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The Salve of Silence
What I learned from my fast of words.
There are people who pay exorbitant sums to attend retreats where they’re treated to the soul-expanding experience of monklike silence. Some describe it as a “fast of words,” though I’ve been told it’s also a feast of amazing food—entirely organic and vegan, of course—served in a bucolic atmosphere of healing and spiritual edification. The price tag for a two-week experience can run as high as twenty thousand dollars. And, of course, the participants come back refreshed and enlightened—again, so I’ve been told.
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I was fortunate, in a sense, to have embarked on my own word fast in the autumn of 2015. Yet it began in a disconcerting way. Over time I had felt my voice growing weak. I’d been singing too much, speaking too much, and perhaps because of the thoughtless expenditure of my energy, no longer conscious of the value of my own voice. “I’m always hoarse,” I told my wife. When I called my ear, nose, and throat doc, he said the problem might be caused by gastric reflux irritating my vocal cords. But after I swallowed a small mountain of antacid, my voice only got worse. My ENT then recommended that I see Dr. Reena Gupta, a lovely and talented laryngologist.
Moments after introducing herself, Dr. Gupta snaked a camera-tipped tube slowly, eerily, up into my left nostril. And then, with a strange, dry pain, the tube crept down into the back of my throat. On a large screen, I could see an angry red bump flaring at the edge of my right vocal cord. A “benign hemorrhagic vocal nodule” is how Dr. Gupta described it. “It’s not dangerous,” she said, “but you’ll probably want to treat it.” I was in good company, too. Adele had dealt with the exact same condition, as had John Mayer and Keith Urban.
Dr. Gupta gave me two choices. I could contend with a progressively raspier voice until, at some point, I would no longer have one. Or I could remain totally silent for three weeks before and three weeks after surgery. Six. Straight. Weeks. Even without organic vegan cuisine and the meditative environs of a costly retreat, the choice was easy. I kept my mouth shut. In fact, rather than lose some life-giving force, I learned as much or more during those weeks of silence than at any time in my adult life.
When a Fast Begins Slow
Just two days into my fast of words, the silence was already trying my patience. But after a week, it slowly began to feel, if only for its novelty, like something extraordinary and appealing. Not always wanting the last word, trying to sound clever, or pretending to have all the answers—I slowly made peace with shutting off my voice. Make no mistake; I still had much to say. But because writing—or, worse, pantomiming—can never carry the immediacy of speech, my communication was, by dint of its slowness, deliberate. And I saw value in that deliberation.
It decelerated the pace of life and slowed the way I perceived my surroundings and my inner world. It allowed me to feel a sense of reverence for the universe, something I hadn’t felt so intently since early childhood when reverence is a natural state. And I began to see little cracks forming, cracks I’d filled not only with words but also with some instinctual need to provide them, as though silences were themselves somehow wrong or awkward and needed a corrective measure, more things to say.
Most troubling? The egregious waste of energy I’d spent producing sounds that had little or no reason to exist. Without that, freed from that, all my life rhythms began to change: the tempo at which I approached life descended from a bee-quick allegro to a molasses-slow largo. Seemingly insignificant things gained focus and clarity—the ocher hue of the early morning sky, the mushroom-cap shape of my neighbor’s gardening hat, the musical cadence of the Spanish-language conversation between a woman and her daughter on their way to the bus stop.
As I walked in my neighborhood, I noticed the bright red jackets that two Japanese kids wore. I observed incredible tenderness as the older one extended his hand to his younger brother while they crossed the street. I walked within earshot of an old man and his wife, close enough to hear a mini scene unfold in real-time. He was carrying a canvas sack of groceries and pulled it closer to his chest as she related an unpleasant encounter. “Two-faced,” I heard her say. “You can’t trust her from moment to moment.” The man nodded his head as though he were listening. “Yeah...can’t trust that one.”
