“Staying silent is like cleaning. You need to sweep away everything that makes a noise in your life. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years…and I still haven’t finished.”
-Zep, A Strange And Beautiful Sound
I’ve been wondering about this one. At the end of the book, the monk we’ve been following doesn’t find silence: he finds “a strange and beautiful sound.”
Still, I think there’s something to the cleaning he describes. I’ve been trying to practice stopping lately. It’s harder than I often think. I’ve been trying to practice quiet—trying to let go of the whir and noise I’m so often broadcasting in my head. “Go do this,” “make sure you look like that,” “prove yourself.” Where am I when those sounds go still?
Years and years ago, a senior at Amherst College and freaking out because I had no idea “what to do with my future,” I talked to a man named B. Alan Wallace. I wanted him to tell me which path was best. He didn’t. Instead he gave me some of the most important, most unexpected advice I’ve ever gotten—advice I’ve written about before. After that, in the end of our Skype call, we looked through our screens to the different skies (which were also the same sky) behind each other. He was in Thailand, I was in Massachusetts. The sun was going down, the sun was coming up. “Beautiful symmetry,” he said.
I don’t think it’s either the beauty or the symmetry that was important. It was the quiet that let him see both: it was the stillness he invited me into. When I trained in Aikido, we would sweep the mat before and after every class. At first I tried to do it quickly, dramatically: tried to show my mastery with the broom or something like that. Then I saw an older student sweeping. They did it quietly, carefully. They were sweeping the mat, but they were also sweeping their way toward somewhere. Into something. Into stillness, maybe, although in that stillness there was also movement. The broom. Their steps. The sun, coming up, going down, as the world spins.
I keep trying to go toward noise. I keep thinking it’s noise that will help me hear something. I’m probably still a beginner sweeper, but that’s okay. It’s okay that, even though I’ve often felt quiet and lost in these last strange weeks, I’m having to practice letting myself get quiet. It’s like cleaning. I’m not finished yet. It takes time to go still, time to move into what is. I keep turning on TV or picking up my phone, as though more noise will help me listen. It might be silence, instead, where we learn to hear this strange and beautiful sound. It might take time, it might take practice. It might take cleaning. And that’s okay.