Golden Silence: Be Still and Know More
The wave of democracy protests sweeping the Middle East is pretty riveting stuff, I'll grant you, but the story that captured my attention this week was news of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' remarkable silence.
According to last Sunday's New York Times, when the Supreme Court returns from midwinter break to hear a pair of cases this Tuesday, Justice Thomas will mark a most unusual anniversary, one probably observed in cloaked silence:
It will be exactly five years since he last spoke during a court argument.
"If he is true to form," wrote Adam Liptak, "he will spend the argument as he always does: leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his eyes, whispering to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored. He will ask no questions."
As Liptak notes, no justice in 40 years has gone a full term - much less five - without speaking at least once during arguments.
Thomas' epic silence, he adds, stands in contrast to his reputation as a reportedly gregarious fellow in private. The justice himself has given various reasons for his historic silence during oral arguments. They range from lingering self-consciousness arising from his rural South Georgia dialect to the general gabbiness of his fellow colleagues on the bench - an inability, as it were, to get a word in edgewise.
Over a 20-year period that ended in 2008, according to The Times, fellow justices on the bench peppered lawyers presenting cases with an average of 133 questions per hour, up from roughly 100 during the decade and a half prior to that.
That's a lot of lawyers and judges all speaking at once, reminding me of a famous Georgia judge who once confided to me that he sometimes looked out at the "braying jackasses" who wandered into his courtroom and had to "resist the urge to tell them all to get the hell out before I lock up everyone and throw away the key."
A little like a Zen monk, Judge Thomas just sits and listens from his lofty bench, bless his heart, says nothing. Perhaps preparing his shopping list and pondering legal arguments all at once, he somehow makes up his mind about the life-altering cases before him.
The Productive Hours
A man of understanding remains silent, says Proverbs 11. In an age in which everyone from the poorest revolutionary armed with a cell phone on the streets of Cairo to a contestant on "American Idol" clamoring to be heard, I find anyone who can keep silent for more than a few minutes - especially in the public arena - to be nothing short of an inspiration.
True silence, what the sages of every faith tradition regard as the beginning point of understanding the divine, seems to be an endangered species. "Our chattering is so loud it can be heard to the depths of the universe," notes the scientist-philosopher James Lovelock.
And yet, as I get along in years, I find myself increasingly craving stillness at the heart of things, the Tao of non-dual silence that connects every creature and thing, a welcome pool of quiet at beginning of my day.
On a typical morning, I'm at my writing desk before 5 a.m., with a small candle burning and a fresh cup of French roast in hand. The house is so quiet I can hear the dog sigh in her sleep downstairs. This may be far more than you'd care to know, but I say a quick prayer of thank you to God for the bounties and people I probably don't deserve and invite the ancient muse of writing to come sit for a spell while the coffee is still warm.
Sometimes, regardless of season or weather, I open the little window by my keyboard just to listen to the lovely silence of dawn, an act that connects me to this wider universe in more ways than I can name. If I listen closely, I always here a world awakening in the darkness, motion from down below, a tomcat returning from his big night out, a songbird just stretching her drowsy wings.
Far and away, these are the most productive three hours of my life.
The Spell Breaks
I hail, for better or worse, from a race of early-risers who found their bearings in the quiet before the sunrise. This past year, I tapped out a 500-page book in these divinely quiet hours, though I can't yet tell if it's even halfway good. Only time and fate and a kindly editor will tell for sure.
The point is, by the time I'm showered and dressed and heading out the door to the office, my candle is extinguished and the muse has fled and the spell is broken and I'm part of an ever-moving shuffle of the world where sound and fury are constant through the white background noise of passing cars and blaring radios, distant sirens, barking dogs, backfiring delivery trucks, a neighbor's slamming door, a day already on the full and ambitious gallop.
Fortunately, I have my crazy friend, Seattle Tom, to remind me that silence is golden - and perhaps, like enlightenment or a stable Belgian government, forever elusive.
