Kol Nidre 5771: “Walking the Turtle”
Introduction: Silence as an Endangered Species
As our already frenetic world gets ever faster and louder, we are rapidly losing our last bastions of stillness. No one knows this better than acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has spent over thirty years crossing the continent with a portable sound meter, taking the sonic pulse of
The World is Too Much With Us
I suspect that this sad fact comes as little surprise to most of us, for we are experiencing similar losses in our personal lives, which are becoming noisier and more frenzied at a truly alarming rate. We are awash in a deluge of email and internet, texts and tweets and twitters, i-pods, smart phones, apps and X-boxes, big screens and microchips. We are Bluetoothed, surround-sounded, unremittingly linked in and logged on. It is hard to even remember when spam was a treif lunch meat, a web was something spun by a spider, a blackberry was a fruit, and a friend was a person who you actually knew and spent time with. We have a bad collective case of TMI, Too Much Information, delivered on demand by an omnipresent media that frequently fails to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, or even between truth and rumor—all at a pace and volume that we cannot possibly take in. We are, in short, bombarded by a relentless, cacophonous din, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
It is enough to give anyone a headache, and slowly but surely, we are coming to realize that this torrent of technology exacts a toll. Although the science is still young, and far from conclusive, many researchers now suggest that our constantly wired world is re-routing our brains in some deleterious ways. How, exactly, this is happening, and whether these effects are permanent remains unclear, but one thing is certain: for all of the very real benefits of the new technologies, which can miraculously connect us to billions of other people all over the globe, there is a cost. Tools designed to save time leave us busier than ever. We are forfeiting the precious moments we once used to reflect on our choices, as our attention spans grow shorter and our craving for nonstop stimulation more intense. Rehab centers are filling up with internet addicts who struggle to tear themselves away from their computers and hand-held devices even to eat and sleep. They represent extreme cases, but there are many moments when we catch glimpses of such addiction in our behavior. Who among us has never felt the compulsion to check our email every ten minutes, or stayed on the cell phone while behind the wheel, when we knew we should be directing our full focus on our driving. Meanwhile, studies now show that as we accumulate ever more Facebook friends, we lose close confidants. Here, as in so much of life, more is not better. The more people we know casually, on line, the lonelier we get. Real intimacy demands things that texting and email cannot convey: patience, sensitivity, devotion, and awareness of subtle shifts in mood and tone.
Alas, paradoxically, our mad rush for efficiency doesn’t even make us more efficient. To the contrary: research indicates that when we multi-task, we believe that we are increasing our productivity, but are mostly fooling ourselves. With too much multi-tasking, we only end up doing a lot of different things badly, while experiencing profound stress and exhaustion along the way. William Wordsworth’s lament of two centuries ago rings with ever greater urgency: “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
Reading Cereal Boxes
And yet. . . as easy as it is to point to technology as the catalyst for our frenetic lives, to do so would be to confuse a symptom with the root cause. Our cutting edge toys certainly exacerbate the problem, but they did not produce it. They are, after all, our own inventions, which spring from, and reflect, our desires. Our noisy, high-speed, wired world mirrors our interior landscapes at least as much as it shapes them. We create our environment in our own likeness; if it is defined by its harsh volume and relentless pace, this is largely because we, ourselves, tend to be acutely uncomfortable with silence and stillness. Too much quiet unnerves us, and we are all adept at filling the void with distractions, even if, in the absence of technology, we pack it with our own cavalcade of trivial thoughts.
Jon Kabat Zinn describes this experience in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He writes: The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or that into each moment. . . That impulse would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary value of the contents. . . this impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on, as long as it’s feeding. The newspaper is an even better draw, or the LL Bean catalogue. . . It scavenges to fill time, conspires with my mind to keep me unconscious, just enough to fill or overfill my belly while I actually miss breakfast.
