How To Be, In Silence

Dalai Lama at Thomas Merton's grave. Photo by Jim Forest, Flickr

The social world, for all of its fundamental gifts — love, empathy, the lessons arguing provides — obscures the whole self, allowing each of us to mute what is harder to absorb about ourselves in a din of habit and distraction. When an artist breaks through that din, which seems to grow ever louder, she reflects solitude’s crisis: the challenge of being, unmasked.

“I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation,” the composer John Cage wrote in 1948, while he was still formulating a solution that would eventually lead to his famous innovation of writing music with no notes at all. In 1949, the most famous monk of the last century — Thomas Merton — lamented that even cloistered religious people had become too conscious of what their renunciations might do, keeping silence as a form of payback for all the clatter in the world, instead of accessing the real self that was no self, that couldn’t show off by fasting or rising at midnight to sing. In 1961, as part of a dialogue with the Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Merton found it necessary to remind the era’s many spiritual seekers that Paradise, if not Heaven, was a place on earth that could only be achieved by ceasing the constant reactivity that had become the human condition, “the emptiness and purity of heart which had belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden,” where they sought “paradise within themselves, or rather above and beyond themselves.” This was the same goal the secular pilgrim Cheryl Strayed sought when she walked 1100 miles alone up the Pacific Crest Trail in 1994. She found liberation from self while lost above the treeline, shouting into silence she ultimately couldn’t affect, realizing, was she wrote in her memoir, “Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself. The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

Ann Powers, writing for NPR about how musicians confront solitude. Her piece uses recent albums by Kendrick Lamar and Sufjan Stevens as a lens to explore the subject.

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