Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sounds of silence: to be the still axis within the revolving wheel of relationships, obligations, and activities

Doors slamming, engines starting, fire truck sirens, leaf blowers, helicopters, a crying toddler and my neighbor’s propensity for loud, violent action films. In my Los Angeles apartment, the best silence I can find is to close the windows, to close out the sounds of the city. I still hear the buzz of the outdated air conditioner, a wall unit circa 1982 that does its best to keep me from melting into a pool of sweat in Southern California’s September heat.

When I shut out city sounds, I close out contact with nature. When I open the windows on a quiet day, I hear a thump and see an over-fed squirrel land on the rooftop next door, catching him from a fall or jump from his tightrope walk across the power line. Bird calls trill until the neighbor’s squawking parrot drowns them out. His five o’clock greeting, interspersed with a croaking “I love you!” is for the owner I can only assume to be allergic to a nice, quiet cocker spaniel and undeniably insane.

Silence isn’t the total absence of sound, but an awareness of the inner silence that is buried deep within. How can one be surrounded by sound, in community, but also in touch with that deep silence? How “to be the still axis within the revolving wheel of relationships, obligations, and activities”?

In A Gift From the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh asks the question, and finds that, “the problem is not entirely finding the room of one’s own, … The problem is more how to still the soul in the midst of its activities. ... Total retirement is not possible. … I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island.I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be.… I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes, a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return. In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life.”

What if one were to cut out all unwanted distractions, inhabit a desert island, or a windswept moor? Writer Sara Maitland chronicles such a journey into solitude in A Book of Silence. Her “about me” webpage has a homey feel, telling her tale of a feminist writer whose belief in God influences her stories and bragging about her grown children. I like that her website about her new life away from the world contains a few glitches, words and punctuation missing, as if, in addition to not needing a regular hair cut, neither does she require a web designer. “For the last ten years though, I have been living on my own and pursuing a deep and joyful fascination with silence. Last year I built a little house on a wild moor in northern Galloway. My nearest neighbours are a household of Barn Owls who occupy an owl box in a nearby ruined barn. Here I write and pray and walk and am happy.”

A Book of Silence is a brilliant exploration of something — or is it a nothing? — that right at the start is impossible to define precisely," Dominique Browning observes in her book review. "Is silence the absence of words? Or is it the absence of sound altogether? Is there even such a thing as silence that we can experience? … Is silence dependent on external conditions? Or is it a quality of mind? For her own purposes, Maitland decides, silence is that which is broken up by ‘words and speech particularly.’ ”

Lindbergh writes from her island solitude: “Existence in the present gives island living an extreme vividness and purity. One lives like a child or a saint in the immediacy of here and now. … People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole and serene, respecting other people’s solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of another individual. ‘No man is an island,’ said John Donne. I feel we are all islands – in a common sea.

“…How one hates to think of oneself as alone. How one avoids it. It seems to imply rejection or unpopularity. … We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. … Even day-dreaming was more creative than this, it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life. … We must re-learn to be alone.

“…For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too.”

Whenever I choose to spend a chunk of time alone, especially on a holiday that is typically spent in community and celebrations, I get concerned looks from friends. “Is everything alright?” they ask, with that alarmed suicide-watch look in their eyes. I receive many invitations so I won't have to be alone, which I am thankful for. I don't take it for granted that I choose to be alone, while others may truly be lonely.

Because there is a difference between being alone and lonely. There is a need for solitude that we're missing. In the midst of the Christmas holiday season, I spent an evening with my friends Paul and Jen. Trying to find a place close to a concert venue, we met for burgers at the Karaoke bar The Brass Monkey. Shouting above drunk renditions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," we talked about solitude, and how important it is for understanding who we are in community. Paul, a fellow introvert, offered this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other."

In his book Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes, Robert Kull echoes Lindbergh when he writes, "To be fully human we need relationships with other people, with the nonhuman world, and with our own inner depths. In solitude we have the opportunity to explore all these domains of relationship. We are also spiritual beings and may feel called into solitude to seek communion with a numinous presence we can directly experience, but not clearly define.

"I’ve learned that the core of my loneliness is not separation from other people, but feeling disconnected from myself. Solitude provides a respite from the demands of social life and creates a space for personal healing. Paradoxically, spending time alone can soften our sense of alienation from others.

"... we need inner transformation. Solitude evokes the spacious wonder of living in a sacred world."

Listening to the wisdom of those who have practiced extreme solitude, listening to and obeying my own body and soul rhythms, I often seek solitude and silence. From friends who attend silent retreats I understand that the first few days are crazy-making. Cut off from all recognized forms of communication, chatting, the internet and cell phones, you realize your addiction to constant vocal contact. After just hours or often days, you can start to recognize the difference between the thoughts spinning in your monkey-mind, and the calm(er) person observing those thoughts.

Solitude and meditation are necessary for me, so I may be aware of that interior silence when I open my windows to the (relatively) fresh air, and hear, above the cries of the baby next door, the mournful, beautiful songs of the violinist practicing on a Sunday afternoon. To cultivate an inner peace that allows me to pay attention, to see the older woman get off the bus at a busy intersection and turn in a confused circle. When I step in her direction she eyes me, asks if I speak Russian. I cannot speak her language, but I can point to her destination, the address on the flier she clutched in both hands. Her effusive thanks and half hug reminds me of my love of community, to balance my silent retreat with wandering in the noisy world, full of bus exhaust, sirens and little old Russian ladies who need help.

How (and where) do you find space for silence?

(Photos: "Ocean City Ferris Wheel" - Idle Type,, "A Good Wine" - Mace2000,

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