Monday, February 28, 2011

a time to keep sience and a time to speak

So writes the author of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures, a remarkable philosopher who invites his hearers to ask themselves, 'what is the shape and purpose of my life?' It's an invitation to put first things first.

In chapter 3 there are a list of 'times' including 'a time to keep silence and a time to speak' v 7. Keeping silence as surrender, as listening and as making space to reflect on what shapes our society and the powerful forces that allow only certain voices to be heard. These are voices that uphold the status quo.

One of the silences that must be broken is those who are silenced through violence and I am thinking especially of women experiencing violence in their homes as well as those adults that experienced violence, spiritual or mental assualt during vulnerable childhood years.

I remember a few years ago working with a woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a teenager in her foster home.  As we worked towards her talking to the police I took her out in her imagination another 10 years in the future. Her voice changed and became deeper and more confident and she shared with me what had happened in her life since speaking to the police. When we came back to the present her voice changed back to being hardly able to speak. Such silencing under the bondage of shame and secrecy is life destroying and life denying but she had found courage to go to the police and find her voice.

Philosophers of Silence create space for individuals to find their authentic voice and claim their place within the community.  The fruit of true silence is human flourishing and abundance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

sayings on silence

Here is short apothegmata on silence from Merton.

"It is not speaking that breaks our silence

but our unceasing anxiety to be heard."

Thomas Merton broke his silence to bring weighty and prophetic words.  His diagnoses strikes for me a chord of truth: Am a speaking from abundance, generososity and a desire to 'bless' or do I speak out of my fears, envy or sense of self importence?

Sadly those of us who have been or are ordained in a religious tradition often speak from habit or because we have unconsciously absorbed the message that holding an office gives us an authority to offer our opinion and be an expert on all matter of subjects.

As Thomas a Kempis somewhere points out, 'its only the one who has learnt to be silence who has the right to speak'

Monday, February 21, 2011

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

To discover the pre Socratic philosophers of the ancient Mediterranean region is both exciting and frustrating. Here are people who begin to step back from 'bios', from life as they had received it with every phenomena attributed to the gods or to magic. They think for themselves, questioning and looking for patterns and a natural explanation. They are like Thales, able to predict, measure and reason out solutions and they look within as they question what it might mean to be human. They practice silence and solitude, sharpening their senses and practicing an internal dialogue. One common metaphor that in one form or another runs from Pythagoras to the Roman Stoics is that of the philosopher being an observer at the market or gymnasium and therefore being able to draw conclusions rather than  be caught up in the emotional thrill of the herd. There is a frustration to a study of the pre Socratics as so much we would love to read has gone probably for ever. We have fragments and anecdote to draw upon.

Heraclitus is one such enigmatic figure living from around 544 BCE to 484 BCE in the city of Ephesus, the city of the goddess Artemis. His writings on paradox, the flow of never ending change, the cycling of the universe between fires, the necessity of strife and tension to reveal the Logos or word, and the unity of opposites have been profounding influential for many philosophers and challenge us today.

Heraclitus is called the weeping philosopher or the obscure or dark philosopher encase his aphorisms and perhaps because of his character. Here was a man who chose not to value status or reputation. If indeed we live in a world of flux where a sense and belief that everything is permanent is the greatest illusion of them all it follows that either we will live fearfully grasping and grieving, or resigned to our fate or with a sense of joyful transience. Reason becomes the still centre of insight.

The Penguin Classics, 'Early Greek Philosophy' Edited by Jonathan Barnes is excellent but I also have also discovered 'Fragments' translated by the poet Brooks Haxton and published by Viking with a supurb and thought provoking foreward by James Hillman. This has the Greek and the English on opposite pages.

There is a single word aphorism 'ake' which means silence, lulling and healing. Amid the flux we can choose to be mindful and still. Like the moment after the exhalation we can rest knowing that our body is still active before the wave of the inhalation enters our body.

Practicing silence and solitude, creating a reputation as a misanthopic person, choosing the dryness of thought in a city awash, we may guess with emotion and centred around the goddess of love, may have been Heraclitus choosing to let his life be a witness.  By difficult and dark aphoristic languaging he was perhaps choosing a prophetic stance stepping away from herd thinking and behaving. Is that such a bad thing we may wonder? I like to think that he was not just a misanthropic person but chose that identity as a deliberate philosopher's cloak.

