May 3, 2007
Someone has estimated that the average human being has 60,000 thoughts per day -- there's one now -- and that most of those thoughts are the same thoughts day after day. Our minds are chatterboxes carrying on conversations with themselves, usually over mundane concepts like whether to turn right or go straight, choosing ginger sesame dressing or raspberry vinaigrette, "Grey's Anatomy" or "30 Rock."
We don't help matters by infusing our bodies with caffeinated drinks that send our brains into hyperdrive.
In the midst of the Information Age thousands of external messages wash over us each day, from signs to cell phone calls to digital images in high definition.
The challenge becomes to slow our minds enough to be able to contemplate the information. Otherwise we are like encyclopedias, knowing everything (or thinking we do) and understanding little. At the end of each day we're left wondering, What did it mean? Or maybe just, What happened?
"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive," Joseph Campbell said.
Some people search for that by taking risks. Some want constant stimulation.
Sitting in silence is another way to experience being alive, an experience becoming more and more rare. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence, especially in someone else's company. We desperately try to think of something to say. Or we switch on the radio.
But we also observe a moment of silence to pay our respects to someone's memory. DC's church members silently confess their sins. Simon and Garfunkel compared silence to a cancer. That's the other side of silence, being quiet when only speaking the truth will do.
Sitting in silence can be revelatory. One of the revelations is how monkey-minded we truly are. Not thinking of anything is impossible. Thoughts, most of them inconsequential, rush in like fools.
In my experience that never really stops happening no matter how hard and long you try, but the rush slows down. Sometimes you can venture toward T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world," the place that is nowhere and everywhere. The gathering spot where essence transcends reality. Mystics and shamans have beaten paths to this place for thousands of years.
It feels like someplace you've always known.
Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist known for a theory called morphic resonance, hypothesizes that nature has a memory, and that as nature evolves so do the laws of nature. If true, this memory is somewhere down these paths.
In my teens having too much information seemed an impossibility, I believed that the more you know about anything the better informed you are and the better off we all are. Many people's views of the world were heavily influenced by one of the three TV news anchors, men like Walter Cronkite. And that's the way it is, he said. And we believed him.
Now no one trusts anyone like that. We try to sift through all the news programs, the newspapers, the news Web sites, the blogs, the radio programs, the text messages, the emails, for something or someone with an inkling about what it all means and what happened.
Eventually each of us has to stop and ask ourselves.
Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.