Into Middling Silence

Things will be quiet on the blog for a while; I’m about to enter into my version of the “great silence”: four days of sitting meditation from whenever I wake up until it’s time to go to bed. I thought I’d try to explain why I do this, since it’s a question I’ve never felt able to answer adequately when people have (quite reasonably) asked.

The school of zen that I study offers lots of arguments for why meditation is a good thing, although at the same time it emphasizes that you shouldn’t do it for any of these reasons — that you should practice without a “gaining idea,” because any agenda you adopt will corrupt your practice. You should sit purely for its own sake, just as you should cook for the sake of cooking and not for the meal to come, and work for the sake of the work rather than the salary or status.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach; it has purity and integrity to it, and it frees a person from dependence on results, which are at least partly outside one’s control. I find it relaxing to do something with no ulterior motive, nothing to be gained or lost, no way to succeed or fail.

It’s also a remarkable experience to step outside time for a few days — no need to look at a clock, no sense of pressure or deadlines or expectations; nowhere to go, nothing to do. Which isn’t to say four days of staring at a wall is easy; it isn’t. I get bored. I get tired. Knees hurt. Back hurts. Parts of my body I’ve never heard from before hurt.

But the stillness and solitude let me experience what I think and feel when left to my own devices, without distraction or influence. So I’m reminded who I am in a fundamental way. It also brings home, again and again, moment after moment, the unsettling truth that our experience of our lives is completely conditioned by our minds. Depending what I think about and how I think about it, I’ll feel joyful or sad, frustrated or angry. For four days, nothing is happening — I’m sitting facing a wall. That’s it. So anything I experience is my full responsibility; there’s no blaming anyone else! And how many rich and colorful experiences parade through my mind and body over the hours: memories, fantasies, reflections, daydreams — all with their attendant emotions, as intense as any I experience “in real life”.

The insight that enticed me into zen practice was a simple one: I realized that stress I perceived as being imposed on me by external events arose entirely from my approach to them. I wondered how many other things in life were like this? Seventeen years and countless hours of wall gazing later, I’d say most are. There are ways to think about the world that compound the natural suffering of life, and there are ways that mitigate it. Being able to choose between them is the most important kind of freedom.

So there’s an argument for “silence and slow time,” as John Keats called it. And I could claim that’s my reason for sitting; it sounds pretty persuasive, at least in this moment, having just written it. This is the explanation I’d give if I were speaking about meditation as a zen priest. And I don’t doubt meditation’s potential to spring us free of our self-forged chains, especially if we don’t pursue it with that goal, or any goal.

But I suspect my real motive is simpler. It sounds flimsy as a reason, and I don’t think it helps anyone else meditate, so I usually keep it to myself. But the truth is, I like it. Scratch that. I love it, for reasons I don’t understand any better today than the day I began. But that’s all right. Where there’s love, who needs reasons?

Back in a bit.


5 thoughts on “Into Middling Silence

  1. That’s a really good question, about the tension between choosing how to view things and being authentic. I’ll think and write more about it. But for now I’ll just ask if you saw the movie A Beautiful Mind, about the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash? There’s a scene at the end where someone asks him whether he’s still having visions of people who don’t exist. He looks to the side and does in fact see his old imaginary friends, then turns back and says something like, “I’ve learned that all our dreams and nightmares depend for their existence on how much energy we give them.”

    So it’s not a matter of repressing or denying how we feel (which would be inauthentic), but of distinguishing which thoughts and emotions are worthy of nourishing with our attention and energy. And the criterion for deciding is whether their effects on ourselves and others are helpful or destructive.

    Does this make sense?

  2. It’s interesting to read about why you meditate and some of the reasons behind it in Zen practice. I’d be curious to hear more (in some future post) how realizing that our minds very much condition our experience of the world may have (or not) shaped how you approach your everyday life. I often find it frustrating to be stressed, anxious, irritated about something and to know that a lot of this is in my head (and that I could be chosing to approach it in a different way). But then I struggle with whether that different way would be authentic to me. I have found that being aware of how much stress is internally generated has helped me to acknowledge the stress/ anxiety/ whatever and then ride it out, thinking about how I probably won’t feel better tonight, but I might feel better tomorrow.

    I hope your meditation goes well — I’ll be thinking of you!

    • Glad to hear Mimi takes after her auntie, at least in one way 🙂

      Talk to you when I get back from the quiet place!

      Love back,


  3. Enjoy!

    Plus a (hopefully) relevant share: today, Katy and I were in the kitchen while Joe was getting ready to blend a smoothie. All of a sudden, Katy took off running (“skeddadle” is what she calls it) down the hallway to her room. When she didnt come back after a bit, we went back to find her.

    She said: “Mimi ran to the quiet place.”

    I love that she thinks of her room as a sanctuary, a quiet place.

    And that she seeks quiet.

    And that she DID something about avoiding the blender noise that she didnt want to hear instead of standing in the kitchen covering her ears or complaining or whatever.

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