Some thoughts on silence

On my walk this morning I encountered a woman wearing earbuds, and could hear the music 100 feet away. Goodness! Although it reminded me that I deliberately don’t wear earbuds, I don’t judge her for doing it. I have no idea what her morning walk is about (it looked like she was headed to work at some retail operation) or what she needs to endure it.

And I’ve made use of earbuds in the past, or their prehistoric equivalent. In 1985 Debbie and I moved to Wilmington MA, just north of Route 128 in the Boston area, so that I could take a job working at MIT in Cambridge. I thought it would be cool to commute via mass transit—it was a 15 minute walk to the station, a 30 minute ride to North Station, and then 30 minutes to MIT regardless of whether I walked or took the subway—so I bought monthly passes and did that for awhile. I would ride the train and subway in silence, but when I walked I would often use headphones and a small portable FM radio to listen to NPR news. Sometimes I would walk in silence, but not intentionally.

(After nearly a year of this I discovered that I was entitled to a pass for a parking garage close to my office, so I traded the 75 minute train ride for a 20 minute drive, partly out of laziness, partly to reclaim that 55 minutes. Thirty years later I’m not sure what I would do—I’d like the train travel/walking better, and the monthly pass would probably be half the cost of gas, but I could also find other good ways to spend those 55 minutes.)

Last November circumstances converged—spiritual disciplines were on my mind, I was away from home visiting my dad, he had arranged an out-of-town visit during my visit and neither of us could change our schedules—and I had a weekend coming up where I would be alone in El Paso from Friday morning through Monday afternoon, when I would catch a flight home. Many of the writers I’d been reading on spiritual disciplines emphasized the importance of silence, and told remarkable tales of what can happen when one engages in a silent retreat. Meanwhile, I had never engaged deliberately in a period of silence, particularly one that stretched over several days.

So, silent retreat it was! I did a bit of reading on how to go about it, and gave some thought to the ways I would spend the time. Mainly I decided to unplug, letting people know I wouldn’t be available until Tuesday, then disconnecting the computer beginning Friday morning. Instead I planned to spend time sitting, walking through a nature preserve, reading the gospels, praying, sleeping, and eating, in no particular order. And all of that would be done in solitude, or as much solitude as I could achieve in this city. (Quite a bit, it turns out, since I had everything I needed at home except the nature preserve, which was a 30 minute drive away.)

What did I learn? Mostly that I wasn’t in any need of a silent, solitary retreat! Not that I didn’t enjoy the time and benefit from the time, quite the opposite—it was quite refreshing, especially the break from work and the internet. But as Friday turned into Saturday, I discovered that this time in silence and solitude wasn’t all that much different than my everyday experience. Much of my time is normally spent in silence. I have speakers on my desk and will play music occasionally when I work, but generally I find it too distracting, and so my working time is mostly spent sitting in my basement, either looking at a screen in silence or clicking away on my keyboard. There are plenty of sounds in the house—kids playing or talking, mostly—but I am highly skilled at tuning them out (or tuning them in if the situation calls for it!). And although I interact with people regularly for my work, it is almost exclusively via email, e.g. small bursts of reading and writing, the rest of the time I spend working in solitude.

Initially it was puzzling—where were all the dramatic new things that silence and solitude would bring me, the discoveries about myself? Fortunately, one of the points I’d read in Dallas Willard, and completely missed the first time around, had stuck with me on my recent re-reading: a discipline is not an end in itself, something to be engaged in for its own sake, but only a means to some other end. Which means that they are only to be employed as needed. If you need the things that silence and solitude can assist in bringing, then deliberately engage in silence and solitude—otherwise don’t. For me, the silence and solitude I was already experiencing unintentionally seems to have been sufficient to the task.

So beginning Saturday evening I eased the plan. I watched a movie on television, skipped church in order to make an IMAX showing of Interstellar, and gave in to the bug which I had apparently caught by sleeping through the afternoon until my fever broke. But I continued reading the gospels, and kept quiet and alone until one of my dad’s friends picked me up at noon on Monday to take me to the airport. A good weekend overall, and a very pleasant change of pace.

I did identify one aspect of silence that I could work on, and probably will at some point, namely shutting off my brain. When I walk or sit or otherwise spend time not deliberately engaged, my mind often races. A certain amount of time spent that way is fine, maybe even the majority—it’s a sort of thinking I don’t engage in when I’m working or spending time with friends or family. And a lot of the thinking is introspective, so there’s no danger of it becoming a way of distracting me from myself. But it does make me unobservant. And I suspect that as a result there is a way of directly experiencing (and enjoying!) God’s creation which is mostly alien to me. So there may be a solitary, silent retreat in the future, if circumstances converge again, where I focus on simply being in the moment.

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