Silence in the Midst

Sermon given by Joanna Fortna, July 8, 2018

I don’t know about you, but these days I find myself craving silence.  In the midst of the din of distractions, disturbing news, and the daily noisiness of our on-the-go, accessible culture, I seek silence. Of course I love many sounds: music, birdsong, the voice of my granddaughter or other loved ones, but I yearn for silence.  I love the waves breaking on the shore and the cry of the gulls, yet, I long for silence.   

For as the poet Wendell Berry says in one of his Sabbath poems, “The mind that comes to rest is tended/in ways that it cannot intend.”  It seems that bringing the mind to rest is what I am seeking, and silence provides the space to do that. I need that quiet to help me make sense of things in a world that by design, puts me in sensory overload. 

Although it seems quaint now, there was time in my lifetime, and in most of yours, that Sunday by design, was really set aside as a Sabbath.  Even those who had no religious connection to a day of rest could benefit from a designated day when commerce was shut down. Banks and most businesses were closed, so people were inclined to slow down and do more quiet things at home.  Now, we are left to create our own boundaries around time and distractions; we must find ways to slow down, despite the pressure to do otherwise, to bring our minds to rest. 

In his book, Silence in the Age of Noise, Norwegian author Erling Kagge, writes about his own fascination with silence.  He says, “Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious.   A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.  Or to put it in more ordinary terms, as a deeper form of experiencing life than just turning on the TV to watch the news, again.” I believe him when he says that silence can be a key to unlock new ways of thinking, as I have experienced it. Yet I struggle these days to “find the stillness.” I go through periodic news blackout periods when I don’t read the paper, listen to news or check my all-too-accessible phone.  These intentional periods help me gain some distance and get back to my better self.  I have begun to set limits around the radio when I am in the car by myself, one of the few times when silence can be built in, yet, oh how tempting it is to turn on the radio, and then, inevitably I hear one disturbing bit of news, and there I am back in my sea of feelings and all too often in my own reactivity I am yelling back at the news, not my best thinking mind. 

What I am referring to are the external circumstances for silence that Erling Kagge, who has spent his life as an explorer going to extreme places in the world, knows more deeply than the rest of us.  In 1993 he walked solo to the South Pole in Antarctica, and describes the continent to the be the most profoundly silent of anywhere in the world.  Just for a moment let’s pause and let our imaginations go to the south pole. What would that silence feel like? Would you want to stay or would you long for the noise of modern day life? Setting aside the extreme effects of cold and loneliness, I sense that I might find that Antarctic silence both awesome and terrifying.  

Erling Kagge, with his grand adventures at both poles and at the top of Everest, still had to returned to regular life in Norway, living in the city of Oslo.  He too had to face the challenge of living in the noisy world of modern life, to find the silence in less dramatic ways and consistent ways.  As a result, he has explored the inner world through meditation and self-hypnosis. He says, “I no longer try to create absolute silence around me.  The silence that I am after is the silence within. “

And this is the crux of the matter.  I am always grateful for any opportunity to experience the external silence to help me become grounded.  The shared moments of silence in our church service, a quiet walk in the woods with a companion, the intentional practice of sitting meditation all play a part.  This church has long provided space for a meditation group for people in the community who wished to practice meditation in Sangha, the pali word for community in the language of the Buddha.  In fact, for several years we had two groups meeting, one on Sunday evening and another on Monday.  Occasionally I would hear from others who had joined one or both of the groups; I would hear about how the experience helped them live their lives more calmly, but truth to tell, I had the feeling I might get bored or restless, sitting still, silently.   

My preference was to join a group that had a curriculum or a book to read and ponder.   I love to work with words and to explore texts that help me to ponder meaning and purpose. So offer me a class and I will do my best to be there, particularly if I get to read a book and then talk about it with others.   This is still true for me, but when facing a scary medical diagnosis five years ago, I knew I had to find different ways to take care of myself. At that point, I joined the Sunday night meditation group and soon after, I found myself going to the Monday night group as well. Instead of being bored, I discovered a whole new experience of being in this world.  I began to learn how to find the silence inside of myself not only with the group, but more importantly, to become mindful in all aspects of life.  I also learned that the community we have formed has a powerful effect even when I am travelling. 

In February, I attended a teachers’ conference out of state, and discovered, to my chagrin, that our teachers’ organization was sharing the same hotel and conference center with a political action group that I strongly oppose.  In these days of polarized politics, that translated to extreme discomfort.  I found myself walking down hallways, face to face with people who stood for policies and positions that I found unbearable.  Any person wearing the telltale nametags and lanyards for that political group became the “other,” and I was lost in an overwhelming cascade of negative emotions, aversions and reactivity. My school had sent me to attend and present at teachers’ conference, but all I wanted to do was skip the whole event and fly home. Instead of focusing on learning new things about teaching I was focused on how to survive in what felt like a hostile environment in the hotel.  To say the least, I had to tap into my most profound coping skills.  Of course I connected with my family and asked them to send me good vibes. I also tried to write out some disjointed thoughts in my journal. 

As I made my mental checklist, figuring out how I was going to deal with my emotions for the 3 1/2 days that I was there, I thought about our UU meditation group.  In my imagination, I was sitting with the group meditating, calmly finding my center.  I quickly sent a text to Betsy Robertson, our meditation leader and asked for help.  I asked her to do a metta, a loving kindness meditation for me and for all the people I was coexisting with in the building. 

Here is an example of a loving kindness meditation, starting with the person and then extending to another

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.

May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.

 I began to work on finding the stillness within, a stillness that allowed me to calm down at least for some of the time I was there. I needed to soften my view of the “other,” and at the same time feel safe.  Pulling on what I had learned about breathing and staying present with my experiences, I realized that I would be able to withstand the situation, and by the end of the conference I did reach out to one of the folks wearing the nametag for the other group and at least exchanged a few pleasantries.

For those of you who know me well, it took me several weeks to recover after returning home. If I had known ahead of time that we would be sharing the hotel with this other group I would have cancelled, but unwittingly I was there.  It was decidedly draining to keep my equilibrium, but still, I am grateful for the connections I had with the meditation group.  I felt the presence of my fellow meditators when I was in distress. Finding the stillness inside myself helped me cope, and gave me the moment by moment strategy for being there.  

Returning to the story I told during the time for all ages, the princess was vexed and annoyed because she stubbed her toe, a minor mishap to which she responded as if the whole kingdom needed to be covered in leather, so it would never happen again.  I found this story in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book called Coming to our Senses. Zinn, who has written and spoken extensively about the topic of mindfulness, likens the princess’ out-of-proportion response to our own flood of emotions that can occur when we encounter sensory information that triggers a negative response.  He says that mindfulness serves as our shoes, “protecting us from the consequences of our own habits of emotional reaction.” In that moment of contact “we are free from harm, free from all conceptualizing, and from all vestiges of clinging.” While the experience at the hotel was intense and provocative I still could use the shoes of mindfulness practice to help me navigate a challenging situation.   And for that I am grateful.

Let us hear again the words of Wendell Berry’s poem that Bo read earlier.

I go among the trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me come
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me
and the of fear of me leaves it. 
It sings, and I hear the song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight. 
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor, 
Mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

So be it.