poetry, Presence, Uncategorized

Entering a Country of Silence

There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen. ~ Rumi

Looking out my window this morning, I realize that while the weather here on California’s coast is amenable a stiffening cold has settled in across a great portion of the nation. Hundreds of thousands are without power in the US, and more snow is on its way in the next few days. Winter is still very much with us, and for many people in many ways it seems winter has been going on for a long time.

A season for slowing down or even stopping, winter, while it may sometimes be bleak and difficult, can also be a space for going inward–for listening to the silence and for noticing what touches the heart and waits there to be noticed. The natural world is imbued with silence–snow’s heavy quilt in winter, a desert’s dunes, the forest world, vegetables growing in a garden with clouds floating through, rocks strewn along a pathway–the very earth itself. Everything that exists rises out of a space of silence. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything…silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed,” states Gordon Hampton whose work has been to record the earth’s most silent spaces. Maybe this very absence of continuous movement, our being stopped in our tracks, so to speak, is calling us to a place of deeper presence, the stillness itself an opportunity for greater awareness.

We’re living in a period of reduced movement as a result of the pandemic. Fewer of us fly across the world and many of may be driving less often as well. While working at home, it may be that I don’t speak aloud for hours as I read, write or do chores. Outside the window birds flutter at the feeder. At night the tongues of stars speak with a silent, silvered light. All can seem quiet on the surface, nevertheless, I notice that it’s not necessarily true that lack of speech means I’ve entered through a door of silence. My mind likes to jump restlessly from thought to thought as if on a pogo stick. Sometimes I have to go for a walk just to grow quiet. To be fully quiet, to hold one’s entire mind, heart, and body open as if it were a listening ear is challenging. Pablo Neruda in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” writes,

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

During winter things beneath layers of cold or snow can seem dead, but much is going on inside the earth. Inner life is connected to external life. Making plans and setting goals, these are valuable activities but as Neruda suggests, the earth can be our teacher. Ongoing and endless production and activity isn’t necessarily life-giving in the end. Eventually, resources run out. What rests beneath the surface of all our action rises to our awareness because we have finally stopped moving enough to notice it. Silence is integral to growth and shifts of consciousness and understanding. When the huge silence arises, Neruda suggests, we can turn to the earth to teach us how to move out of ourselves into a place of greater connection to life. Like the seasons rotating through the year, we too can create seasons of quiet, letting the leaves from branches of activity drop long enough to allow a quietness to enter and renewal to occur.

Sitting on my front porch in the morning, I hold my cup of tea and quietly observe the day for twenty minutes. This morning while sitting in the coolness, I noticed small buds beginning to appear on the buckeye tree, the rich, the illuminated green of chard and pineapple sage poking up from the garden beds, the nuthatches, chickadees and California scrub jays fluttering at the bird feeder, a gray squirrel scrambling up the pine trunk, thin clouds scudding through overhead. With this gentle entrance to the day, I’m reminded of my connection to a world wider than my concerns or the list of things I might want to accomplish.

The natural world is nonjudgemental, and as a result, nourishing. It can carry us into the place of embodied silence. Larry Ward, in his book, America’s Racial Karma, describes actions that reground the body and “reset the nervous system.” Some of these are looking around the space wherever you are and paying specific attention to what you observe, giving attention to the sounds around you, naming colors you see, and noticing your skin temperature. Ward also suggests purposefully greeting the day by going to a chosen spot out of doors where you feel the earth beneath your feet and the sun on your skin, then doing a slow 360-degree turn, noticing what you feel while listening quietly to the sounds in the world around you. Silence creates a pause in action, a gap inside which we can reground ourselves and grow more aware. These practices can help the mind and body calm and come more readily into stillness so we can enjoy the silence.

Daniel J. O’Leary in Year of the Heart writes, “To learn how to wait, how to be silent, how to befriend the dark…Thus do we prepare to be creative. There is a waiting, a silence and a darkness in all birthing. Heart’s winter is already a filling womb.” Out of silence and stillness a different kind of conversation with life has the possibility of emerging. While waiting for spring to arrive, we can hold a space each day for silence, observing the world with open eyes, listening to the world around us with the ears of our hearts. Entering into a place of silence we can slowly discover a new way of being in the world.

Uncategorized

The Importance of Doing Nothing

photo 1 (10)
Cloudscape, Wildomar, California

In an age of constant movement, nothing is so important as sitting still.“– Pico Iyre

This summer I was taking photos of clouds, fascinated by their shapes, something that is uncommon in Delhi’s skies this time of year where mostly what one sees is a haze hanging in the street from the ongoing air pollution. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a graphic designer from the UK moved to Rome and began noticing clouds in paintings and it made him think he should do something more with clouds. He gave a lecture at an arts festival, and the Cloud Appreciation Society was born. The society post images, poetry and music inspired by clouds, and has a manifesto that essentially declares if we had blue skies every day, it would be monotonous. Clouds are nature’s poetry, expressing mood. Their beauty is overlooked, and contemplating them benefits the soul, the manifesto describes. I’ve got to say, the benefits are certainly enticing.

In his interview with Guy Raz on the TED radio program, Pretor-Pinney explains that gazing at clouds benefits us, and that we should really look up more often. “We need to be reminded that slowing down and being in the present – not thinking about what you’ve got to do and what you should have done, but just being here, letting your imagination lift from the everyday concerns down here and just being in the present. It’s good for you. It’s good for your ideas. It’s good for your creativity. It’s good for your soul.” I imagine staring at clouds does something similar for the mind as going for a walk–it encourages associative thinking and nurtures creativity as a result.

