A few years ago while packing up my Chicago apartment, boxes howling open in every room, I wedged a pair of headphones into the cartilage of my ears and queued up audiobook after audiobook. It was a perilous discovery as it turns out, all that hands-free roaming about the place, wrapping up breakables while immersed in another novel (a whole lot of Neil Gaiman just then). I was already an ardent podcast-listener while commuting or cooking, so now nearly all my reading was sonic and nearly every minute of my day a multi-tasked event. Habitually, consumptively, I groped for recorded words to fill the air, the void.
But months later, unpacked and shifting about a rented desk in Western Massachusetts, I was soon confronted by a series of writers, one-after-the-other, urging me to be quiet. Julia Cameron, in her classic text The Artist’s Way: The Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, demands silence regardless of the discomfort it produces. Thich Nhat Hanh quietly counseled that I sit still. Even Pico Iyer, the travel writer, was suggesting I learn to stay home. “This is one of our fears of quiet,” the writer Wayne Muller offers in Sabbath: Finding Rest and Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, a book a mentor and friend had suggested I pick up following my move, that “if we stop and listen we will hear this emptiness…. If we are terrified of what we will find when we rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving.”
It turns out that sitting in silence with my own self makes for uncomfortable, awkward hours of company. I like myself a lot less than I thought. Slowly though, I tried to better sit with the given day, tried to hear the room around me and make space for whatever thought might slide through the door unbidden. And I turned back to the physicality of book-reading, taking more careful time with fewer titles and more space between.
Through that study door, a number of teachers have walked, including now Pablo d’Ors, whose Biography of Silence, a “brief, testimonial essay,” wastes not a word on the matter. “It is not just silence that is curative,” the Catholic priest and Zen practitioner writes, “but stillness as well.” Through silent meditation, d’Ors records that he has gained a sense of proportion to the struggles and drama of his life: “In meditation, we place each thing in its place and we discover what our place is: a place that we certainly despised and branded contemptible before the practice of silence in stillness; but also a place that, once seen, one does not wish to abandon.” This place, for d’Ors, is the interior promised land.
Widely read in Spain in 2010 and now translated into English by David Shook, Biography of Silence (Parallax Press, 2018) is told in forty-nine short reflections on silence as “the frame and context” that has permitted d’Ors to make his deep interior pilgrimage. While the first phase of silence is one of enchantment (“Finally, silence!”), d’Ors cautions that the second one displays a “more arid face: the desert.” It is there in discomfort—praying in the desert—that naked truths are revealed. And “what matters most,” d’Ors writes, “is what silence has to tell us.”
He is candid about the resistance—of body and of mind—that he felt initially and which turned out to be a more general resistance to life. For d’Ors, the discovery of extended silent meditation is that “true life is located behind what we call life.” He counsels that to get a good, honest look at ourselves, we need to approach our own consciousness from an oblique, lateral angle. Rational thought (“the hackneyed path of analysis” in Shook’s adroit translation) will not save us from ourselves. Instead, in meditation, one encounters what d’Ors calls “the witness” —“the (authentic) I who looks at the other (false) I.” “Later, quite a bit later,” d’Ors urges, “what we can call the witness of the witness will begin to appear—this someone—perhaps God—looks at the I that I look at.”
All of this suggests, worryingly, like quite a bit of added work and time and energy, but d’Ors is adamant that “both art and meditation are born from surrendering, not from effort.” “Love is the same,” he says, “Effort puts will and reason to work; surrendering, in contrast, employs freedom and intuition.” The act of surrender opens us to our essential and collective interdependence, lessening the impulse to divide up our own lives or to attempt to control the lives of others: “There is not I and world,” d’Ors writes movingly, “world and I are one same, sole thing.”
Countering the belief, “sustained by those who have not meditated or have done so very little,” that the practice is self-absorbed and does not serve to help others, d’Ors challenges the “ideology of altruism” that has crept into both Western Christianity and atheist humanism: “In Zen Buddhism, by contrast, it appears to be very clear that the best way to help others is by being oneself.”
The poet Christian Wiman offers a similar comment in My Bright Abyss, his lyric memoir of coming to Christian faith. “How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us,” he writes. “The din is too great to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name.”
These are loud times. The cruelty is intentional and explicit. The will to power naked in its regressive malevolence. For d’Ors the inner turn to quiet, to preserving a still center at the heart of our day-to-day lives is a radical act that empowers by a fusion of deep attentiveness and a refusal to be undone. In so doing, the interior pilgrim learns, “The world is not a cake that I have to eat. The other is not an object for me to use. The Earth is not a planet made for me to exploit.” Instead, the truth, whispered throughout Biography of Silence, is that “I am you, that you are me, and that we are all one.”
 Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest and Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 50.
 Pablo d’Ors, Biography of Silence (2010), Trans. David Shook, (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2018), 21.
 Ibid, 58.
 Ibid, 98.
 Ibid, 19.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 98.
 Ibid, 42-43.
 Ibid, 31.
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 86, emphasis in original.
 d’Ors, Biography of Silence, 101.
 Ibid, 31.
Geoff Martin currently lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His recent lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming with The Drum, Boulevard, Slag Glass City, and The Common: A Modern Sense of Place, Find him at www.geoff-martin.comand @gmartin9.
Hey, did you miss this sneak peek of Issue No. 51: Consume?
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