is itself in motion and therefore contributes to our restlessness not to our silence. Silence, then, consists in excluding those things within and without which are restless and focussing upon and/or importing those things which are themselves still or which contribute to stillness.

How do we do this? The ancient traditions which value silence, recognising through experience what our needs are, hedge about periods of stillness with those things which turn the mind towards its desired object. They use prayers and meditations, they ascribe a particular value to breath ( for example, the Hebrew and Greek words for breath are the same as the words for spirit) and they bring evocative imagery into the place where the practice of stillness occurs. All of which assists in purging the mind of its restless content and creating a silence which is conditioned by the things of stillness and not the things of motion. If you, gentle reader, belong to a particular religious tradition, or are at least comfortable with one, then the best thing you can do in this context is to buy into its wisdom and practices about silence and follow the prescribed path.

For the secular or religiously unattached person there are two course of action possible. One is to become attached. Most religions welcome new members and I can highly recommend the Catholic faith. Failing this check out what works for the religious, visit, ask, study and then experiment with what works for you. You might, for example, precede your period of silence by reading from a helpful text. My suggestion on that is that you avoid narrative. Stories, fictional or otherwise, engage and activate our imagination and this kills our internal silence. If, however, you curl up with The Phenomenology of  Spirit or the Summa Contra Gentiles then you can be fairly sure that your imagination will not be engaged. Then, after you grasp some abstract thought, close the book, hold the thought, beat off the distractions, and you will be experiencing silence. The whole of silence, in fact, consists of abstracting yourself from the torrent in order to immerse yourself in the clear, still pool that you know exists at the heart of your heart.

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.

The picture is a Zen garden path over a pond, Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon, USA


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