Turning inward, I noticed the muddled “conversation” in my mind—if one can call it that—as I continued to walk. So often obscured, like a buzz below static, this tangle of words and images twists relentlessly beneath the surface. I stopped for a moment as I neared home and tried to tune in to it. The disarray of my thoughts as they curdled and spilled into my conscious mind made me aware of how much housecleaning I needed to do up there. Pacing up a slight incline, I tested myself to see how long I could focus on the simple act of walking, even just for two short blocks.
And I failed—though sometimes my concentration bobbed back to the present after several other thoughts had pushed it down. As you might have guessed from your own experience, these intrusive thoughts were random. Disconnected. And almost all unimportant: Oh, look at that bunch of crows. Are they playing, or are they fighting? Is there a reason that guy has his car stereo cranked up so loud? Though utterly scattered and useless, those thoughts taxed my mental energy. Just pulling my attention back to the simple act of walking felt like a tug-of-war. Then these questions tugged at me further:
Why do I so rarely feel settled?
How can I be present in my own life if I’m always looking forward to the next moment or back to an earlier one?
How can I feel a sense of reverence if I’m wrestling with the insane idea that wherever I might find myself a month from now (or even a minute from now) will be better than where I am right this second?
During my fast of words, the fact that I never felt fully in the moment began to trouble me more than usual. I noticed that I could easily lose touch with the present in two toxic ways: obsessing about the future and wallowing in nostalgia. Stripped of the ability to utter even useless, noisy words, I was left naked, vulnerable to the siren song of What Will Be and What Has Been. But my wordless state eventually inspired me to embrace concrete changes in the way I encountered the world. As I neared home, I made a mental list of what I was doing when I felt as though I was living in the present instead of in the future or past. They included
eating a great meal with my family;
having a deep conversation with a friend about philosophical matters for which no definite answers exist;
talking one-on-one with my children;
playing with animals, my African Leopard Tortoise in particular;
performing music onstage; and
For me, the interesting thing wasn’t that the activities on my list were especially rare (in fact, they were all very commonplace). What was interesting was that they were readily accessible. I discovered that what is most valuable to me is almost always within my easy reach. It was interesting to learn that simply walking while “noticing,” as I did on my walk, is a type of reverence, a sort of informal meditation.
According to the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, practicing this high-intensity way of looking at things for just nine minutes a day over the course of ten weeks strengthens the frontal lobe, where decision-making occurs. One could say that much of everything we experience comes from our ability to decide, and that surely includes the decision to bring a greater sense of reverence into our lives. Arguably, our most important decisions—those involving the ability to discern right from wrong, worthy from unworthy—are fundamental to living a life of greater reverence.
Now, here’s an easy and practical exercise to help bring a little reverence into your life.
Spiritual Eye Opener: Present-Jumping Preventer
This SEO helps prevent the tendency to jump ahead (or behind) the present to a somehow “better” moment. And staying in the present helps develop reverence for what’s beyond yourself and beyond the confines of your own mind. Walking allowed me to become aware of the chatter in my head and calm it down because physical activity stimulates the brain in ways that sitting still does not. So I want you to take a walk and discover whether you can experience the same feelings I did.
Before you begin your walk, shut off your cell phone—I mean completely off; don’t just mute the ringer. (Have you noticed how difficult it is to shut off your phone? It’s obvious that the cell phone companies want you to stay connected twenty-four hours a day.) I often shut my phone off when I work because my work requires presence. Paradoxically, this sometimes means falling into a kind of daydream—a kind of meditative half-sleep. And if I know, for example, that very soon someone might be calling me, I’ll be unable to drift off and do some serious imagining. The same holds true for walking and any activity in which you’re cultivating your capacity for reverence.
Then, as you walk, make a mental list of the activities in your life that most anchor you in the present. You need not list them in any special order; just think them through as they arise. Don’t strain after something earth-shattering or profound. Stay with whatever pops up. When you return home, choose one of the items on your list and commit to doing it regularly. For example, if you chose “having dinner with my favorite aunt,” then as soon as possible, call her and make that meal happen. There’s little more important than fostering reverence for your loving relationships.
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