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Turning It All Off

By Gregory Flannery · February 20th, 2008 · On Second Thought

Our lives are inundated by noise, some of it auditory, some visual, some both. It's hard to realize how unquiet our lives are until we temporarily step outside the familiar regimen of constant input. Doing so can be disturbing -- and rewarding.

Much of what defines our normal daily mindset isn´t even tied to direct human contact. Think about how much of your day involves actual conversation: idle, intense or otherwise. Does it add up to an hour? Two hours?

Now consider the amount of time your attention is absorbed in what we call media: TV, radio, Web pages, blogs, movies, car stereos, newspapers, magazines, iPods, billboards, company newsletters, junk mail, video games. Do you Yahoo?

The barrage is so constant and so stimulating that the most challenging media experience in the 21st century is temporarily turning it all off. I sometimes visit a Trappist monastery known for one of the few rules it imposes on guests: Be silent.

Not talking for a few days is actually very simple, especially when you´re in a milieu that has signs everywhere admonishing, ¨Silence.¨ In such an environment, you soon become conscious of the noise you make when your fork touches the plate or when you close the door to your room, and you find yourself deliberately trying to make no noise at all.

It´s a wonderful way to concentrate the mind.

But silence is more than not talking. It entails not having access to the input -- the noise -- that normally sustains us: e-mail, cell phones, TV, news. When I return from the monastery, I always ask my wife, ¨Is Bush still in office?¨

For two or three days I am utterly and voluntarily cut off from what constitutes the general consciousness. The monastery has a fine library, but every volume and every periodical is dedicated to the exclusive purpose of nurturing your spirit.

Many years ago I interviewed some of the monks for a story in a national Catholic magazine. One of them told me that the only time television had been brought into the monastery was in 1969, when the monks borrowed a TV set to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

The sense of isolation there is similar to what I´ve experienced the few times I´ve been in jail for political offenses, with the difference that jails are not places of silence. In my experience, prisoners generally don´t shut up.

The similarity is the fact that in jail, as in a monastery -- where the monks´ rooms, by the way, are called ¨cells¨ -- a person is deprived of (or free from) the usual flow of information and entertainment that characterize our daily lives. True, most jails have TV sets -- testimony to their ability to pacify the human beast. But just try to get the guards to put on a show you want to watch.

Faced with an uncustomary silence, one´s mind is free to do other things instead of passively reading, watching or listening. That´s when the interior adventure begins.

When I return from the monastery, I´m always glad to catch up on e-mail, learn who phoned and read the newspapers my family has kept for me. Sometimes I´m amazed by the events I´ve ¨missed¨ -- and then I´m surprised that it matters so much to me.

The silence had become so satisfying.

Contact Gregory Flannery letters@citybeat.com



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