Working in Silence
Silence is your treasure. Do not exchange it for an easy life.
This is my revision of a sentence by Zen-Getsu, which I came across as an epigraph and am keeping as my watchwords for these next few months up in my room. The original subject is poverty. What I understand to be at the heart of the counsel is the worth of the difficult thing. Difficult gifts–poverty or silence, possibilities for greatness, whatever your own opposites of easy may be—come to us all. We can try to get out of them, or we can try to live up to them, present, conscious, willing to be changed without even knowing what that means.
Probably most things are as good a way out of your practice as a way in. Probably things that are not-writing can become writing.
I’ve always known how much I need silence as part of my writing practice, and I’ve almost always found it very difficult to stay inside it. This quarter of the Gift of Freedom grant I’m writing about women’s work, which for me means work with needles. I’ve been quilting, knitting and crocheting since I was a girl. I have loved it all my life. There is something of feminine wisdom in this kind of work, or there can be. When I’m talking about quilting or knitting, often someone will say–Oh, I don’t have the patience for that. It’s not so simple as what we usually think of as patience. It’s not about looking for a logical balance of time put in versus what you end up with, the product not measuring up to the effort involved in the process. Maybe it’s like the task of sorting the seeds that comes up in the fairy tales—a slow, painstaking illogical labor in which marshalling attention for every nuance is both the process and the product–one of the yields of such a task being the ability to bring that quality of attention to bear on whatever is at hand. Marie-Louise von Franz says that the exercise of that kind of attention is the feminine heroic task. Or sometimes it’s the repetitiveness of the task that can conjure a kind of meditative state in which your internal chatter goes quiet and other things get a chance to rise up from the deeper places.
When I look at this soft pile of quilts, I feel floating up from them the quiet hours of the women who made the tens of thousands of stitches that fastened their own quiet to the quiet of the cotton.
Here’s the rub. Everything has its shadow side. Pick up your needles and turn on the TV or your noise of choice, call it busy work, let in whatever comes from the outside to occupy your inner world, and you have a perfect recipe for absence. Probably most things are as good a way out of your practice as a way in. Probably things that are not-writing can become writing. I saw an exchange the Dalai Lama had with a man who asked how to maintain the discipline of a practice when you have to take the kids to school and go to work and pay bills and all such as that. He told the man that in the beginning you must be very organized and disciplined to establish your practice and after that—it’s all practice.
I believe whatever I bring my silence to can be part of my practice, likewise whatever offers silence up to me. When I look at this soft pile of quilts, I feel floating up from them the quiet hours of the women who made the tens of thousands of stitches that fastened their own quiet to the quiet of the cotton. In that kind of silence, nothing has been said, nothing has been decided, everything is possible. In that kind of silence everything is yours to make and to say.
Poet Diane Gilliam is the winner of the 6th $50,000 Gift of Freedom.