The Need for Silence

Reading a disturbing essay by Andrew Sullivan this morning, shared by my wonderful friend Melissa Stiers Kretzschmar, that articulates so well why we need meditative silence. Published in New York Magazine, his new venue I think, the essay is titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Whatever we may think of Sullivan, (must say I’m not really a fan of Andrew’s, as he has been a leading conservative, neo-con, libertarian, neoliberal – God knows what he is) he’s an astute social observer for sure, and this account of his personal experience is telling. It’s also a chilling exposè/analysis of the dangers of the wired world… I say as I sit here blogging.

So this is not to be taken as the final word, but as food for thought. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to measure and mediate my own interaction with the news & culture media stream, and I’ve found, as Sullivan articulates in great detail, that it’s hard. Once you slip back in, it begins to grasp you more and more. Though I am staying pretty clear of the political aspects that tend to really stress me out. Didn’t even watch the debate last night. Won’t read about it. Can’t deal with it…

But I do find what Sullivan says about how meditation and retreats helped him to be very interesting. This is not a guy you’d expect to hear these things from. He’s a gay, British Catholic conservative writer, so not someone I’d ever think would do a 10-day retreat… but apparently he did.

The article is long but well worth the read. A few excerpts on silence:

Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn. …And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. … Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace.

He also weighs in strongly in favor of a disciplined meditation practice:

I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.

I’ve experienced much the same decline in my practice, probably due to these same influences he describes, and lately I’ve been making efforts to get my practice re-established. But it may be that I have to make a cleaner break with the media stream to actually make this work.

I’m working on a new approach to both media and meditation… I’ll try to keep blogging through this process… but it may fall by the wayside also. A conundrum.

7 thoughts on “The Need for Silence

  1. don salmon says:

    Hey John:

    Someone else sent Sullivan’s article to me – you’re right, it’s a powerful essay.

    I was curious about what you wrote at the end. Jan and I are putting together an e-course on mindfulness and the brain. One of the things we’re working on is encouraging people to feel relaxed about daily practice. We even go so far as to emphasize that if all you can do is pause to take one long, slow breath, that’s fine, and that people should have a lot of self-compassion about keeping up a strict routine. we also are trying to build a lot of supports (thinking of creative ways to build in pauses, finding other people in the community or groups or even online supports) to help people feel more comfortable about keeping up meditation practice.

    I’d be interested to hear what works best for you in terms of maintaining regular practice.


    • John Eden says:

      I’m interested in the e-course idea. I’ve been through most of the various approaches to meditation, and lately had been kinda relaxed about it, as my mentor, Terese, is supportive of that, but then I just tend to slip further and further. So I’m trying to arrive at some kind of regularity, not daily maybe, but something that gives me structure so I don’t slip. As you’ve said, that community support is so important, and not having that makes it hard. I was in a virtual sangha, still am I guess, but I don’t visit it often so it doesn’t function that way for me! Duh. Anyway, glad you’re interested in the dialog.

      • Hi brothers!
        My approach is to have practice as investigation.
        I asked myself: “What is the true reality beyond all that? what is the true nature?” and the like.
        So the regularity of the practice was supported by my wish to know. Later I started a private diary and wrote there my observations, questions, intentions and realizations. I developed a habit to memorize interesting thoughts etc and review them in the evening.
        This way, it’s easy and pleasant to practice continuously, because cognitive motivation is one of the deepest and most powerful in sentient beings.
        Use cognitive motivation! 😉

      • donsalmon says:

        Constant I – this is a great reply. We’ve gotten so enamored of silent meditation in recent decades we’ve lost sight of the fact that contemplatives – both Eastern as well as Western – often engaged in years – years!! – of discursive or reflective meditation (in other words, reflecting, reviewing thoughts, observations, etc) before even thinking of attempting silent meditation.

        Adyashanti has written some nice things on enquiry of the kind Constant I recommends. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Setting aside a few minutes – even a minute – to look at what one is doing and thinking and feeling, and quietly, calmly reflecting on it, asking about one’s motivations, what is behind them, what is the true reality behind all this – can be done anywhere, any time, even a few times a week.

        Combine that with 30 seconds of slow breathing and it can even be fun:>)) Select a passage to read (or better, memorize) that is inspiring – doesn’t have to be conventionally “spiritual” but it is probably best if it is at least a bit uplifting in whatever way it strikes you – is yet another way. Or just thinking of people you wish you could have treated better and wishing them well.

        There’s an infinity of ways of doing this.

      • John Eden says:

        Hi CI! Good to hear – it’s been a while! Thanks for your contributions here… very interesting ideas. I have journaled a lot over the years, but never used it in this way. Perhaps I’ll give it a try. I like the idea of “wish to know” as motivation!

  2. Thanks for sharing this John, good to see you keeping away from politics!
    Great timing for me. We had 4 days with no Internet access recently and was horrified how much I missed it. I’d thought myself fairly immune. Some days I don’t even remember to look at Facebook and since Brexit I’ve been steering clear of most news sites.
    After a storm took our connection down I found myself phoning our ISP twice a day for updates. Then I read a couple of books went for a walk and realised just how much in denial I’ve been.
    As for regular practice, sitting on my cushion has not been a regular thing for a while. Instead I’ve been working on awareness whilst alone and carrying out routine chores, ironing in particular is good. So the other comments here are particularly helpful.

    • John Eden says:

      Yes, that’s how I have been approaching it too! The notion of “sampajanna” from Vipassana, constant and thorough awareness of impermanence, kinda gets at that approach. I love the ironing idea – tho I do very little of it! Washing dishes is good, sweeping, raking. It gets harder in things that involve other humans… 🙂
      But yes, the draw of the mediastream is so powerful! I’m just trying to direct and control it, shift it into positive areas, etc. And I’m learning to play the mandolin, so that gives me a non-connected focus that’s pretty intense!
      Great to hear from you! Hope things are okay in Spain…

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