That profound silent experience in Korea still lingered with me twenty-five years later. But it had receded into a dim back corner. I still had the twin stones with the mysterious markings. They sat in the front room of our little cottage, facing the ocean like miniature Easter Island statues, gathering dust. Was I gathering dust? My burning quest to understand silence had all but faded in the busyness of my mid-career.
One day I noticed an old stack of Zen books in my bookcase, a dusty memory half forgotten. What had drawn me to all that? The quest seemed faded into a dead end although I somehow managed to continue the meditation practice.
How far had I gotten on my quest? I could not even say what silence really was, or where it was, or even whether it was an “it”. Was silence just some dreamy metaphor, or an invisible gas floating around? How long had silence been here? Could it disappear? What was the future of silence – for me and ultimately for everyone? How did silence work as a source of wisdom? Had it all but disappeared from my life? Could we lose the ability to experience silence?
OBSTACLES AND WARNING SIGNS
I had never begun a serious investigation of silence.
Professionally, investigating solitude and silence was hardly a promising career direction. The limited government research funding was for studying things like the effects of prison solitary confinement and the effects of isolation in space travel. Trying to quantify silence pretty much missed the point. Having taught inferential statistics to graduate student researchers, I knew the dangers of trying to reduce complex phenomena into numbers,
My own academic field of human development was changing course toward a much stronger emphasis on social dynamics. Optimal healthy human development meant continuous contact with friends and groups, we were taught.
Being quiet or introverted was being seen as a handicap to overcome, not an ability to be encouraged. Silence was so frightening that many would do anything to avoid it. Seeking out silence had personal and psychological hazards. Lone wolves, mass murderers, sociopaths, and hermit “unabombers” were powerful stereotypes in the media. These were people who didn’t socialize. They were just crabby and unfriendly. Silence was pictured as cold, empty and absent of anything worthwhile. Pursuing silence was strange and a bit too mystical.
Stevi and I were excited by our new professional work outside of academia. But a fast paced decade of early morning presentations, deadlines, travel, and our employers’ high expectations pressured us. I missed the more reflective rhythm of teaching graduate school. I was disturbed by my decreasing enthusiasm for teaching and consulting.
I craved a break. I felt a personal hunger. I dreamed of an isolated life in a remote mountain cabin, far from the socially involved life I was leading. It showed. Someone asked Stevi, “How do you live with a hermit?” Even with her loving support, I felt torn and guilty.
How could I even think about walking away from the professional life that Stevi and I built? No one was asking me to go off on some silent path. It could all be a dangerous dead end and waste of time, a negative force in my life and those around me. I found myself stuck in the middle of a metropolis, in the middle of life. If I could just settle down and be quiet maybe I would know what to do.
Something needed to change.
And there it was. Out of the blue, a massive heart attack – a coronary blockage that threatened to shut down my heart at any moment like a time bomb. The doctor called it “the widow-maker”. The open-heart surgery was brutal and there were complications. My slow recovery provided time to think about my craving for silence.
I knew that something earth-shattering had happened in Korea in 1971. But at the time I was too ignorant to comprehend it. I was missing something big. I needed to take a much closer look. What had really happened? Looking at my experience as a case study would provide some perspective and maybe uncover some secrets.
What really happened in Seoul in 1971?
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
- Write about a profound experience that changed your life in a significant and positive way.
- List some of the messages you received about silence when you were young. How has your view of wanting silence changed over the years?
- Write about the most deeply quiet place you’ve ever been in.
- List one thing you would like to change that would begin to bring a better balance between quietness and activity in your life.
- Dag Hammarskjold said “The longest journey of any person is the journey inward.” What do you think or feel about this idea?