The assignment sounded so simple: just spend twenty minutes alone in silence, and then write about it.
That was the essence of the task I gave out every fall to my nature and culture students, and every spring to my religion and culture students. So deviously simple.
Of course, I could sense a little tension building in the room as I added details: no cell phones, no music, no computers or TVs or any other distracting technology. My nature and culture students had to do it outside somewhere; my religion and culture students could do it inside or out. Twenty minutes. How hard could that be?
But ours is a culture of noise and distraction, described by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton as “the murderous din of our materialism.” Not only is it hard to break away from the noise, it is even hard for many of us to recognize just how much we have allowed it to dominate our lives.
The Assignment’s Terrifying Nature
My assignment forced students, at least for one day, to face the uncomfortable truth. Used to pulling out their phones whenever they had a free moment, they had nothing to do with their hands. Used to blocking the outside world with ear buds and their favorite music, they had no filter. Used to responding immediately to every beeping and buzzing notification, they had no sense of what was going on elsewhere for twenty minutes.
They were alone. Utterly alone. And for many, it was terrifying.
The thing about silence, for those who aren’t used to it, is that in the absence of the daily din another kind of noise seizes the advantage. When we enter into silence we come face to face with our own restless selves. Turning off our inner voice is much harder than powering down our cell phones. When we put the world away and spend even a short time in silence our fears and anxieties, bad memories and impulsive desires clamor for our attention like hungry toddlers.
The Assignment’s Subtle Attraction
Many of my students said it was the most difficult assignment of the semester. It took them way out of their comfort zone. It unnerved them. A few admitted they couldn’t make it the whole twenty minutes.
But while nearly every student described how hard it was, many of them said that at the end of twenty minutes they felt a peacefulness that they hadn’t experienced in some time. Most of these students said they wanted to make a habit out of stepping away from the daily din and letting their restless minds settle down in a practice of silence and solitude.
I know the pressures of the world. I assume most of these students let the many demands of life take precedence. But I think there will come a day when they recall this most devious experiment, and will try it again. When they are ready to turn it into a consistent practice, they will reap the benefits that they only barely began to sense during that college experiment. The inner distractions will begin to fade over time, and the silence of time and place will become a silence in the heart that they can carry with them, easing the stress and strain of their busy days.