An article about Pauline Oliveros (https://www.autostraddle.com/staying-sane-while-staying-connected-with-pauline-oliveross-queer-lineage-of-deep-listening/) reminded me to listen. I’ve been binging Netflix, podcasts, Borbetomagus and the Petrol Girls, and forgot to sit with “silence” and hear all the sounds there – neighbor hammering, distant motors, truck backing up, wind, siren, car door, house settling, cat snoring in sunbeam, electric heat humming, cat eating crunchy food, my ankles cracking as I shift, refrigerator humming, my breathing, cats tussling on sofa, cat sneeze, cats grooming each other, cricket, unidentifiable clicking…
Deep listening is one way to meditate, which is a fine thing to do, no matter how rapidly the world is going to hell in a handbasket on any given day. I’m firmly convinced that we are all rooted in the Sacred, and we would be fully aware of that if we weren’t being constantly distracted by the collective screams of Babylon in our ears 24/7. I take the story in Genesis about Adam and Eve falling from grace and being kicked out of Eden as being more about the rise of “civilization” (aka “Babylon”) than about the tragic consequences of eating a magic apple (Elizabeth Reames has some interesting thoughts on that story – https://www.blessedarethefeminists.com/listen-now/episode-28-a-conversation-with-elizabeth-reames) Reconnecting with the Sacred (the etymology of “religion” is disputed, but some sources trace it to “re-“, Latin “again”, and “ligare”, Latin “connect”, hence “reconnection”), may take on many forms and involve many practices, but just sitting quietly is cheap, and is recommended by all religious traditions.
Note that I described just sitting as “cheap”. I almost said “cheap and easy” because I really like it when things are both of those, but I stopped myself because just sitting is actually not as easy as it should be – not at first, at least. It gets easier with practice. (Aside – I also like it when things are “quick and dirty”. One of the many phrases that I coined is “quick and dirty wins the race”.) Here’s another phrase that seems like it should be inserted here somewhere, even though I didn’t coin it – “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”, Blaise Pascal. Whenever I encounter big, blanket statements like that, I assume that they aren’t true, but may refer to some aspect of truth. In this case, the “all” is absolutely warranted.
Imagine a spiritually advanced person.
Most people, if they performed the above exercise, would think of a bearded sage on a mountain in the Himalayas. That is the automatic go-to for spiritually advanced people. What do those sages do? That’s right, they sit quietly.
We are told a little about Jesus’ prayers, but really just a little. He prayed at Gethsemane (Mark, 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46 and Matthew 26:36-56, though how the Gospel writers would know what Jesus said, when He was alone, is not explained), but He was apparently alone longer than it would take to speak the words attributed to Him, since Peter, James and John couldn’t stay awake while He was alone – He said “one hour” (in Matthew), but I don’t think that should be taken as a literal hour. I suspect that our Redeemer was just sitting quietly for some of that time, though not in a relaxed way – we’re told He prayed so hard the sweat stood out on His forehead like drops of blood (Luke). There’s also the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness (Matthew, Mark and Luke – you can look it up), during which He exchanged a few words with the Tempter, but otherwise, apparently, was just hanging out. There are many images of this scene, all of which portray Jesus just sitting there. Here’s one –
I like this one because He looks contemplative, but not sad. Many of the other images that I found googling “jesus in the wilderness” had Jesus looking pretty morose, which prob’ly reflects the artist’s attitude about solitude more than anything else. I have to assume that Jesus was totally fine with being alone with God – and away from people – for a while, based on the fact that He was at one with God to the point of being God, and on His occasional expressions of annoyance with the people around Him. So, I picture Jesus in the wilderness about like this, calm, serene, relaxed, sitting quietly. (Though He most likely had a slightly darker complexion than that.)
Why, though? What is so great about sitting quietly? Why is this activity engaged in by spiritual seekers in all of the world’s faith traditions? (All that I know of – which is many, but there may be some that I’m shockingly ignorant of.) I’m gonna go right ahead and do that really annoying thing that religiosos do when they can’t explain something, which is fall back to the some-things-transcend-words position because it’s true. Also redundant – when something is described as “transcendent”, words are among the things that it transcends. (In my former career as a cook, I invented a meal which I titled “Transzendentale”: 2 eggs over easy, sauerkraut, siracha, between two buttermilk pancakes, topped with butter and maple syrup.) (You’re welcome.)
If you try sitting quietly, and I have no reason to suspect you will, the first thing that will happen is you will think of some reason why you should do something else. You, me and everyone we know has been conditioned to believe that we “should” be useful and productive every fuggin’ minute of every fuggin’ day, by people who did not have our best interests at heart. Certainly, one may benefit from engaging in activity from time to time, and more importantly, one may be of benefit to others, but being active all the time must needs result in pointless activity at best. We are driven by our conditioning to clean things that aren’t dirty, buy things we don’t want and come up with elaborate explanations for our lack of constant happiness. Beneath all that, there is the nasty little shit we call the “ego”, which wants to believe that it is important, that its actions have meaning, whether they do or not. Here, I can tell you one of the benefits of sitting quietly: you’ll figure out that nothing really changes when you aren’t involved. Seriously – you can sit there and do nothing for an hour and it won’t have any effect on the world whatsoever. Actually, the world didn’t even notice that you were not running around doing stuff for a little while.
There’s an election happening in a couple days, which a lotta people want us to believe is the most important election in our lifetimes. They say that every four years. The truth is that you can vote or not and it won’t matter at all. Your vote has absolutely zero effect on the outcome. You can literally sit quietly in a room instead of voting and it won’t change anything.
The realization that your actions are quite inconsequential is unbelievably liberating. I worked on that for twenty years and wasn’t able to fully grasp it until it was given to me by the Holy Spirit. Don’t worry that realizing how meaningless your actions are will lead to despair – despair is actually a form of frustration which is based on the belief that your actions should have some consequence, which is false. If you really get it, the result is a sense of limitless freedom.
Something exists which does have meaning. Up to here, I coulda been arguing for Buddhism, but I departed from the Tathagata when I asserted that meaning does exist. I am willing to make that assertion because there are things that are meaningful to me. What is the source – or Source – of that meaning? For me, the answer is the Source of meaning is the Source of all things, which I refer to as “God” and which I relate to in the style of the twenty-first century Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because that’s what I was instructed to do.
I did not choose to be an ELCA Christian – I was drafted. (John 15:16) I do not do anything, but things are done through me. (John 5:30) I got nothin’ to worry about. (Matthew 6:34) It’s a pretty sweet life.
I do stuff, of course, but I don’t have to attach any meaning to it. Other people seem to think that it’s somehow admirable that I work with the homeless. Piffle. I show up to work because it’s my job. That’s all there is to it. It’s the most meaningful job I ever had, and it pays my bills – including my mortgage, which is sorta like ironic – but it ain’t like I’m totally jazzed up everyday about working with homeless people, many of whom are right irritating. It’s the job I was given, so I do it.
I wish I could give other people what I’ve got. It would solve a lotta problems. But I can’t and that’s okay too because it ain’t my responsibility. But if you are interested, I suggest you start by sitting quietly for a while. You could think about some bit of verse -poetry, song or Bible, whatever – or focus on your breathing, or just listen to all the sounds that are in the “silence” – that’s the one I do. It really doesn’t matter what’s happening inside your head.
One more thing – many folks in various traditions had the idea that going to sleep while sitting quietly was a thing to be avoided. I wholeheartedly disagree.