Interior and Exterior

A friend of mine was party to a conversation among several folks committed to the spiritual life. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who these folks are, except for my friend who told the tale. Apparently, the subject of silence came up. Everyone agreed that silence was essential to living a contemplative life. But then, something interesting happened. One person said, “I just don’t turn on my television any more.” Another chimed in, “That’s right. My grandson gave me an MP3 player and I’ve never even used it.” More such comments followed. No TV, no stereo, no MP3, no computer, no nothing. Just… silence.

My friend said she reached the point where she was about to scream.

Sure, the thought of people engaged in contemplative spirituality trying to one-up each other (“I live a more silent life than you do!”) is amusing enough. But I think what really got my friend’s proverbial goat was the fact that everyone was focusing on the externality of silence. It was as if contemplation could be simply measured by the average decibel level in one’s environment. The fewer noisemakers, the more spiritually advanced we are.

Now, I cannot fully fault my friend’s friends, not only because I wasn’t there but also because it seems to me that this is an all-too-human foible. We continually confuse the interior state of our souls with the external realities in our lives. We assume that impoverished people are naturally more holy than wealthy people, when in fact it is possible that someone could be homeless and imprisoned in their passions and addictions, while another person with a vast fortune at their disposal is quietly and humbly trying to help others and live a life wholly ordered to love. Catholicism teaches that a person having committed a serious sin must seek sacramental reconciliation before participating in the eucharistic feast, but this way of thinking excludes from Communion the person who is truly sorry for their sins but for whatever reason is not able (or, simply, feels too ashamed) to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation, while it enables the one who is capable of pretending to be sorry (without true repentance) to go through the motions and avoid any true interior conversion. We can pass judgment on such a person all we want, but the other, truly sorry, person remains unfed.

And so it is with the disciplines of the contemplative life. Does turning off the electronic gadgets in our lives help to foster silence? I believe so. But we do well to remember that exterior silence is valuable only insofar as it serves interior silence. In other words, the true measure of our spiritual growth is the attention we pay to simply allowing inner silence to flourish — regardless of how noisy our environment may be. Spending time in a quiet room while passively entertaining the chatter of the mind is not any more contemplative than listening to rock and roll. Meanwhile, if beautiful music, or an interesting film, or some other “noisy” activity can help us to grow in grace and in appreciation of the beauty of life, such activities can complement contemplation beautifully. For that matter, there’s no reason why contemplatives cannot dance. Indeed, to paraphrase Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your contemplation!”

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Shadwynn

    Considering the “whirling dervishes” in Islamic mystical tradition, I would say that dancing and contemplation can go very well together.

  • Cammie Novara

    “Sure, the thought of people engaged in contemplative spirituality trying to one-up each other (“I live a more silent life than you do!”) is amusing enough. ” Truer words you won’t find on the internet.

  • Phil S.

    All too often I find that my situation requires that I be in a cacophonous environment. Sometimes even external silence can be deafening in its own way. I find that I sometimes contemplate better when I have some peaceful music feeding my auditory senses. There are particular songs that allow me to better focus on God and the relationship I so long to cultivate. The best ones are those that bring me into God’s presence and then remind me of my being God’s creation. I have been diagnosed as being an adult with ADD, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think that has something to do with my practices. Still, annually, I make a weekend silent retreat at the Demontreville Retreat House in Minnesota and it makes a huge difference in my spiritual life.

  • al jordan

    Michael Dowd, in his book “Thank God for Evolution,” proposes an interesting thought that relates, albeit obliquely, to your post for the day. It relates to meditation practice, which I usually associate with stillness and silence, both external and interior. He uses speaking in tongues (i.e. glossolalia) as a form of meditation since it decentralizes the self and stops the monkey mind and incessant conceptual thought. He doesn’t claim any special meaning or sense to the speaking in tongues other than the fact that it accomplishes the above and provides a way to disconnect from discursive thought. I’ve tried it and it’s sort of like chanting but with nonsense words. It can be very restful to the mind and helpful to staying centered and still.

  • The Pollinatrix

    This is great!

    I’m a single mother who works several jobs, mostly at home, and I have three teenagers and a toddler. Plus, I live on a busy street corner, so external silence is not something I get a lot of. When it does come, usually late at night, it’s a much appreciated gift, but learning to find my own silence in the midst of the noise – in fact, learning not to hear it as “noise” – is one of the most powerful spiritual practices I’ve known.

  • Ali

    On the other hand…. speaking as someone who hasn’t watched television in about five years, it’s becoming eerily easy for me to tell who watches television and who doesn’t, merely through the course of a conversation. Not because of pop culture references, but because those who don’t watch television almost always have a more grounded and coherent thought process going on, whereas (from my perspective) folks who do watch television – especially a lot of television – become increasingly haphazard, unfocused and circular in their thinking.

    Music and computer use may be different (I still use both, so it’s hard for me to know first hand), but I really do think television as a technology drastically impedes our ability to find that interior silence. The intentional use of loud noises and flashing images disorients the mind and kicks the fight-or-flight instincts into high gear. This is why television watching is often so addictive; the physiological response of our physical bodies compels us to watch, feeling too threatened and bewildered to look away. The effect is like a roller-coaster for the mind and emotions, except it can last hours at a time. Add to this the constant interruption of ads designed with the best techniques of propaganda and emotional manipulation, and the fact that most TV-show writers assume that audiences will be “multiasking” or just playing the television in the background for some comforting noise. What you end up with is a whole lot of incoherence provoking your monkey-mind into a constant nervous chatter that can be especially difficult to turn off.

    It’s hard to believe, but looking back to the years before I gave up television I can see how much more centered and grounded I am now, and how drastically television really does shape our interior landscapes (it was only after giving up television that the real depth and subtly of that interior landscape even really came into focus for me). One-up-manship aside, I have to side with the anonymous friends on this point. Music can be soulful and fulfilling, and moderate computer use can serve as a connection to others (though both can devolve into noise and distraction if overdone)…. but I can’t think of one good thing about television, and I haven’t missed it even once since turning the boob-tube off.

  • Carl McColman

    Ali, are you familiar with the work of Jerry Mander? You might enjoy his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (first published in 1978).

    I watch virtually no American-made television, just as I listen to very little angry music. I do watch some British and Canadian programming, which I find to be much more literary and socially conscious than what American broadcasters are pumping out. Perhaps my perspective is shaped (and limited) by my own self-discipline. You raise a good point.

  • Frank DeMarco

    I wasn’t there at that conversation either, of course, but I do wonder if your friend has the only possible interpretation of people’s motives. Maybe they were indeed one-upping each other, but it sounds to me like they were also expressing their preference for less reliance upon external stimuli, not merely for less noise. And this is surely to the good.
    BTW my experience agrees with Ali’s, above. I haven’t watched television regularly since 1964, and not at all (with occasional interruptions at someone else’s house) for more years than I can count. Not only can I tell who watches television, I can tell when an opinion or a concern is not actually theirs but is a reflection of what they have seen on TV. (I don’t mean to claim that I can tell infallibly, only that there is a very noticeable difference.) I don’t think the internet will have a similar effect, though only time will tell, because it’s much more interactive rather than hypnotic.