Currently, the air quality at the measuring station across the street of particulate matter in the air at 2.5 is at 253, which causes “significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant increase in respiratory effects in general population,” according to the US embassy air quality data site here in Delhi. It hasn’t been a good day, overall, for cloud viewing, but the idea of finding value in letting the mind wander, allowing it to take a break from thinking about the long list of what needs to get done has got me interested wanting to drift with clouds. Recently, I participated in a guided imagery in which the leader asked people to go in their minds to a place that made them very happy. I went directly to my garden in California, and I visualized myself sitting in the dirt, letting it sift through my fingers. I wasn’t traveling to some fabulous location to dive, wasn’t wandering down a beautiful street in a foreign city or climbing a mountain. I was doing the most mundane thing, doing nothing, really, and was feeling supremely content. What is it about doing nothing that is so satisfying?

photo 2 (8)
Southern California clouds at sunset

It seems I’m not the only one thinking about the need to simply do nothing, Pico Iyer, known for his writing about global citizenship, in his TEDRadio hour interview, also with Guy Raz, “How Can We Find More Time To Be Still,” says he left New York because he was “making a living there, but wasn’t making a life.” What is more satisfying in life, he says, relationships and quiet exploration–the invisible things. Most people live in cities where the pace is intense. Often work place increases its demands. It is the constant speed of everything we do, Iyre suggests, that creates the yearning for the opposite. “…in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.”  The desire, the need, to do nothing is felt by many. Lawton Ursey on the Forbes site talks about Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. He explains that research shows that when not focused on a specific task, the brain becomes more active, “more organized and engaged in idleness.” This is a positive thing. It seems that focusing too hard on getting things done, might actually make us less efficient. Doing nothing, it appears, is underrated.

When we have to make difficult decisions, when we’re under stress, we are actually less able to see the big picture, less able to think clearly and act out of a wiser, balanced position. What can we do to take back our lives from the pressure of obligations and to create more space? Many people are talking about the need to create space in their lives so they can live a reflective life, but how many of us actually do it? We are admonished to find balance, but the structures and systems we live in make that very difficult. Over 200 years ago, Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” It doesn’t seem much has changed in this respect since he penned those lines.

photo (10)When my recent 49 days of purposeful observation ended, the thing I realized is how much I have cramped my life into a corner, and how in need I am of opening up more space for being. My intention was to use the observation time to make more space in my life. Sometimes my “purposeful observation” was literally reduced to a few seconds.  I don’t think anything will open up and change much in my life if I continue to let the pressures of the world around me control my life. I must return to a practice that allows me to learn how to create space, and create life for myself. I suspect most of us can’t move away to a new city right now like Pico Iyre did. If we want more space in our lives to live and move and experience being, perhaps it would help if we could find one simple thing we can begin with where we are, and then start to practice it. For example, I might set a focus for the day, something I am going to purposefully work on, then coming back to it at the end of the day and keeping track of how it went. Something I long for is a sense of spaciousness, so maybe lighting a candle purposefully might be a good focus practice. For others who have a similar need, maybe it is sitting in the doorway sun for 10 minutes in the morning, if you have a house where you can do that, or for others it might be listening to a piece of music with full attention–one small thing to create a crack that will lead to a larger crack in the structure we’ve built that doesn’t makes space for breath, for living the other part of ourselves–our unlived lives, so to speak. Richard Rohr in his article in Sojourners, advocates a daily time of silence. I’m reminded that catholics have a practice of the Examen, and this might be useful for some. We don’t need to do all, be all, have all. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of  E.F. Schumacher’s idea more often, that small is beautiful, as his book title says. It can be enough.

We can be intentional with our time and presence. Creating the conditions for change and then practicing them until they habituate is necessary. All skills take training, even creating space for rest.

photo 1 (11)

Uncategorized

Noise and Silence–Noticing #4

As I walked around this evening, out again with the intent to purposefully notice my surroundings, I became acutely aware of the noise that surrounds me. The neighborhood hums with machinery, electricity’s high pitched whine, and the roar of generators. Even inside the room where I now sit, a machine drones away on the other side of the wall. Even at rest, the world here whirs.

What if this sound took on life in a different form and became color? Imagine what that world would look like, or any world where sound became color, as if synesthesia were possible for a day. What would different things we see become if they were sound? Would we respond to noise differently than we do now?

The way we view a place is, in part, the associations we have with the sound. I will always remember my months at Lincoln College, Oxford for the bells that rang through the city in the evening. I will remember Izmir, Turkey for the peddlers walking down the street calling out “Aygaz,” followed by a dinging bell, and Izmir, again, for the mosque calls ringing through the cannoned walls of apartments in the morning’s early hours like a thousand voices calling out all at once.

photo-38When I return to my home in Santa Cruz, I am always stunned by the purity of the silence at night, in the morning, and how it seems to flood over me like a blessing, my whole body giving itself to a quietness so beautiful, so rare and set aside from other experiences of places I know that it feels I enter into a kind holy space–my whole body sighing in a kind of inner relief.

But of course sound can be more than noise. It can also be beautiful–the voice of the ones we love is always a sound that resonates in our hearts with happiness, and what could be a better antidote to noise than that sound which is like music?

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered Franco Corelli’s voice as I was looking up “Torna a Surriento.” What a magnificent presence his voice has–rich with the intensity and depth of life that wells up from the longing in the soul that opera evokes so well, bringing the listener totally inside the moment of the sound rising from the singer’s body. Here is Corelli singing “O Pase d’ ‘o Sole.”

The noise of the world only makes sound and silence all the more precious.

What do you hear today? What are the sounds around you telling you?