Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Scared of Silence?

What thoughts go through my head, watching sunset at sea? No distractions -- no cellphone, no internet, no other people, just little tiny us and the ship in the big uncaring Universe. Ocean makes you feel introspective, salty, elated, and humble, all at once. And depending on the weather, either bored or terrified; there is no in between.

A good friend of mine has booked a silent retreat at a monastery at the end of her summer work gig.  She has spent time in monasteries or convents before, but always doing some sort of program where there would be quite a bit of interaction with people. This time would be a first for her; one week of silence. "There will be one meeting a day with a, what would you call it, a spiritual guide? Counselor? And that’s it," she explained. "Looking forward to it, a wee bit scared, and most of all curious...... It’s not so much the silence in itself that I find challenging but the letting go of distractions."

What does my friend's vacation plan have to do with sailing? Her confrontation with silence will happen within the structure of the monastery, where the bells define the rhythm of the day, with morning prayers, coffee, chores, noon prayers, lunch, ... etc. That's really not very different, in many ways, from our time at sea, with days broken up into watches and chores and staying alert for navigation hazards. We don't have enforced silence, but once we're far enough from shore, cellphone signal fades. No more bopping around the internet looking for soundbites or checking friends' Facebook statuses. Without those distractions, time shifts to a slower pace. We can read, or write, or draw or daydream, or whatever creative pursuits we choose. Or, simply watch the waves and the clouds.

At sea, we are alone, not lonely. The silence isn't static. (Silence? It seems such a living breathing thing that its name should be capitalized.)  When your head isn't filled with busy-ness as it is non-stop in ordinary land-based life, thoughts that you haven't really had the time to think will bubble up to the surface to be examined. My friend is looking forward to this. "Something may just pop up from inside of you, from deeper layers, if that makes sense." You never know what that "something" is going to be until it happens, though. Occasionally profound, often mundane, or sad, or sometimes frightening, the thoughts come.

For some of our younger El Galeon crewmates, or for the midshipmen that Dan trained when he was a sailing coach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, out at sea was the first time in their lives they had ever been disconnected from the internet and cell phone service and experienced that Silence. For some people, that might not be a good thing. I knew one person who had witnessed some truly horrific things when they were in middle school. I'll spare us all the graphic details, but let's just say he was entitled to all the slack you could cut him. Smart kid and straight-A student ... he tried very hard to always be busy and never be alone. On land, there were people, and parties, and alcohol, and the internet. And when he was alone he was playing on his phone. So when we were at sea (his first time!) for too long it was devastating. Without the distractions there was time to confront all those memories, no choice but to confront them really, and he totally fell apart.  He was smart enough to know what was happening to him and why, but he couldn't figure out how to escape it. As far as I know, he never went to sea again; got a job doing two-hour day tours in the Bay. That too I guess is the power of silence without distractions. My friend said that there was a mental-health questionnaire she had to fill out before she could go on her silent monastery retreat; I guess they must have had some bad experiences with people in the past, similar to the kid I've described.

For us, the Silence has never been threatening. I think we've had lucky lives so far. For us, it's deeply introspective, and powerful, and revealing, and also very refreshing. We head out in a few days for an easy two-day trip to our temporary hurricane-season marina, and I'm looking forward to seeing what thoughts come up!

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