March 25, 2014

Lessons learned in silence

During a recent stay at a monastery, I was given an opportunity to observe silence for five straight days. The monks were entering into the first week of the 40 days of Lent—a time that the Christian Church spends focused on fasting and penitential prayer.

The first few days of absolute silence were a challenge. Though the setting was peaceful and still (the monastery is located in the high desert of New Mexico), I found that my mind struggled to resemble the stable beauty of the mesas surrounding me. The silence revealed an inner noise, like a constant hum of mind chatter that often goes unnoticed when I’m immersed in the distractions of everyday life.

After five days without speaking, I felt more connected to the brothers than the week before when we used verbal interactions to get to know each other. Now, my mind was able to sustain longer periods of stillness. This stillness within felt like it was radiating a peaceful energy throughout. This may only have been my perception, but that’s how it felt. On the fifth day of the fast, Father Silouan motioned for me to join him on a walk and that’s when the silence was broken.

We walked a few hundred yards, side by side, down the dirt road leading back to a paved county road before either one of us spoke. The lack of dialogue would have made me uncomfortable a week before, but now it was peaceful to be in his company because there was peace in my own mind. He spoke first and asked how my fast had been going (we fasted from food for three days as well as the fasting from talking). I told him that it was humbling to be made aware of all the nonsense that goes through my mind. He nodded in understanding and said that much of our thought energy goes into maintaining a constant narrative to the lives we are living. I told him that I noticed how much I try to reason my emotions, justify my actions, anticipate my needs, and fantasize about my potential reactions to scenarios that may never come to pass. “It’s our ego,” he said.

Observing silence brought me into an awareness of my ego’s demands for a storyline that would make it feel important and cherished. Yet, I realized that the stories I had been telling myself were largely illusory and, therefore, any consolation I’d take in the identity formed in those illusions were as fleeting as the daydream itself. If we take away the mind’s narrator and the stories we tell ourselves, then what’s left? Silence brings us into confrontation with our true identity.

The silence also made me aware of my own inner dialogue, which was exhausting to navigate. In the past, I wouldn’t attempt to navigate it all. If a rare moment of stillness visited me I’d take it as an opportunity to glance at my phone, scroll through some social media feeds, and then process, perhaps subconsciously, all that I my eyes had consumed.

We live in a culture that has no reverence for silence. We have music in elevators to assuage the awkwardness of being in such close proximity to strangers. We make small talk, sometimes to show kindness, but sometimes to ease our own discomfort with the silence. If we’re not speaking, we’re texting. Sometimes, when we are speaking, we’re simultaneously texting someone somewhere else. We are ever before a screen, seeking connection, entertainment, or distraction. We seek noise.

Yet, in rejecting silence, what self-knowledge are we avoiding? What peace are we passing by? And what fabricated narratives do we maintain that keep us insulated from reality?

I only experienced five days of silence, which is nothing compared to some monastics who spend the greater part of their lives in quiet. But those five days were transformative and peace-filled.

Before leaving the monastery behind I recalled something that Father Silouan had shared with the brothers and I before the fast began. He said that some live in the desert, but have their minds in the world. And some who live in the world keep their minds in the desert. So, amidst the noise and stimulation of this world, I’m trying to keep my mind in the desert. A mind in the desert loves silence because it leads to self-knowledge and a sustainable opportunity for peace.

PS: Through a series of undeserved blessings, I’ve been invited to return to the monastery in the high desert of New Mexico and will remain there for nearly two months. If you’re interested in receiving updates, you can sign up for my newsletter. I’ll do my best to write things that bring peace.

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