We have all been there, staring at that cereal box, our minds desperate for diversions, for any excuse to steer away from stillness. I experience this every fall on my annual retreat to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Logically, it makes no sense. The monastery is the quietest place I know, located sixteen miles off the nearest road at the mouth of a towering red rock canyon. And that’s the whole point—I go there for the silence, which the monks guard zealously. And yet, immediately upon my arrival, my mind kicks into high gear and I start compiling lists of things to do, books to read, essays to write, and ideas to contemplate. This is invariably how I spend my first two days on retreat: ceaselessly striving to be “productive.” Only after considerable time passes, usually by the morning of the third day, am I able to step back, calm my hyper-active mind, and enjoy the quiet.
When it comes to creating distractions, we are all geniuses. Indeed, our brains are so devious that they can even employ otherwise praiseworthy ideas and activities to disrupt reflective silence. A few months ago, I spent an entire prayer session in my study obsessing over the placement of my tefillin, which, for some reason, just didn’t feel right that morning. Laying tefillin usually enriches my spiritual life, as a physical reminder to focus on my prayers, but that day, my tefillin were the cereal box diverting me from quiet mindfulness.
Why does this happen? Why the constant temptation to use whatever we have on hand—even sacred objects and activities—to generate noise when what we really need is stillness? Why, for we who call ourselves human beings, does doing come so much easier than being?
The Roots of Our Fear: The Denial of Death
The Dutch-born Catholic priest and professor Henri Nouwen suggests that our discomfort with silence is rooted in fear. In his anthology, The Only Necessary Thing, he writes:
As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. . . In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. This chaos can be so frightening and disturbing that we can hardly wait to get busy again, to run to our friends, our work, and other distractions.
Like Father Nouwen, I believe that a great deal of fear lurks just beneath the surface of our frenetic lives. We use our technology—and our chores and lists and reading of cereal boxes and even our friendships—to mask the painful thoughts that would otherwise bubble up from our inner lives. We run from stillness because it lifts the veil that hides our deepest, darkest anxieties.
Rabbi Alan Lew expresses this powerfully in his book about these Days of Awe, This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Echoing Henri Nouwen, and the anthropologist Ernest Becker, Rabbi Lew argues that our obsession with keeping busy is at heart a denial of death—which is, in the end, both futile and destructive:
Against death, which we see as the ultimate emptiness, we offer up the acquisition of objects.
Against death, which we see as the end of all feeling, we offer up the pursuit of pleasure.
Against death, which we see as the final stillness, we offer up a ceaseless rage of activity.
Consequently, we’ve become a nation of workaholics, a people who have come to believe that we can conquer death by dint of our own powers, by a ceaseless swirl of activities. To rest is to die, so we never permit ourselves a moment’s rest, a moment’s quiet.
But in the process we give up our souls, for in spite of our constant effort, there is failure and death all around us. We try not to see it, but the psychic squint we have to make in order to do this reduces everything in the line of sight; not just the void we are trying to ignore. And this squinting requires a tremendous expenditure of energy, energy we desperately need. It never works anyway. Sooner or later we will find ourselves tied to a chair under the bare bulb of the truth.
The Still, Small Voice
As Father Nouwen and Rabbi Lew both teach us, our existential anxiety is intense, and our desire to throw up distractions to evade it is powerful. The culture of avoidance that we have so carefully constructed conspires against our higher calling to confront our fear. Yet if we choose that default option and steer clear of stillness and reflection, we do, indeed, sacrifice our souls and deaden ourselves to the things that matter most. The signature prayer of these Days of Awe, Unetaneh Tokef, proclaims: “The great shofar is sounded, a still, small voice is heard.” The origins of this phrase lie in a passage from the book of First Kings. The prophet Elijah is on the run, hiding in a cave, when God pays him a visit. As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.” These holy days remind us that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire or even in the shofar blast. Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down. The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always. But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly.
Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen! This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One. The Pslamist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.” The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.
