On a damp Thursday afternoon in March, 2007, Great Silence suddenly appeared at 209 W. Houston St. in lower Manhattan. What a cataclysmic day it would turn out to be!
Stevi and I had gone to the Film Forum, more known for its edgy, avant-garde movies. We entered the dimly lit sunken movie theater. A full house of men and women in drab hooded sweatshirts and exercise clothes sat quietly, anticipating what was about to happen. Here, just below the surface of a busy street, was a gathering of fellow travelers.
The heavy gray mists of the high French Alps filled the screen and blanketed the theater in quietness. A massive stone-covered reservoir of deep silence slowly came into view – The Grande Chartreuse Monastery. For a thousand years this has been home for monks living in silence, following the everyday rhythms of life, the seasons of the year and the hours of the day. Here are the sounds best heard in quietness – creaking ancient wooden floors, ringing bells. Gregorian Chant flows through the candle lit space in the late night hours of the Great Silence.
A hooded monk sits quietly in a distant tiny room warmed by a small wood stove. The windows are set deeply into the thick gray granite walls. Alpine winds roar under the silent canopy of a billion stars. In the theater we dwell in the enchanting stillness of simple everyday life.
The film is titled Into Great Silence (1) and is acclaimed at cinematic festivals world wide including the Sundance Film Festival. (2)
This film is the culmination of a twenty-one year quest of a young German filmmaker, Philip Gröning. (3) When Gröning was twenty-five years old he wrote a letter to the Catholic Carthusian Order which operates the Monastery. He proposed making a film about life in the Monastery. He wanted to capture the experience of Great Silence. There would be no background music or narrative in the film to distract from the pure silence.
The Carthusians didn’t jump at the idea. But they did agree to contemplate his request. And sixteen years later they approved it.
Gröning was an explorer into Great Silence. He lived in the Monastery. For six months he discreetly filmed in this place of interior silence.
But when he returned home he was in for a shock. Despite years of meticulous planning for the film, he discovered that he could not edit it. It kept falling apart. He struggled for two years trying to find a solution, but finally he reached an impasse. It was the same obstacle that has challenged all the great silent explorers communicating the experience of silence. Finally he gave up. He began removing everything that seemed unessential and then let the film arrange itself, follow its own path.
The film evolved into a contemplative masterpiece. For two hours, we, in the theater, lived the enduring deep silence of the mountain monastery. Encountering Great Silence in the Manhattan theater was like discovering a vast hidden world barely beneath the surface.
What happened next was earthshaking. Stepping out of the theater onto Houston Street was like walking into a medieval madhouse.
As people walked hurriedly down the street they smiled intently into their hands as if a friendly god resided there. They kept tapping at their palms like chickens pecking for grain. I blinked my eyes and realized that this odd behavior had, almost overnight, become normal. They were just using their hand-held “devices”. It was all a reflection of something very new.
THE END OF SILENCE
MOVING FROM THE DEEP QUIET of the monastery to the cacophony of Houston Street was a collision of realities. It wasn’t just the everyday chaotic bombardment of horns, lights, booming radios. Something very big and radically different was happening. We had entered the Age of the Internet.
Almost overnight the Internet had become a major force, an unprecedented development entering our global consciousness. In 2013 some 3.1 billion people in all corners of the globe were using the Internet. (4) This phenomenon was having a dramatic influence on our everyday lives, bringing with it new possibilities as well as dangers. We are rushing headlong into a new paradigm with little understanding of its unintended consequences.
There is less time to be really alone. Moments of aloneness, by the ocean or on the mountaintop are the most powerful experience many of us have. It is said that we are most ourselves when no one is watching. The word “alone” originates from the Gaelic term meaning “all-one”. Sensing and sustaining this “all-oneness” is easily overpowered by external and internal noise.
What little silence we do have is often uncomfortable. Recent research shows that many people become uncomfortable being alone in room after only 6-13 minutes. (5) Many of us live alone and yet we are surrounded by more and more people. One out of seven Americans (thirty-one million) now lives alone, eight times the number who lived alone in 1950. In Manhattan and Washington, DC, single person households account for almost half of the total.
