Hesychia – ἡσυχία

I have written about silence a few times in this blog, with poetry (here) and through essays such as this one on contemplative silence (here).

It is a subject that has fascinated me as I try to bring it fully into my life. Intellectualizing runs contrary to that, I know. Yet, my hyper intellect side shall I say, pushes me to inquire and seek inspiration through the words of the wise,

In the above mentioned essay, I speak about silence without effort as explained by the wise Taoist Chang Tzu. His explanation resonates fully with what I instinctively feel is contemplative or inner silence.

The Desert Fathers 

The Desert Fathers are my other inspiration —the very ones who during the first centuries of Christianity grew tired of the notion of martyrdom as a path to salvation, and of the squabbles among the various Christian communities; and who hence decided to retire to the desert. While they spent their time in contemplation, they remained very much in touch with the world, giving teachings often from the height of their columns as with St Simeon Stylites, a 5th c. Syriac Orthodox, and I admit one of my favorite wise men in history.

What many advocated, and what many in the Orthodox Church still do, is: hesychasm.

Hesychasm

It is the practice of hesychia (from the Greek ἡσυχία) which translates as quietness, stillness and silence.

As with many spiritual traditions, silence is inner silence, the one of the tranquility of the heart. In the Orthodox Church, it means quieting the mind by praying from the heart — most often “The Jesus Prayer” (for the ones who have read the soul stirring account of a Russian Monk, “The way of the pilgrim,” you will recognize it).

As I read about the practice of hesychia, I realize its immense practicality and beauty. Quieting our thoughts through prayer. The latter need not be “The Jesus Prayer,” and it can be any invocation that is kindhearted, generous and grateful. The words will help us focus our thoughts and they themselves will eventually fall into silence, as we reach inner tranquility.

This is different from the recitation of mantras where the repetition of fixed syllables stills the mind. With hesychia, words with meaning and filled with good intentions help us attain tranquility by letting light infiltrate our hearts.

Inner silence 

Inner silence is the only way I find to calm my thoughts and actions. Indeed, our thoughts are often scattered especially when we are worried. In social situations, we often speak without having pondered our words and we tend to act without fully weighting the consequences of our actions. Inner silence helps us have a full picture, gives us the ability to take a step back before speaking and acting, and to stop the turbulence that often grips our thoughts.

Of course, simple or guided meditation, watching a beautiful sunset, listening to a delicate piece of music, can also help us reach inner tranquility. Yet often, that tranquility manages to escape as soon as we are faced with a worrying thought or an uncomfortable situation.

Effortless silence amidst a noisy world

Many centuries ago, Chuang Tzu spoke about “wu wei” (無為) or non-action to reach inner tranquility. As I have mentioned previously in this blog, it does not entail idleness; rather, it is allowing things to happen effortlessly. For Chuang Tzu, silence is a natural condition.

Yet, as we become embroiled in thoughts and daily confusions, the art of silence needs to be nurtured because frankly, it would be luring ourselves to believe we can attain inner silence by just remaining still while the world twirls and whirls around us.

I find that the practice of hesychia leads to that effortless tranquility the Tao, Zen and other spiritual Masters all spoke about. It remains one “tool” among others and a beautiful one at that.

So I will end with these simple words:

“The first stage of tranquility consists in silencing the lips when the heart is excited. The second, in silencing the mind when the soul is still excited. The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.” — St. John Climatus, Mount Sinai Monastery (6th-7th c.)

Kenza.

Contemplative silence

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.

Chuang Tzu

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.”

Retreat

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.

Kenza.


Quote: “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton (New Direction, 1965), xiii-I, page 80.