NOTHINGNESS: Leisure As Silence, by Michael Casey

From Strangers to the City

Leisure is not idleness or the pursuit of recreational activities.  It is, above all, being attentive to the present moment, open to all its implications, living it to the full.  This implies a certain looseness in lifestyle that allows heart and mind to drift away from time to time.  Monastic life is not a matter of shoehorning the maximum number of good works into a day.  It is more important that monks and nuns do a few things well, being present to the tasks they undertake, leaving room for recuperation and reflection, and expecting the unexpected.  Leisure allows openness to the present.  It is the opposite of being enslaved by the past or living in some hazy anticipation of a desirable future.  Leisure means being free from anything that would impede, color, or subvert the perception of reality.  Far from being the headlong pursuit of escapist activities and having fun, authentic leisure is a very serious matter because it is the product of an attentive and listening attitude to life.

Leisure is a form of silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.  Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. (Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture)

Benedict’s monastery is a place of leisure because those who live there are committed to a life of mindfulness.  Being attentive requires, first of all, that we renounce the desire to control what happens around us, to manipulate reality, to impose our will on events or on other people.  We often think that those who try to keep control of everything around them are strong and domineering people, attempting to rule others and to mold them in their own likeness.  Usually this is not so.  Control-freaks are most often fearful people who are threatened by the prospect that events would be allowed to take an independent direction.  Underneath the firm grip and the bluster is a wavering self-confidence that fears to face the unexpected.  By constraining everything to squeeze itself into the hard shell of their expectations, they fail to read and respect the reality of the world around them.  They are heedless of what is outside themselves because they are driven mercilessly by their own insecurity.  Their life is a constant battle to prevent reality from asserting its independence.  Their inner voices are shouting so loudly that they can hear nothing else.

We all need to learn the art of silence, to still the clamor that comes from within as well as securing for ourselves a zone where outward noise is sometimes hushed.  Above all we need to teach ourselves to become somewhat more silent, because it is through an undisciplined tongue that much of our personal and social disturbance comes.  In a world where communication is huge, it takes a fair amount of resolution to create for oneself a sphere of silence, in which external urgencies are put on hold and words are weighed.  Just as it is important for us to make “quality time” for people we love, so we need to reserve some moments – and more than moments – for coming to an understanding of what is happening within us and around us.  We will never have a listening attitude to life unless we spend time listening.  That means we stop talking and we stop engaging in the consciousness-absorbing activities and start paying attention.  If we do this often enough, it may become semi-habitual.

Of course, such periods of silence and solitude have to be purchased at the expense of other activities, and that is what we do not like.  We do not want to give up any of the elements that we have built into our lives, be they ever so trite and paltry.  We have first to be convinced of the value of holy leisure.  This is where a problem arises.  Leisure is content-free; it is good in so far as it is filled with goodness, but it obviously has the capacity to be poisoned by malice. This is why there is, notably in Latin, a certain ambiguity about the term itself and a corresponding ambivalence towards the reality it describes.  Leisure is empty space.  We find it hard to make room for nothing in our crowded lives; like nature we abhor a vacuum.  Better to do something useful, we say, than simply mope.  A period of involuntary inactivity due to unforeseen circumstances we find very hard to endure.

Silence, however, stands outside the world of profit and utility; it cannot be exploited for profit; you cannot get anything out of it.  It is “unproductive.”  Therefore it is regarded as valueless.  Yet there is more help and healing in silence than in all the “useful things.”  Purposeless, unexploitable silence suddenly appears at the side of the all-too-purposeful, and frightens us by its very purposelessness.  It interferes with the regular flow of the purposeful.  It strengthens the untouchable, it lessens the damage inflicted by exploitation.  It makes things whole again, by taking them back from the world of dissipation into the world of wholeness.  It gives something of its own holy uselessness, for that is what silence itself is: holy uselessness. (Max Picard, The World of Silence)

Attentiveness is acquired by most people through a habit of reflectiveness – learning to step back from experience to ponder its meaning.  Most often meaning presents itself to a gently disengaged consciousness – fierce interrogation habitually yields nothing.  As Archimedes discovered, insights often come at the most unlikely moment.  Those who give a high priority to the pursuit of wisdom should, accordingly, try to structure their lives so that times of disengagement are multiplied.  This is not necessarily a matter of scheduling in high-powered periods of concentration; at least this is not Benedict’s way.  In the traditional ordering of the monastic day “intervals” were provided in which nothing much happened.  Provision was made for the possibility of moving from one place or activity to another, for leaving aside a particular occupation and temporarily disengaging from its concerns.  Leisure means living gently; it is the opposite of being driven or obsessed.  It involves getting on with the job at hand and detaching oneself from it when it is time to move on to something else.  To some extent leisure invites us to cultivate the virtue of inefficiency.  We are far more likely to notice the scenery if we dawdle along the way than if we rocket along at mind-numbing speed.  Leisure calls us to avoid the cumulative sense of incompletion that occurs when we find ourselves burdened with the weight of so many cares and unfinished tasks.  It is a childlike concern only for the present.  I suppose it was easier in a world not dominated by calendars and clocks simply to take each day as it comes.  On the other hand, making the effort to overthrow the tyranny of time yields proportionately higher profits to those of us who try it sometimes.  It is like a liberation.  We have to realize, however, that the tyrant is inside us, not outside.

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