In The Mind of the Leader, Rasmus Hougaard writes about an experiment in which participants were asked to spend a short period of time alone in a room without windows, tv, pictures, writing instruments or mobile devices. They had a choice: they could just sit there or they could give themselves painful electric shocks to distract themselves.
According to the results published in the journal Science, 67 percent of the men (and 25 percent of the women) chose the electric shocks…
What would you have done? Sat there? Or shocked yourself. (One man shocked himself 190 times.)
Friends who live in the city describe the (somewhat unnerving) quiet that’s replaced the normal hustle and bustle. By us, the traffic on Route 9D is thinned out but the motorcycles still rev their engines as they tour on the weekend ; with no cadets across the river at West Point, the common sounds of artillery practice and of low-flying military helicopters are absent this Spring. The sounds of the freight trains heading north and south along the river stand out more.
How are things by you, does it seem serene?
As I’ve been reflecting on silence recently, I’ve been sharing a favorite Thomas Merton poem in some of the classes I’ve taught:
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your
to the living walls.
Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?
Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.
be what you are (but who?)
be the unthinkable one
you do not know.
O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you
speaking (I do not hear)
to your own being,
speaking by the unknown
that is in you and in themselves.
“I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
world is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?”
Regardless of whether your life seems (or is) quieter these days, that may be besides the point. Deep inner work can happen in boisterous places; spa-like settings are not a pre-requisite. Deep inner listening requires sustained interest and risk. Risk that you might be bored. Risk that nothing may seem to be happening. And even the risk that you might discover that all along, the whole world has secretly been on fire.
In this poem, Merton both lays down a challenge for us (“O be still, while/ you are still alive”) and also gives us space to resist that: (“… all things live around you speaking (I do not hear)”.
Maybe that parenthetical is the voice inside you or me that’s not quite sure what to make of this whole silence bit; it’s Statler and Waldorf hanging over the balcony, offering their hot takes on the value of silence when the whole world’s upside down.
Listening to the stones. Listening to the living walls. Is that for real?
I went down to the studio on Saturday to pick some things up. There were extra tea lights and incense there, as well as some t-shirts there that I thought might make decent fabric for masks (those of you making masks for healthcare workers: PM me if you’re interested in them).
I only needed to take a half a dozen steps into the space before the tears came. I sat on one of the cube chairs in the waiting area and cried for a little bit.
I felt the history of the space, the ways its evolved over the past seven years, the faces of so many of you who have come into and out of the space, I saw the bags of granola on the shelf and the tea station, the shoe bench, the front desk (handcrafted from all of those pieces of barn wood I pulled out of overgrown grass and weeds), the two Ganeshas that Donna brought back from Tibet (one broken, one in tact), no flowers in the vase, and no one else in there but me.
“Do not/ think of what you are/ still less of/ what you may one day be.”
It’s so familiar to me, when I’m sitting at night or in the morning, to be weeding through memories or projections into the future.
“Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?”
They look like simple questions, built as they are with easy-to-read words.
Here are some more easy-to-read words:
Find a comfortable seat. Notice breathing come and go. When it is long, know that it is long; when it is short, know that it is short. Remain fully aware of sitting and breathing. Whatever arises, let it go. If it returns, stay with it, softening.
“…and this is difficult. The whole world is secretly on fire.”
Yes. But aren’t we a part of the whole world?
So what does that make us?
Together with you in practice,
Al Bingham leads PostureTweak and Breathe, Move and Rest classes online at EncourageYoga.com. All classes are $5/class however you’re able to take classes for FREE via Project LOVE. Simply enter the code LOVE at checkout and the class is FREE. Use the code 1x or 100 times. Tell 1 friend about it or tell a 1,000. We’re here to make the benefits of yoga accessible to all during this difficult time. (EncourageYoga.com/ProjectLOVE)