A continuing long-term worldwide trend toward urbanization has placed the majority of the world’s people into urban rather than agricultural settings. Three-fourths of all North Americans are now urbanites. Even inside our homes, many people spend hours daily interacting on social media.
Our attention spans have dropped from an average of twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015 according to a study in Canada by Microsoft. It is noted that the average goldfish can concentrate for nine seconds, researchers say.(6)
Existential psychologist Rollo May, in his classic 1969 book, Love and Will, foresaw the consequences of the constant barrage of modern technology. He predicted that the interior life would be uprooted precisely because external stimuli are so relentless. The constant distraction and interruption has diminished our ability to maintain an internal focus. Losing our attention while texting has become a major source of traffic crashes. We have entered an age of scattered attention.
TODAY OUR INTERNAL GEOGRAPHIES are experiencing a rapid climate change. External silence has already pretty much disappeared from our daily experience. Our inner space is now being crowded out. Silence and alone time have become scarce new luxuries. And all the while, our brains and nervous systems are constantly “rewiring” in response to these dramatic psychological climate changes.
It is alarming to realize that we are increasingly losing control of our own attention. It is being redirected elsewhere. Getting us to focus on consumer products is a highly competitive and lucrative big business.
Sound imposes a narrative on you – it’s always someone else’s narrative. (7) We are being pulled away from ourselves, losing access to our inner selves, as Rollo May noted. (8) Our inner lights are going out, the door is closing, and we are losing the keys to our inner selves. There is simply less time and opportunity to be introspective and thoughtful. Silence is a portal to our inner being. Our interiors are vanishing and we are being forced to live more on the surface.
The human ability to be introspective sparked our evolution. The Silent Source nourishes and recharges. Our silence is a fuel, a tool, and a laboratory for growth. This is true for each of us, individually, and for all of us collectively. Will a lack of silence have a long range dampening and limiting effect on human development and evolution? Will our ability to sense silence become atrophied as Rainer Rilke has predicted. Will we become automatons with no interior selves? (9)
“Human beings need space in which to grow – this is especially true for inner growth. The process of human development is a series of stages in which the individual can gradually become inwardly grounded – from reliance on the external to being sustained and motivated from within.
Silence plays a crucial role in this process of creating the kind of space that is congenial for inner growth.” (10)
Three new products, Facebook, the iPhone, and Android are introduced in that year of 2007. It is all just beginning.
Is this ancient Silent Path suddenly approaching a dead end? The ultimate mystery and challenge of silence is becoming clearer. How can we live monastically in this new world?
Some answers would come from an unexpected source.
The constant barrage relentlessly uproots the interior life.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
● Use your journal to describe the first few steps in a plan to give more time to activities that nurture you.
● Try limiting the amount to time you spend using the internet over the next 24 hours. Write a description of your experience of what it is like to be off-line.
● Daniel Berrigan said “The time will come when the pursuit of contemplation will be a subversive activity.” Write about what that means to you.
(1)Philip Groning (2007) Into Great Silence https://amzn.to/2CdxUMq
(2)Graphic c/o Flixster, Inc., 208 Utah St, 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103, email@example.com
(1984) Born April 7, 1959 in Düsseldorf.
(4)“How-many-people-use-the-internet-in-the-world”, 2013, http://papre.com/how-many-people-use-the-internet-in-the-world-totally-country-level-data-included/ (2013 papre.com).
(5)New York Times 7/27/2015.
(6)Colgrass,Neal, (2015) “Our attention span now worse than goldfish’s…” Newser EDT May 14, 2015. http://www.ksdk.com/story/life/2015/05/14/attention-span-worse-goldfish/27315053/
(7)Prochnik, George (2011) In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise p. 13 quoting Adam Cvijanovic. https://amzn.to/2yjB7aq
(8)May. Rollo, (2007) Love & Will https://amzn.to/2pT1Iqo
(9)Deresiewicz, William (2009) “The End of Solitude”, Chronicles of Higher Education, Jan 30, 2009.
(10)Bonsaint, Romeo J., SC (2009) “Silence and Transcendent Presence” Formative Spirituality,
March 2009, p 3.
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD