An exercise in silence

I am, once again, doing a “silence” project with my students.  Here is the write-up for this year:

“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” – Pascal

“The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased.  If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply, ‘Create silence’.” – Kierkegaard

Students are invited to participate in this voluntary exercise.  You are free to participate to whatever degree you choose, or not at all.  But I should say that I am convinced that the greater the degree of participation in the exercise, the greater the impact of it.  So if you are going to do this, I would encourage you to put on the letter and more importantly the spirit of the following “laws”.

The exercise begins tomorrow at the end of class and runs until December 3 at the end of class.  Students are agreeing to:

  • not watch any television, movies, or other video
  • not listen to an iPod or other portable music device
  • not play any video games on any sort of device
  • not check facebook, twitter, or any other social networking site
  • not get on the internet (exceptions only for legitimate school work)
  • check email for only 15 minutes a day
  • treat their cell phone like a land line (plug it into the wall and leave it there)
  • not text message, video message, or use any other messaging/texting on a phone, computer or any other electronic device

These are the rules of the exercise.  Following them is a matter of your discipline and honor.  The spirit of the exercise is plain enough – detach yourself from glowing screens and the “digital world” and re-enter the real world for a few weeks.  I think you can do this, and will enjoy the fruits of having done so.  But if  you cannot do it all, remember Chesterton’s maxim that “if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”  Even if you can only cut yourself off from a glowing screen for 3 hours a day, that would be good.

As a sister project, which I think will come naturally, I would encourage you to give up multitasking.  The digital world inundates us with content, and presumes that more is better.  Multitasking is similar, it presumes that the point of life is to “get things done.”  But, in this season of thanks, perhaps we could refocus our priorities.  Be a lover instead of a doer; seek to be measured by your love rather than by your accomplishments.  After all, how would a lover like being part of a multi-task?  (Try texting on your next date while you talk to her and see how it goes over).  So be really intentional in the next few weeks in attending to what is before you.  Be a single-tasker.

Good luck!  Last thing: I encourage those who participate to write a very short (1 or 2 paragraphs) informal reflection on their experience.  Please post it to this post as a comment!

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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4 Responses to An exercise in silence

  1. Tanoya says:

    Apparently, I am pathetic and can’t “sit quietly.” The entire two weeks I was completely distracted by the fact that I didn’t have my phone and couldn’t watch TV (America’s Next Top Model and Modern Family, don’t judge!), or check Facebook, or watch YouTube (music videos) than by realizing all the things I could do with my new found free time. The only part of this challenge I succeeded at was not checking Facebook and keeping my phone on its charger.
    I found that a huge part of my down time is spent absent-mindedly checking social media sites and playing games on my phone. And since I’m on that topic, I actually learned something in class! It’s sad, but true. I probably learned more in my classes this past two weeks than I have in the entire semester. Not having my phone to whip out and play games on or browse the internet when the lecture gets “boring” forced me to either pay attention or sleep. When I was paying attention (and not sleeping) I understood the lecture a whole lot better and wasn’t complaining when I was doing the homework that “I haven’t even learned this in class, yet!”
    On a more positive note, I did take this extra time to plan out my life, fill out scholarship and internship applications (which very much needed to be done), and read “the classics.” (Considering my distractedness I didn’t get a whole lot out of the readings, I would pick them up read a couple paragraphs, put it down, pick up a different one and read a couple of paragraphs out of that.)
    I know that the two weeks isn’t up yet, but I’m done. Lesson learned. I can live without my phone in my pocket and checking Facebook every 20 minutes, but not without my TV shows, I guess.

  2. Aaron Christenson says:

    Ordinarily, I would have spent at least 10 hours over Thanksgiving Break watching movies (Argo, Skyfall, and others) and football. My family saw Life of Pi and Lincoln, two movies I’m going to see asap now that I can, without me. While this was a little difficult to deal with, most of this challenge was remarkably rewarding, and I found that I had more time. I read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in two days, for example.
    The most difficult experience I had came last Friday. I had arranged to go to St. Tomas Aquinas Church with a friend to watch USU’s choir program put on a fantastic concert. Half an hour before I thought it started, he wasn’t at my apartment, so I had to ride my bike to school to find a school newspaper, hoping it would include the event. It did, but the time wasn’t listed and the address was wrong! When I eventually found St. Thomas Aquinas Church, on my bike, in the rain, I was ready to be inspired. The level of effort I put into getting to the church made the concert that much more beautiful. This applied to the rest of this experiment as well; the more difficult the challenge, the happier I was with conquering it.

  3. Tanner Robison says:

    I allowed myself to text for 10 minutes a day (because I am a whimp), but otherwise I left my phone at home, I did not surf the internet or check social media, did not watch TV, and did not play video games. The hardest part for me was the social aspect. I had many friends asking me to watch movies with them, or siblings asking me to play video games with them and it was hard for me to say no. It was hard for me to tell the people that were texting me that it might take me a day or two to get back to them because I could only text once a day for ten minutes.

    After a day or two I began to wonder if there really was a point to the exercise. It seemed that I simply distracted myself with other things when I did not have technology to distract me. But then I decided to go on a walk on a nearby nature trail. I just went out and walked for maybe two hours. I had no phone, no music to listen to, no one to talk to. It was just me. I simply spent the time reflecting and pondering, and sometimes I spent it thinking nothing at all! When I finally got back home I realized something was different. My mind was quiet. I did not have the urge to constantly distract myself, to always be occupied- I was happy to just be! I had a sense of clarity that I can never remember having. It was one of the more powerful feelings of my life!

    On Tuesday I allowed myself to “reconnect with the world” at first it came as a relief (because at times this experiment had become quite tedious for me), but now just a few days later I find myself dissatisfied with being reconnected. I have already lost that clarity and focus that I had just a few days ago. I have noticed that I am actually less happy, less secure with myself.

    This has been a very helpful, and healthful exercise for me. I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much. Because of it’s impact on me I have decided to extend my exercise in silence indefinitely, because life is to short to miss the little things of life because you wanted to check your facebook, and also because life is too long to spend it distracting yourself from yourself.

  4. Dennis Cobb says:

    Buddha often talked about the need of each being to exercise silence.

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