Stillness and Stagnancy
I have always been fascinated with stillness and silence. I feel like I am losing my interest in stillness because I have had so much of it lately.
I laugh at myself now for having wanted to be a nun at an earlier developmental stage of my life. I admire the simplicity and silence. I knew I could handle the celibacy. I longed to develop spiritually and make a statement regarding our over-consuming, stupidly busy, and noisy culture. I now realize that at least some of my longing was nothing more than not wanting to deal with the real world, which I knew I was woefully unprepared for. Thomas Merton saw his shortcomings after many years of the cloistered life. He eventually took a lover in “M”. He said in a journal (quoted in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, where all these quotes come from), “I have surrendered again to a kind of inimical womanly wisdom in M. which instinctively seeks out the wound in me that most needs her sweetness and lavishes all her love upon me there. Instead of feeling impure, I feel purified (which is in fact what I myself wrote the other day in the “Seven Words” for Ned O’Gorman. I feel that somehow my sexuality has been made real and decent again after years of rather frantic suppression (for though I thought I had it all truly controlled, this was an illusion).” The hilarious irony of it all is that I now live a life of relative poverty and celibacy. I come close to living a nun’s life now. I am almost monastic now, and not by choice!
Merton recognized his own immaturity, something many never do. I am so glad I never had the opportunity to be a nun, not that I could have handled the obedience part of it. Obedience is a fine value—for a six-year-old. It is not an adult value and it is mutually exclusive to independent thought, meaning that the more you do of one, the less you do of the other. I have chatted with nuns and found them to be weirdly innocent. Their innocence is genuine, and entirely age-inappropriate. Imagine knowing you would always have your basic needs taken care of. They are girls dressed up in women’s apparel. Not having to deal with the real world makes emotional maturity completely superfluous and threatening.
Yet, I still kept seeking stillness and silence, even in a Buddhist context. Our culture is still obsessed with consumption, speed, and noise. The real world is truly insane at times. We all need an escape, a vacation.
What I understand now is that there needs to be a balance of activity and stillness. Stillness is like an island in a turbulent ocean, or, as Iyer states, a way station. “Indeed, Nowhere can itself become a routine, a treadmill, the opposite of something living, if you don’t see it as a way station: sometimes during his days on Mount Baldy, Leonard Cohen would get into his car, drive down from the mountain, and stop off for a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s. Then, suitably fortified, he’d go back to his house in one of the more forgotten parts of central Los Angeles and stretch out in front of The Jerry Springer Show on TV.” For years, I went to school and tried to work. Graduation was such a relief. I really needed a break. It’s been a couple years now since I’ve been in classes. Not doing anything meaningful, with a sick husband, in a house I can’t take care of, in a state lacking decent jobs, creates stagnancy. This is the ugly side of stillness. This is stillness gone wrong. The break was nice, at first. Now, it’s just meaninglessness writ large. It’s time to swim away from the island back into the turbulent waters, get back on the horse of life, however you want to put it. It’s time to move.