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The Soundness of Silence
It's a strange thing to be so unaccustomed to silence. To associate the sounds of leaves rustling and one's own heartbeat with ominous moments in horror movies. And that's just external quiet -- how many of us can imagine taking a vow of silence ourselves? We so often go through our days in a din, our ears plugged with music, our mouths talking talking talking. Wouldn't silence keep us from communicating, prevent us from connecting with our thoughts, and, you know, scare the crap out of us?
Writer Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston posed this question (sort of) to the Trappist Monks of Oka Abbey, in Quebec. Trappist Monks are known for being the only Western order that practices silence (it's not technically a "vow of silence," as he explains). Mesiano-Crookston explains that it was "their dedication to the enshrinement of silence" that compelled him to reach out to them. He wanted to know how the silence works, and what it does for them. So he interviewed them -- via email, of course.
Their answers are illuminating: "The silence does make me aware of my inner workings, however, what we call in the monastery, 'self-knowledge.'...Silence seems to keep me from idealizing myself...I've become very attuned to the sound of bird-song, the wind, water running through the pipes, identifying unseen monks by the sound of their footsteps—just paying attention to my surroundings."
Identifying unseen monks? Wait, does a vow of silence come with superpowers? As much as the idea of so much silence makes me feel, I have to admit, immediately claustrophobic -- the way the monk describe it makes it sound like it might just be the key to something, to way to some mindful way of living and connecting to the world itself, not to mention developing your own inner resources. Another wrote: "On yet another level, silence means listening."
The monks' thoughts on silence make me wonder whether my own country-weekend aversion to silence might have been standing in for some larger noisiness in our lives. As one monk put it, "Silence is an aid and not an end in itself. It aids prayer, communal and private, and seeks to reduce distractions." We are so unused to really contemplating our own thoughts, the world around us, or really anything -- could it be the enormity of this that made a country weekend of quietude feel like a daunting prospect? According to the monks: "When there is lot of noise or movement around you, it’s tough to take notice of what you’re going through." So that's every waking moment of my life. No wonder I feel so scattered and, you know, un-monk-ish.
How might some moments of silence help you to focus on what you're going through?
For more on how silence works, and for the surprising connection the monks make between the noisy life and loneliness, read the entire essay here at The Awl.
How Silence Can Make You More Creative
The Quest for Quiet in a Noisy World
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