So how and where do we start to restore stillness to our lives? As Hillel taught, “If not now, when?” If ever there was a day to begin making space for quiet reflection, this is it. Virtually everything we do on Yom Kippur—the fasting, the long hours of prayer, the white shroud-like garments that remind us of our mortality—the whole package is about facing our fear of death and failure head on. There is always the danger of using the words of the liturgy as a distraction from doing this soul work, for like my tefillin, the prayer book can used to this unfortunate purpose when we obsess over its minutiae and their correct performance. But when we maintain our focus on the lessons at the heart of this most sacred day, the traditional prayers and rituals support our introspection and our slow but steady turning in teshuvah.
Today is also Shabbat, which may be Judaism’s greatest gift to humankind. In our cacophonous, wired world, Shabbat’s call to set aside an entire day for rest and renewal is more radical than ever. Our tradition explains the basis for Shabbat with two different but complementary phrases. First, it is zicharon l’ma-aseh b’reishit—a reminder of the work of creation. The implication is clear: the world will not end if we unplug. Our fast-paced labors are not nearly as important as fool ourselves into thinking. If God, the Creator, can take a day off, we can, too. And second, Shabbat is zecher y’tziat mitzrayim—a remembrance of our leaving
If this sounds overwhelming, think small. I know that no one here, including myself, is likely to become shomer shabbes—strictly, traditionally Shabbat-observant—next weekend. But I am suggesting that we draw on our tradition in incremental ways to instill our lives with Shabbat shalom—with real Shabbat peace and tranquility. Try keeping your computer or cell phone off for at least part of the day. Use the occasion to refrain from spending money, to take a break from our incessantly commercial culture. Instead of driving to the store, slow down and walk to the park with family or friends—and leave the I-pod and the earphones at home. No matter where we start, Shabbat can help us experience the counter-cultural power of Judaism’s core message.
Then, just as the spices at havdallah carry the sweet fragrance of Shabbat into the rest of the week, so, too, can we infuse our working days with Shabbat moments. Let’s set aside some specific times and places as technology-free. We can limit the intervals for checking email, shut down our phones when we get in the car, keep our computers and other devices away from our dinner tables. When we commit ourselves to such small but significant practices, we carve out opportunities to rest and reflect, to stop doing and start being. And when we enter those portable sanctuaries in space and time, we can engage in the opposite of multi-tasking, which is mindfulness, the art of performing the humblest of tasks with rapt, full attention. Pet the dog. Play the flute. Peel an orange. Wash the dishes. What matters is not the content of the task at hand but that we do it with all of our hearts and souls It all comes down to being fully present in the moment, telling ourselves, “This is it.” As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us, gateways to holiness are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are.
Other Voices, Born of Light
And what do we do when our old fears intrude upon our hard-won moments of stillness and reflection, as they are so wont to do? We muster all of our faith and courage and wait them out. As Henri Nouwen reminds us, if we face our fears with patience and purpose, they, too, can teach us, and eventually, they make way for better, brighter possibilities:
If we have the discipline to stay put and not let those dark voices intimidate us, they gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.
These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love. They might at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far. They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light.
In short, our challenge is to endure, to sit with the darkness and despair without running away or yielding to the distractions—and in so doing, through the stillness, transform ourselves.
Conclusion: Walking the Turtle
Gordon Hempton travels the world in search of silence; fortunately, we need not go so far. As much as we need the special wild and quiet places that he is helping to preserve, we can find the ordinary, every day stillness that we require in our own back yards. All we have to do is unplug, slow down, and listen attentively.
In his moving memoir, The Counsel of Dads, Bruce Feiler tells the story of the flaneur, a new type of pedestrian that took to the streets of
On this Yom Kippur, this sacred Shabbat, I pray that we find ways to walk with turtles in the coming months. In this new year, 5771, may we draw on the wisdom of our tradition and our own courage and resolution to restore our souls through the blessing of stillness. And in so doing, may we hear, again, the beautiful whispers of God.
I conclude with the words of Pablo Neruda, from his poem, “Keeping Quiet”:
And now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.