'ake' may be a watchword, a motto, the stone of silence we carry with us, as we choose not to speak, or be people of few words in our own obsessive, chatty, facebook world.

Ake may bring us to an inner centre of intense stillness, healing and peacefulness, a still calm cool in which the light of the stars of truth are reflected. Everything is in tension, constant movement but a mind that flows with transience wisely is able to see more clearly and with precision. As Heraclitus observes.

"The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known" ( p 31 Haxton )

Friday, February 18, 2011

Vistas of Silence

Bridges often serve as an icon for a city.  few years ago I walked the famous Brooklyn bridge into Manhatten and a conference in Sydney afforded me the opportunity to make a slow run across the bridge and back again. It was a warm, windless day of high humidity and in the light of dusk tourists lingered with cameras and flying foxes, (fruit bats) flapped slowly across the water. far below the Opera House was lit by the rays of the setting sun as a full moon brought a new perspective as light faded. Far below green ferries from circular quay carved arabesque characters with their wakes on grey green waters as they reversed in and out of the harbour.

Sydney Harbour bridge has been an icon for the city since it was completed during the depression years of the 1930s and I was enthralled to listen to a friend who was there at the opening standing on an orange box to see the festivities. It's a vast modernist construction of steel and sand stone and like the beam of an ancient temple gate it welcomes nautical pilgrims. Running on walking the bridge offers views of the steel work and vistas of land left behind and opening views of the land being approached as well as the ever moving water beneath.

Bridges are places of trysts and sometimes of suicide, targets during wartime and often in medieval times a hermit or priest would guard the bridge and travellers might stop briefly for a prayer. Even to secular people bridges often have a liminal sacred sense about them. they are everyday pathways for commuters and often the backdrop for special occasions. many are design statements, engineered for strength and flexibility, a sign of permanence often making implicit or explicit statements about the hopes and beliefs of their communities, playful yet serving a utilitarian purpose.

Silence too offers a vista allowing those who make the journey to see how landscapes of human thought and belief are interconnected. Practitioners are separate from yet participants in the flux and flow of life. The well worn exercises that permit us to enter deep and vivid silence are strong yet flexible constructions suspending us between speech and sound. Our practice must be strong enough to bear the storms of emotion and our hopes and griefs, yet flexible enough to carry the load of our inner journey. Like any bridge the practice of stillness and silence requires constant maintenance to protect it from the 'rusts' of a noisy and distracted world.

Silence is a view and a vista, it carries our everyday commute through the day as well as being a journey to be taken for sheer enjoyment or for the purpose of a spiritual tryst with other people in a zen group, a Quaker meeting or prayer before the monstrance in a Catholic church.

The raft is not the shore as Buddhists remind us, and silence will often take us to a new awareness, an unfolding truth, even a painful internal confrontation with oneself. Silence is a bridge, a view and a vista.

Changing the subject, one of the strangest bridges in the world is the Newport transporter and I am pleased to hear it has been saved from the scrap heap. I remember my father taking me on that bridge which moved us across the muddy Usk river in Wales.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Silence Sounding

It was written of one of the early Christian hermits Abba Agathon, who went into the deserts of Egypt to search for what is real amid the delusions of what passes for civilisation, that he kept a stone in his mouth for several years until he learnt to be silent. This may or may not be true but it carries a metaphorical implication of dedication to external silence and to the silence of the mind. If this seems remarkable to us today it was not so for the ancient philosophers many of whom practised silence as a 'spiritual' discipline. Philosophy today seems to be focussed on ideas whereas until absorbed or supressed by Christianity, many forms of ancient western philosophy employed practical exercises to embed learning and to close what we today call the 'knowing/doing gap' This blog will explore some of these ideas, review books on silence and philosophy, give notice of Meditation Days and Retreats, and share some of my experiences of 'sounding the silence'. I often carry a small pebble in my pocket as a reminder to listen carefully and enter into the silence which is always there to be experienced.