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Journey in Silence

Japanese Postcard: Teahouse and Garden. New York Public Library. Public Domain.

While in Tokyo on Wednesday, April 20, 1955, Joseph Campbell wrote in his journal about an item he read in the morning paper:


Einstein’s formula for success: A = XYZ. A is success in life. X is work, Y is play, and Z is keeping your mouth shut. If it weren’t for the fact that I seem to have a much lower resistance to silence than most people I might be able to add Z to my mixture. Meditation for the acquisition of Z:

a. Ok, nobody’s talking: so what! and

b. Formulate a question (Asian Journals 428)


It’s easy to quickly breeze past Campbell’s anecdote without considering a few thoughts. First, Campbell’s candor suggests that, like many of us, he wrestled with silence. Of course, most of us are glad that Campbell chose not to be silent when given the opportunity to speak, as his words have been meaningful to us. However, silence seemed to be a discipline he recognized the value of yet struggled to practice, at least in public venues at this point in his journey. Second, Campbell’s almost comic solution for dealing with silence is to break it: to formulate a question instead, and invite others to do the talking.


A few months after Campbell’s April comments on silence, he returns to the subject on Monday, July 4. He states, “In Zen, it seems, the great road and chief exercise is sitting in meditation; reading and study are also strenuously practiced – in spite of all the sayings which would seem to suggest precisely the opposite” (567). Again Campbell seems to be exploring the silent traditions and customs surrounding him while simultaneously pointing to the difficulties in the practice. 


I’ve sometimes wondered how a young Joseph Campbell might have maneuvered in our modern world of social media. Ours is an age where silence has become a rare commodity. We are constantly spoken to (and many times shouted at), both with visuals and audio, through televisions, phones, computers, and any number of communication and entertainment devices. In a world where individuals are more often treated as consumers than humans, multi-billion-dollar industries work around the clock to assure we are never afforded a moment of silence. It seems that precious silent moments are only granted to honor significant deaths or sacrifices, speaking to the enduring sacredness of such acts. 


One evening this week, a car blazed through my neighborhood and careered into a wooden pole that carried electricity, phone service, and internet access from home to home. All the devices and appliances that normally keep me from silence were struck mute in an instant. My cell phone couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi. My television gave up the ghost. Even the hum of my refrigerator was struck with a sudden case of laryngitis. I spent the next two hours in utter silence. It was divine. It was refreshing. It was also frightening. It was lonely. Like Campbell, I wrestled with the silence. I recognized that noise had become a conversation partner that was constantly speaking to me yet never listening. Comforting me by continually assuring me that it was there. I wondered if this was actually preferable to the abandonment of silence. Questions kept rising to meet me from the nothingness: When was the last time I remembered my life being this quiet? Why can’t I hear airplanes, crickets, or something? Why does quietness sound so... loud? After a few moments, I began to hear something subtlety traversing the silence. It was my body—my own heartbeat.  It was when I was surrounded by silence, that I began speaking to myself. The messages I spoke to myself were soft, accented with low bass notes of the bodily beat that accompanied them. They were messages beyond words or language. Even in the midst of sound, there seemed to be something desirable in the pursuit of silence. 


Later in the summer of 1955, on Wednesday, August 17, Campbell seems to have discovered a new framework around silence, one that seems to resonate more deeply with him. After becoming fascinated with Tea, he writes, “The essence of Tea…is activity and calm together: form and ecstasis” (629). Campbell’s words describe perfectly the experience of sitting alone in the darkness of my home, my heartbeat the only partner to the silence. It was indeed activity and calm together: form and ecstasis—a silence that was also a journey. 

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