Contemplative Silence As Bodily Practice.

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) - After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) – After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.

Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.

I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).

“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)

I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.

The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.

The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.

Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)

“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)

Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.

Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”

Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.

“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)

9 thoughts on “Contemplative Silence As Bodily Practice.

  1. I confess a weakness for fragments (as well as this topic) and I believe your thinking here has yielded a fine result, though I do empathize with your insomniac struggles. I wish you the best in getting past that.

  2. While reading Clarice Lispector’s The Foreign Legion the other day I came across this interesting passage on silence, which made me think of your post. The passage is from the section of the book entitled ‘Chronicles’, a selection of fragmented bits of prose pulled from her ‘bottom desk drawer’:

    […] to shatter silence into words is one of my awkward ways of loving silence, and it is in this way that I have so often killed what I understand. (Although, thank God, I am more familiar with silence than with words.)

    I found it a somewhat cryptic thought, but it made me consider how much more profound silence can become after is has been broken. That perhaps it is only to be appreciated at its deepest level when we have in fact ‘killed’ it by speaking, which introduces an interesting perspective on the benefits of (at least occasional) sociability.

  3. It’s a wonderful fragment. I particularly like the “thank God”.

    One of my favourite types of silence is sociable silence, truly comforting when with a sympathetic friend, there is sufficient mutual confidence and enjoyment to enable both parties to hold one’s peace. I think Austen used the tern speechless conversation.

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