Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Collapse LXVII: Active Silence

 08 February 20XX +1

My Dear Lucilius:

After giving some thought to my last entry, for the last week I have practiced complete and total silence.

I perceive what you are thinking: You live alone, in a society which is currently without power, in the depths of Winter where you not likely to see people. How large of a challenge is this?

To be fair, you raise reasonable points. All is as you say. But that is also unconscious silence, the silence of just existing now in the world as it now. What I was seeking was active silence, the silence of choice, the silence of practice.

It does not greatly differ from the list above – except with the addition that one has to actively make the decision not to speak out loud at all. Easy enough for some, you might say. Not if you are like me and in the habit of talking to yourself out loud. Often.

And so, I have spent the last seven days actively trying to not say anything.

I did leave a note for young Xerxes on the window for the next time he stopped by, letting him know what was going on and why I would not be answering the door. Other than that, the risk of having anyone visit was very low.

It is easy to practice active silence for an hour, or two, or even five. It becomes more difficult when practiced over days. We unconsciously tend to try and fill the silence with ourselves if we cannot fill it with anything else.

It is odd, as you continue in silence, how much sound you notice – and how loud that sound becomes. The rabbits drinking from their bottles sound like a hail storm. The pop of the fire becomes like a gunshot. I would swear to you I even hear the slow hiss of the water in the coffee pot I keep on the wood stove to humidify the air.

Doing any activity in silence and trying to maintain the silence as much as possible is definitely a change, especially if one has created an atmosphere where noise is in the background. You remember it – the “headphone/ear-pod” culture, where anything which one did not want to get bored doing, one put on headphones or put in ear-pods. Somehow it made the activity less “boring” as one walked away to the oldies or lifted weights to throbbing head thrashing music. But what was the purpose? Take our mind off what we were doing? Make something more palatable? Or engage our mind while somehow we were engaging our body to do something different? It seems rather ridiculous now – if I have chosen to do something, why do I not focus on it body and mind, instead of letting my body wander off one direction and my mind the other?

That is not quite a choice anymore, of course – I have the potential of music from my electronic devices, which of course do not run themselves without power. At best they are a resource which will not even last my lifetime

But as I persevered in my silence, I found it to be a useful exercise.

By not speaking, one has a great deal more ability to follow the thoughts in one’s head. I was much more readily able to track my pack-trains of thought and could come to instantly recognize when they had suddenly taken a turn somewhere other than where I thought they were going. And going about one’s daily tasks of living in silence seems to give them an elegance all their own – in fact, the longer the exercise progressed, the more I worked to carefully see how much of the noise I created just by doing the daily activities of living I could reduce: in preparing meals, in cleaning up, in my exercises and practices, even in the simple act of being – how truly silent could I be.

The experiment is complete and I am back to more of normal existence - the rabbits, despite any self-changes I may have wrought, simply prefer to have someone speak to occasionally and there is value, given the circumstances, in communicating with people such as my young friend that stops by once a week. But it has left me with a lingering practice of being more silent whenever I have the opportunity and means.

It is odd, Lucilius, how much more wisdom we could attain if we were to speak less and be silent more.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca

13 comments:

  1. I'm reading a commentary on The Rule of Benedict and yesterday's portion touched on the topic of silence.

    Active silence would be difficult for me. I talk to myself often, and even more so to our dogs.

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    1. Kelly, Seneca has the same challenge, as do I (apparently from my children, I quite frequently talk out loud to myself).

      Silence plays a large part in all ascetic movements. I think part of it is simply to hear God (and ourselves) more clearly, we need to speak less.

      I do take some small comfort in the fact that I think it is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, not something that we do naturally (although some are more inclined that way than others).

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  2. Anonymous8:36 AM

    Yippee! Another chapter. Keith (who hasn't even read it yet)

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    1. Thanks Keith! This completely made my day!

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  3. My mind is too noisy for silence. I lack the discipline to enjoy it in large doses.

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    1. Glen, I think it is like any other discipline: we have to start small - a minute - and then work up from there. Like anything else, it is a habit to be built.

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    2. Glen - myself too. Sometimes there seem to be multiple people in my head. It is a worthwhile thing to try in small doses, however. The core thought is well summed up in the last sentence.

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  4. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Be still and know that I am God. Psalms 46:10

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    1. It is interesting - a book I just finished, The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware, presents this practice as one that is important to the Orthodox faith, the silence and the knowing of God.

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  5. I don't think I talk to myself very often, but I do talk to our critters quite a bit. I do like the idea of active silence though.

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    1. Leigh, I did not think I talked to myself all that much until I got the feedback from my family. Apparently when I was driving Na Clann to school, I was rather vocal. I talk to my animals as well, although they do not often talk back.

      It is an interesting concept, one that I am going to try to integrate into my life - but as I said to Glen, in small doses. 5 minutes of actively trying to be silent is much harder than I imagined.

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  6. When I was younger I was working for Delta Airlines as a ramp rat, baggage handler, etc... I had my Sony Walkman (remember when) on me all the time. It wasn't really a Sony Walkman, I couldn't afford name brand gadgets then. It is amazing that I survived in that industrial environment with the constant distraction of corporate music in my ear for 8-10 hour shifts. Shortly after that experience, and after stashing away enough money to get me through college, I swore off music with lyrics for a year or more. I got tired of the messaging (brain washing).

    Being Still is the most amazing thing one can do to find the correct paths in life. Silence and then emptiness if you can get there. It takes practice, to be an empty vessel.

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    1. Just So, I do remember when - and yes, I believe I had the Best Warehouse knockoff at well.

      It is funny - I stopped listening on a slightly more unconscious level, but yes, you are right: at some point the messaging got to be too much (I note that as they have the radio blaring at the gym I train at, it has not gotten any better over the years).

      That is a very lovely and poetic description. Thank you.

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