Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Art of Stillness

People are loud. Not just some people, although some are noisier than others, but all people are noisy. It's not so hard to understand really, people moving around and making noise, and it might seem a grouchy contention that people ought to be quiet, but as we discussed before, silence destroys because some things can exist only in silence. When we last made that point we did so in an aesthetic dimension focused on perception of phenomena. To a different end I would proceed from Romano Guardini's definition of stillness:

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
Many implications flow from these two lines, and bless the souls to whom Guardini preached that blissfully breviloquent–three page–homily, so let us look at those implications in turn.

The need for corporal stillness is perhaps the most obvious necessity for a general stillness. Corporal stillness falls into the categories of the deliberate and the incidental. The prescription for both is simple: stop what you're doing. No typing, talking, texting, or communication. No work and certainly none of the manic multitasking to which the well-intentioned, foolishly overburdened incline. Stopping is the easy part, though, and it's the ensuing void that terrifies modern man back into activity. Not only the common man but also the philosopher both seek activity, the former for entertainment and the latter in endless thinking. What of inner stillness, then?

As Josef Pieper distinguished, [Pieper, 9] since Kant all happenings in the mind have been re-classified as activity. No longer can man simply see or listen or know, but he always actively reasons about an object of inquiry. The medievals, however,

distinguished between the intellect as ratio and the intellect as intellectus. Ratio is the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding. . . whereas intellectus refers to the ability of "simple looking" (simplex intuitus), to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye. [Pieper, 11]
So instead of pacing on an endless treadmill of ratiocination, man may both actively reason and passively receive. The two, however opposed, mutually reinforce. A man would not consider that he knows a piece of music which heard but does not understand, nor one which he understood from study but which he has not heard. Likewise most of us would not say that we know a person about whom we have read but with whom we do not live. The rational and experiential need one another.

So we have ceased our jabbering, curbed our tapping toes, and banished all thoughts from our minds. Now what? One needs a silent space, free from bustling people, blinking and booping electronics, and anything which tugs at the senses. Alas, this includes music, even our beloved relaxation playlists, for recorded music allows us to drown out noise, but it does not create silence from which something else may arise. Such is in contrast to playing, which requires focus and attention. Even physical activity must cease, for the focus is not on the body or its exercise.

So what is the focus? Not the usual subjects of beauty, truth, knowledge, and not even virtue. The goal is where we started: stillness.

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. [Guardini, 11]
The goal is simply being in fullness. Yes, you can use stillness toward the end of knowledge, about oneself and the world, as the philosophers say. You can use stillness as preparation for an experience. In neither case though is use the proper word, for both intellectus and ἡσῠχικός (stillness) imply some superhuman faculty which simply perceives and waits.

Really it was already the end itself, the ultimate paradox of the end that's present at the beginning. [Kingsley, 186]
The knowledge we already have is useless unless we can really live it, in and through ourselves. Otherwise it becomes a burden that can weigh us down or even destroy us, like the oracle of the Phocaeans. We already have everything we need. We just need to be shown what we have. [Kingsley, 191]
Such is not, however, what Guardini cautions against, a withdrawal into the ego, for it is not a conceit, i.e. formed by the mind, rather it is in-formed. It is not rushing activity seeking completion, but the silence of the source, its distillation awaiting perfection.

Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. Matthias Grünewald Verlag. 1939.
Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. The Golden Sufi Center Publishing. 1999.
Pieper, Josef. (Malsbary, Gerald. trans.) Leisure: The  Basis of Culture. Kösel-Verlag. 1948.

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