God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Rarely – perhaps never! – are we left alone to enjoy silence and serenity in our world. Today's globally accepted truth is: you need to speed up, accelerate, accumulate and produce more – otherwise you will find yourself on the margins of History. If you want to keep up with the times, it's essential to be noticed, ideally approved, by social media, by TV, by your mates on all kinds of social platforms. As a movie character said: “If you are not on social media, consider yourself dead”. But what do we know of an unpopular, almost opposite state of being – a meditative presence, silence, simply slowing down?
I know what I am talking about – I am researching philosophers online and while typing this article am half-listening to music in the background, answering my phone and texting, responding to my co-workers, occasionally focusing on an otherwise-monotonous TV broadcast on the wall facing me, annoyed by high-pitched sirens outside, and notified by my laundry pinging to tell me – it is ready.
My brain keeps spinning around – SLOW-MOVEMENT-IDEAS?
The Slow Movement
The sound of voices: “Is it possible in today’s superfast world to live slow? Would I be able to keep my job? Does being ‘slow’ mean low efficiency, low effectiveness?” “It is a cultural taboo that we’ve erected against slowing down.” “‘Slow’ is a dirty word in our culture. It’s a byword for ‘lazy,’ ‘slacker,’ for being somebody who gives up. It’s actually synonymous with being stupid.”
In order to master progressive changes in life, we have to rediscover slowness, reflection and togetherness, the trinity that some philosophers of the culture called “Slow Movement” are advocating for. They stand for a cultural shift toward a slower pace of life. Starting with growing local organic food, respecting local communities and believing in deep philosophical teachings about the value of time and slowness in human relations.
It all started with a very touching story, that of Italian journalist Carlo Petrini. He vehemently disliked McDonalds fast food, and by standing in protest against the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Piazza di Spagna, Rome in 1986, he sparked the creation of the slow food movement. Over time, this has developed into a subculture in other areas, such as the Cittaslow organization for "slow cities". The epithet "slow" subsequently came to be applied to various activities and aspects of culture, growing into something bigger than was initially envisioned.
Advocating for "slowness in human relations," the Slow Movement speaks to a respect for local culture, as well as advocating for slower, more natural rhythms, as opposed to the ultra-fast, digital, and mechanically measured pace of a technocratic society, which cultural critic Neil Postman called "technopoly". The Slow Movement ideology is about embracing slow thought. This philosophy represents a way of life that we are sacrificing to an evanescent future from an unsecured, impracticable present whose main characteristic is speed.
“Thinking, like life, is never complete, it is a possibility that never exhausts itself,” Giorgio Agamben wrote. “Life here is a possibility, a potentiality that never exhausts itself in biographical facts and events, since it has no object other than itself. It is an absolute immanence that nevertheless moves and lives.”
Slow Movement philosophy concepts arose in opposition to a high-speed life, where people seemingly devolve into brainless followers, easily targeted and manipulated consumers that are conditioned to never be able to satisfy their endless desires. This mindless speeding is truly hell’s meditation, embracing the “poverty of time”, and the lack of quality and richness in that existence.
The Silence of the Soul
Hieromonk Isaak Syrian, well-known in Russia for his saintly, spiritual life would describe silence, contemplation and immediacy of presence as an ideal state for a monk. “The silence of the soul is one of the mysteries of the coming age.” He said. The goal of such contemplation is to detach oneself from life’s thoughtless rhythms and achieve freedom from attachments. And the flip side of this coin would be a reunion with inner power, with your inner God.
That sort of contemplation is a doorway to focused attention on in-the-moment transcendence. It raises self-awareness to a degree that gives you the power to focus deeply on inner processes, thoughts and emotions, which otherwise would be swept into the garbage can of the subconscious.
A contemplative practice triggers what is called “awakening your inner observer”. Aristotle said that contemplation is known both as the highest form of activity, and also the most continuous, because we are capable of continuous contemplation more than any other practical activity. So, it is doing everything and nothing all at the same time.
Silencing your brain is a complicated practice, one that many spiritual teachings have described as an opportunity to free your Sacred Self – a release from the always-on basic survival instincts, the ego-oriented mind.
Tibetan monks, Buddhist teachers, black monks in Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholic monks – all those who achieve true spiritual clarity and power emphasize this interesting phenomenon of the human psyche, the ability to transcend to a higher level of realization and understanding of the human condition by entering a state of absolute silence.
The virtue of silence was placed on a par with faith itself in many spiritual practices. Andrew March, in the book Silence, The Still Small Voice of God, declared that the tradition of the doctrine of silence goes as far as the Psalms, and attributes to David: “I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse; my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue”.
The Tibetan monk Khenpo Pema Wangdak contrasted Sound vs Silence by the following: “Sound is all about ideas. Silence, however, takes you to the next level. If you want to put your ideas into practice, then you need to let silence takes over. If I’m talking about the taste of chocolate, my words will give you an idea, but they will not give you the experience. Saying the word chocolate might make you think about it, but only unwrapping the package and placing the candy in your mouth will bring the “aha” moment of satisfaction. Say the word “sweet” and nothing happens. The word sweet isn’t sweet. The experience is when you eat. “
Symeon the New Theologian, a Byzantine Christian monk and poet famous for his teachings stated that every human can experience theoria – the contemplation or direct envisioning of God. He would say that in order to achieve that advanced experience, one needs to distance oneself from the noise of the world: “For as vain life is the cause of darkness and, as a result, apostasy from God and ignorance of Him, which is the death of the soul because of which even those who live in the body are called dead and dead because of their distance from God which proceeded from a preoccupation with the things of the world.” He also would note that contemplation is just a part of the broader process of communion with a Higher Power. And of course, we should not forget to mention other traditional monk practices that make the experience whole, such as purification through prayer, repentance, and asceticism.
Take a deep breath…
In today’s frenetic world, our minds are preoccupied with the “race for more”, which is mostly about possessions; we think and react without taking a deep breath. In order to make space for silence in our chaotic, high-velocity lives, some spiritual teachers suggest meditating on the phrase: “I am - the breath…”Those simple words are the quintessence of life: not less, not more, no noise.
If it was as simple as calling upon people to limit their needs, the world around us would be transformed overnight. But only the discovery and appreciation of the value of contemplation, the pause for contemplation in everyday deeds, in dialogues and discussions, in the development of thought, can deliver a spiritual turnaround. Once others’ words and actions are muted, you might be surprised by how you sound “inside”. When Mozart was asked what was most important in his music, he replied: pauses! Pauses in which he heard – and we too can hear, if we truly listen - Divine breath...
A moment of silence might be the moment of all-encompassing understanding of how measurably little we have all accomplished. It might be the moment of a powerful defeat that is itself part of a complete experience of life and eventual happiness. We all need a little break to enjoy an absolute silence that would really help us to hear.