Tom, who once spent a year in a mental institution, calls me on a regular basis from the crazy streets of Seattle. He's homeless or at least living on the street by choice, staying in fleabag hotels and mingling with "the truly liberated inhabitants of the world," as he affectionately calls the street people he travels among.
Every so often, almost always at the busiest part of my work day, Tom phones from the ether to talk about everything and nothing, always in a rushing torrent of words. He's the closest thing I know to either a true mystic or true madman. I love listening to his rants because he's brilliant, tortured, ecstatic, full of challenging ideas, a wildman chasing eternity, a guy holding up a mirror to the conventional life I've chosen and demanding, "Why?"
"I just met Jesus at the Last Supper Club," he quips. "Or maybe it was his twin from Oz. This place really is Emerald City, you know."
Like a modern-day Elijah, Tom always has a fabulous revelation. He's in love with a woman who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, or just met the man who invented Teflon, or recently had a beer with Joe Montana, or has signed up to be the first Seattle street person to participate in a secret NASA mission to Mars.
"Always remember the words of Lao-Tzu," Tom said to me many years ago, and still often likes to remind me as we wind up our liberating and largely one-way conversations. "He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know."
"So which guy are you?" I like to ask, gently needling my friend who is out walking on the windy fringe of life. There but for the grace of God or my own social inhibitions go I.
Tom hoots. "Hey, pal, I'm out here trying not to talk my head off. But enlightenment ain't easy! There's so much to learn, to see, to feel! You gotta figure it out!"
Closer to God
Quite honestly, perhaps like Judge Thomas on his high silent bench, I find that there are days when I'm so worn down by daily shoptalk, office debate, planning sessions, idle village-pump gossip and general lunch chatter I actually wonder if Tom isn't the saner man. Part of me would love to try to spend six months - or just six nonwriting hours - being perfectly silent and staring at the simple splendor of, say, a grove of pecan trees.
I love the way pecan trees look in every season, and Plato said God resides in groves of trees. Sadly, I'm not sure I could actually pull it off.
Another buddy - also named Tom, a mystic of a very different sort from Pinehurst - goes away for a month of silent reflection every January, fasts and reads, takes long daily walks and meditates, returns home 15 pounds thinner, unshaven, and seemingly much happier with the world, or at least himself, than when he left town just after the holidays.
"My wife loves it when I go away," he is quick to say. "And likes me even better when I come back."
Of course, this is a dude who spent time in the same monastery where Thomas Merton lived and wrote, "We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves."
The first few days of a spiritual silent retreat "can be kind of tough," Pinehurst Tom explains. "You're suddenly sitting there faced with a day, a week, a month in which you have nothing to do except think - 'Holy cow, how will I fill up all this time?' It can be uncomfortable at first, even daunting. We're not exactly programmed by society to do this, to stop, do nothing, just be. But eventually it drives you deep down into yourself, into the silence where we all really exist. If I didn't do this every year, I don't know how I would make it through the rest of the year."
Emerson, this Tom reminds me, preferred the silence of the empty church before the preaching began - felt that it brought him much closer to God. The same Lao-Tzu that Seattle Tom likes to quote supposedly observed there are no things in the world until there are words to name them. The names, therefore, do not come from the thing, but from the silence that precedes the act of naming them.
"The Taoist insight here is not that we are literally the creators of our own worlds," writes James Carse in "Breakfast at the Victory," his wonderful book about mysticism in everyday life. "It is that using language, we create distinctions where none exist."
I think of this sometimes when I look up from my early-morning writing sessions and see my dog Mulligan silently watching me. Aristotle described a human being as an animal simply endowed with speech, but I am certain Mulligan has splendid speech and no doubt a very fine vocabulary.
Perhaps like Judge Thomas on his bench, she merely prefers to keep mum for the time being. A dog who understands her noisy human, after all, always remains silent.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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