Excerpted from “Spiritual Cross-Training: Searching Through Silence, Stretch, and Song” with permission of the publisher, Grand Harbor Press. Copyright © 2016 by Benjamin Shalva. It is currently available for preorder.
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We spend our days awash in words.
Words are the air we breathe. Cell phones give us conversations during even our most isolated moments. Computer screens illuminate an eternal stream of words, our fingers replying even as our mouths enjoy a rare respite. We don’t have to condemn our verbosity. This is just the human way. Even in the Judeo-Christian story of creation, God constructs the universe with words. God said: Let there be light, and there was light (Gen. 1:3). We can love the word, delighting in something we’ve just read, leaning in close over a drink to get something off our chest. We can love the word.
For many of us, silence feels incredibly uncomfortable. We find ourselves alone, in a quiet spot. We sit down, or remain standing, or walk around. We’re not talking. We’re not listening to anyone else speak. We’re not reading or writing. Maybe we’re outside and it’s a pretty day. Sunshine might be exactly what we thought we wanted—a beautiful, peaceful place to just be for a while, outside in the sun. Yet, after a few minutes, or even a few seconds, we start to feel itchy, edgy. Why? It’s just a little break. Why can’t we sit still and enjoy it? In a world of noise, why does silence feel so arduous?
We experience symptoms of withdrawal in the midst of silence because, whether we admit it or not, we’re addicted to words. The vehicle for the very creation of the universe has become a compulsion. After all, here we sit in a peaceful, quiet setting. No one’s abusing us. We’re not performing some great ascetic feat. Yet we can’t wait to go, to get back to our words, to leave the meadow, to call someone we love and talk their ear off.
Our addiction to words, our discomfort with silence, has everything to do with what we don’t want to see. I first discovered this while attending a college study-abroad program in Tibetan studies. Our semester began in Dharamsala, India, the de facto capital of Tibet’s diaspora, then continued in Kathmandu, another center for Tibetans in exile, and concluded with a month in Tibet.
Dharamsala delighted. Kathmandu enticed. Tibet took the senses and stripped them bare. Tibet was a four-hundred-and-sixty-thousand-square-mile tabula rasa, a wild west with honest-to-God tumbleweeds rolling through the middle of even the busiest streets. On those same streets, Tibetan natives and Chinese immigrants shuffled here and there quietly, stifled, I imagined, as much by the horizonless expanse as China’s totalitarian occupation.
Following a few days of touring in Lhasa, we students piled into a cavalcade of Land Rovers and headed for the mountains. Tibetan porters joined our group as we toured by car. At every stop, they set up a mess tent and cooked our meals. Our program directors had warned us that a few of these porters worked as spies for the Chinese government. Discussions of Chinese-Tibetan politics would need to wait until we returned to Kathmandu.
So began a three-week journey across southern Tibet. We’d bounce along for hours in our Land Rovers, listening to mix tapes to pass the time, stopping to visit isolated villages and abandoned monasteries every few hours. More often than not, when our caravan would halt, we’d emerge from our vehicles in the middle of absolutely nowhere. No buildings. No traffic. No vegetation. No people. Occasionally, a yak or two in the distance.
During one of these pit stops, I caught movement on some low hills a few hundred yards away. A few minutes more, and I realized I was watching a half-dozen Tibetan children, no older than six or seven, walking in our direction. Where they had come from, I don’t know. They soon sidled up to our caravan, dressed in traditional Tibetan garb, faces ruddy, noses running, smiling so sweetly that we emptied our pockets of all candy and sent them running back to the hills, laughing in delight.
On one evening in particular, after spending the day climbing up a steep mountainside, our group reached an abandoned monastery nestled upon a plateau midway up the mountain. Even with porters shouldering most of our provisions, the long climb in thin air had exhausted us. A bunch of guys, myself included, threw our sleeping bags into one of the monastery’s empty buildings. Then, with nothing better to do before dinner, we began to entertain ourselves with a testosterone-fueled chorus of crude jokes and playful insults.
I remember vividly how one member of our boys club refrained from participating in our playful banter. John, silent as always, sat nearby, listening without expression. John made me nervous. He stood a foot taller and a thousand words quieter than the rest of us. When he did speak, John’s words strolled their way from his tongue soft and slow, unconcerned whether they reached an ear or fell to the floor.
John served as our program’s resident pothead. Any time we arrived to a new locale, he located the hash. This search proved easiest in the tourist neighborhoods of Kathmandu, where a few American dollars could buy enough hash to last well beyond one’s travel visa. John appeared to have spent this entire semester blazed and blurry. I felt sorry for him. I enjoyed getting high the way I enjoyed going to the movies; when the movie ended, you went back to your life. You didn’t order another bucket of popcorn, unroll a sleeping bag and make your home in the theater. I looked at John and imagined a suffering soul locked behind that prison of smoke, his quiet demeanor just another symptom of a campaign of avoidance and repression.
In addition to feeling sorry for John, I just didn’t understand him. I grew up in a family of talkers. Proudly verbose, I processed the world with words. Quiet people unnerved me. What were they waiting for? Why didn’t they speak? Did they think they were better than us? Or were they, like the great prophet Moses during his humble beginnings, “slow of speech and tongue,” unfortunate incompetents in our great verbal age?
Not that I enjoyed this makeshift locker room we’d created that first evening in the monastery. Having been on the receiving end of all-male hazing when it devolved from playful to punishing, I hoped this flurry of benign teasing would soon run its course. I felt sorry for John, but I envied him, too. There he sat, vibrating on a different frequency than the rest of us, immune to the verbal exchange I secretly loathed but nevertheless helped to create. A silent stoner I wasn’t, but at that moment, I would have gladly switched places with him. I had begun to suffocate from all these words.
Envy emboldened me. If John wouldn’t come to the party, the party would have to come to him. Following a witty repartee among a few of our peers, I turned to John and said with a giddy grin, “So, John, are you quiet because you have things to say and you don’t say them, or are you quiet because you just have nothing to say?” Everyone fell silent. John looked at me and slowly replied, “If I have something to say, I’ll say it.”
More silence. Then another member of our group said, “Ben, shut the fuck up.” Some chuckles. And that was that. The others moved on. The banter continued. I stayed there for a few minutes more, ashamed but intimating that I had moved on from the uncomfortable exchange. Then I exited the building into the quickly darkening twilight.
I began to walk, following a narrow, rocky path that led out from the monastery grounds. The path dipped down and then around a bend, ending at a magnificent waterfall. I sat down. The water rushed white in front of me, spilling from high above and cascading to far below. Its roar offered a welcome wall of sound, dispelling Tibet’s oppressive silence.
Then, coming into focus against the twilight backdrop, I saw them. Strange, colorful projections swirling around me. One burst into focus and then faded, immediately replaced by the next. Here—the face of my father enraged. There—a childhood memory grown wings and a tail.
These countless demons leaped and danced, each one passing before my eyes. I had never before seen them, never witnessed their dance, yet I knew in my bones that they had been with me for a very, very long time. They were wild and frightening and they were mine.
As they danced, I saw with absolute clarity that virtually everything I said, every word I spoke, came from these demons. Minute by minute, day by day, year by year, they poked me in the ribs, sank their nails deep into my shoulders, stirred my guts, and I, under attack, had been calling out with two decades’ worth of carefully constructed persona, working to make it okay with every word. But it was not okay. My demons lived and breathed and made me sick without me doing a damn thing about it; I was too busy pretending they weren’t there, buoying myself with so many words, babbling enough to distract myself, to ease my pain.
As I watched these demons dance, I recognized how helpless I was to exorcise them. They lurked deep in my psyche, nestled in memory, invisible and inaccessible to my waking mind. I could strike at them, but in my untrained clumsiness I would most likely miss, injuring the best of me with each blow.
No, conventional warfare would not do. Non-violent protest, on the other hand, a concerted campaign of disengagement—that might disturb their cozy habitation. So right then and there, I made a decision. I would not wrestle my demons, but neither would I respond to their provocations. Let them agitate, let them whisper ancient worries, let the anxiety come. I would no longer react. I would just stop listening.
The place to launch my liberation was the word. In the past, when inner demons tickled and teased, I vomited great geysers of words, words I didn’t mean, words I didn’t even understand. I chattered and babbled, the sound of my own voice sedating me enough to feel the fear yet function within a spectrum of normalcy. While I couldn’t stop the demons, I could stop the words. My tongue was my own. What if, like John, I spoke when and only when I honestly had something to say? It might not end the anxiety, but at least my actions, my interface with others, my very voice—these would belong to me.
I stood up. The waterfall roared. It had provided a gift, a vision, a brief peek behind the curtain. Now the work began.
The following morning, I entered the breakfast tent to warm up with a cup of yak’s milk tea. Another equally groggy participant came up to me and said, “Good morning.” I answered back, “Good morning.” Sure enough, I felt a little tickle, a little tug from my gut: Say something. Make conversation. She’ll think you’re weird. Say something! Ben, now! Now! NOW!
That morning, though it took every ounce of strength I could muster, I stood there with my tea and, having nothing to say, remained silent.
I stayed silent for days. If I had something to say, I would say it. I soon discovered, however, that moments of honest, necessary, genuine speech didn’t come often.
Noticing the change, a number of fellow students asked me if everything was alright. “Yes,” I answered, “I’m doing fine. Thank you.” They waited for the next sentence. I wanted to say more. I wanted to detail my waterfall vision and my campaign of silence. Tell them your story, Ben. Then they’ll understand, they’ll still like you and you’ll be okay. I knew my demons hid behind this desire to speak. To share my story was to ask for validation. No. I had made a promise to myself. If it meant being ostracized, so be it. I would not speak unless I had something to say.
A few weeks later, we boarded a plane from Tibet to Nepal, from the mystic moon badlands to sweaty, sticky Shangri-La. Back in Kathmandu, drinking chocolate-banana milkshakes and listening to sitar concerts in the funky tourist bookstore, I walked through a world thick with words. Slowly but surely, words shimmied their way back onto my tongue. In cold, razor-edged Tibet, I had received a vision of my own slavery and had demanded freedom. In the comfort of Kathmandu, however, memories of that demonic dance faded. I no longer examined every verbal impulse. I let the words flow.
We don’t need to travel to Tibet to witness our addiction to words. We don’t need Himalayan waterfalls to introduce us to our demons. I have never returned to Tibet, but I return again and again to silence. I practice silence to see those demons, to prevent them from hiding, to shine a light on what’s really going on inside.
As spiritual cross-trainers, we’ve come to hear God’s voice. We can’t hear God’s voice when we’re talking. We can’t stop talking if we’re addicted to words. We can’t cure our addiction to words if our demons run the show. On a search for God, we first search for these demons. We observe the anxious monologues and the compulsive conversations they provoke. We begin by babbling in the darkness. Then we follow a path of silence to the light.
Author: Benjamin Shalva
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Markus Spiske/Flickr