For the ones who have been following this blog, you may have noted that many writings are on silence.
Reading expressions of silence
Recently, I have been looking a little bit more into it, beyond the usual poetry and expressions of silence.
I read from the Desert Fathers, those wise early Christians who spent time in utter silence and contemplation. I looked into Zen poetry, and the silence that comes gently once the temple bells quiet. I even delved into the notion of the 40 holy days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and Jesus fasting in the desert; and through them at St Francis, Sta Teresa de Avilla and St John of the Cross –not that I aspire to be a saint, mind you, but just as celebrated events and writing about contemplative silence. I read the Sufis, especially Rumi and Ibn Arabi; and I looked at what contemporary thinkers and poets had to say from Emily Dickinson to Rabindranath Tagore to Antonio Machado to Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz.
And as usual, I turned my attention to the Tao Te Ching, a book I read every morning and where I still discover, after many decades, wisdom and intellectual sustenance. This of course, led me to the late third century BC Chinese Taoist philosopher par excellence, Chuang Tzu. And here, I finally found what resonated best with my line of thought or at least what felt in harmony with my instinctive notion of contemplative silence.
In a few words, not to bore you, Chuang Tzu advocates silence as a natural condition. He places it along with all human behaviour within the notion of “wu wei” (無為) or non-action.
“Wu wei” is not idleness. Rather, it means that there is no deliberate planning and one acts spontaneously without rigid rules or restrictions; and because one acts naturally, it is “perfect action,” that is “perfect joy.”
Being in contemplation is not a goal and does not entail a rigid system of rules (kneel, stay alone, etc…); rather, true contemplation is the tranquillity that comes in the action of non-action (known in Chinese as “yin ning”). So one transcends contemplation and action because one is beyond them, all being spontaneous.
To explain further, allow me to paraphrase an example given by Chuang Tzu himself. He says it is a little like wearing tight shoes to impose discipline (a Confucian notion). The shoes are tight so you think about them all the time. As a result, you are forced to walk straight or be generous or whatever these tight shoes are suppose to make you do. Now, if you wear comfortable shoes, you actually do not “feel” the shoes and whatever action you will take will be with joy.
To get back to the topic of these lines, silence should not be forced. If so, then it is not silence. If there is a plan for remaining silent, then silence will not be. It would be like having tight shoes and constantly thinking about them.
There would never be contemplative silence since it will become the constant topic of thought, analysis and internal discourse. These thoughts and discourses will lead to having opinions, to evaluations of good and bad, and right and wrong, and all will become entangled and inharmonious, hence, unnatural.
So silence, and more precisely contemplative silence, should be spontaneous and lively. It should not be dictated by rigid norms nor by some attachment to the fact that one wants to remain silent.
Contemplative silence transcends the very act of “not talking.” It is spontaneous and hence joyful.
As Chuang Tzu said:
“The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
not because he wills to be quiet.”
I hope you do not mind me sharing these thoughts. Next week, I shall be in a one-week silent (talking only when absolutely necessary) retreat at a Cistercian Monastery near Avignon, France; and in the midst of anxiousness and trepidation, I needed to understand more about contemplative silence.
I am afraid however that I have fallen into what Chuang Tzu warns us not to do –intellectualise. Notwithstanding, I am glad that my instinctive take on contemplative silence echoes in a very humble way the dust left by his words.
I shall share some more upon my return if you are interested.
Thank you for reading.
Quote: “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton (New Direction, 1965), xiii-I, page 80.