For Many Voices blog: The Quality of Silence

The Quality of Silence

In 1983, I was working as an assistant to the director of Naropa Institute’s first Summer Writing Program. One of founders of the poetry program there—Diane di Prima—was teaching that summer, and reports were coming in that she was refusing to “workshop” students’ poems. As lowest in the chain of command, I was chosen to be the one to explain to Diane that the program was built on the idea of one-on-one teacher-student interaction, including in the classroom. It was spelled out in everything she received about what was expected of her that summer—including her contract.

But Diane wouldn’t budge. She said that she would only critique someone’s poems if they had worked closely together for at least a full year—four seasons. Before that, what right had she to meddle? “How do I know,” she asked me, “if an angry poem is a cry for help or attention or someone finally speaking out after a lifetime of silence or just some kid who likes throwing bombs because they enjoy the carnage? These kids will get more than enough advice on how to write their poems. What they’ll get in my class is the luxury of being heard, and the respectful silence that follows, which will go a long way toward healing a multitude of sins.”

A decade later, I learned through my work with Allen Ginsberg that Philip Whalen—the San Francisco Renaissance poet, Sensei of the Hartford Street Zen Center and AIDS Hospice, and a very important writing teacher for me at Naropa—was legally blind and recuperating from triple bypass surgery. I wrote to see if I could help out in person in some short-term way, and I heard back from his assistant, who worked out the details.

Allen gave me some additional assignments. The first was to make sure that Philip’s weekly dharma talks were being recorded. Allen would pay for it if need be, but he couldn’t imagine the Zen center didn’t have the means and the staff to tape and preserve Philip’s talks, which is what people were telling us.
Everyone who had heard one of his talks would smile when asked about them. The word “erudite” came up a lot, as well as funny and literary and surprising and biting and smart and even uncomfortable. Sometimes he would start with a Buddhist maxim or a bit of Zen poetry or a piece of local news, but pretty soon he’d be telling bawdy stories of his famous friends in their prime, or recounting his pleasure in reading Jane Austen and Faulkner, or he’d begin to sing a verse or two of a popular song and begin weeping as if he were drunk.
So my first assignment would be to do what was necessary to make sure the talks were being recorded and preserved, and my second was to bring home as many of them as possible and to get Philip to agree to allow them to be transcribed—Allen would pay for it—with the intention of creating a selected dharma talks of Philip Whalen out of them.

But Philip wasn’t having any of it. First of all, his blindness had made anything to do with publishing extremely difficult. Plus, he was a Sensei now. His interest in writing and publishing had waned as the demands of being the head of a Zen center and an AIDs hospice in the early ‘90s in San Francisco’s Castro District had increased.

Besides that, in his weekly talks he saw his first obligation as addressing those who made the effort to get there. These talks, he told me, were never meant to somehow stand outside of time and address eternal concerns in a never-changing way. When he wanted to address the multitudes, he would speak through his published work. If he was talking to a general audience—who knows?—he might be saying the exact opposite of what he was saying in the Zendo. “Silence is better than the wrong words at the wrong time.”
It’s interesting to me that the ethics surrounding what we do here are such a prominent concern to poets, but in all the time I’ve worked at Sounds True I’ve only had two authors challenge the what and why of it. The first was a non-dualist teacher. During our planning conversation on the night before the final day of recording, he made a snarky comment that we were just creating something else that people will put in the way of finding what they were looking for, one more distraction, one more waste of time. “This is not how it happens,” he snapped at me. “We’d be better off releasing six CDs of silence.”

I’d worked with this author—whom I very much liked and still very much like—for almost a full year in preparation for the recording, and I felt blindsided, especially so late in the process. I knew we were all a little worn out at the end of almost a week of recording, but I couldn’t just pretend not to hear what he said. Tomorrow would be too late—this was something I had to address immediately.
I told him that if he really felt that way, we were going to have to talk about what to do with the recording time that we had left. We didn’t have enough time to record a completely different set in one day, but we needed to do something to correct or address that before we were through. If he wanted to deconstruct the entire process he’d led them through so far, fine, we can do that. The poet in me would even find that exciting. Or if he wanted to address that in a sort of important sidebar that we create—and put it in the beginning or drop it in here or put at the end—whatever, great, we can do that. I’ll record anything you want, I told him, but I won’t go into the studio tomorrow with an author who doesn’t believe in what we’re doing.

The only other time I’ve had this conversation was just before recording Unconditional Self-Acceptance with Cheri Huber. This was the first time we’d worked together and I enjoyed talking with her on the phone in the weeks leading up to the recording. But when we met for dinner on the night before the recording, she told me she no longer had any confidence in the program we’d so carefully outlined and designed over the phone.
“We’ve read all the books, we know what to do, but nothing ever changes. I don’t think what people need is more words—I think the only thing that will satisfy them is to experience what they’re longing for.” And she described a live retreat, a series of meditations and practices, one-on-one, with as little presentation as possible, and all of it focused on direct experience, a guided personal journey to the experience of “unconditional self-acceptance.”

I was inspired by her vision and excited by the passion in her voice. That’s why Sounds True is in the audio business in the first place—so the teacher and student can actually think and breathe and experience something together. The audio recording is first and foremost an experience—the experience of being in the presence of a spiritual teacher, talking directly to you.

But I’m certain the producer in me was frowning. First of all, the night before a recording isn’t the time to be having this discussion. But what could I do? I couldn’t make her record something she didn’t believe in. She’d stressed that she’d taught this material in workshops for years but in our planning we’d gone a different way, somehow. Normally I would work with her past experience, not against it. But we’d never worked together before and the studio is a strange environment the first time you work with someone, and this isn’t the set that the company had envisioned, and I had no idea if I’d like what she liked about what we were about to record.

So I told her I didn’t know if this was going to work or not, but I was willing to go into the studio and record the program she was describing and do everything in my power to help it be a success, but she had to understand that if at any point I thought it wasn’t working, we would stop and have a discussion about what I thought needed to be different. If we came to an agreement, we would continue. But I reserved the right to pull the plug at any time for any or no reason.

And that began what turned out to be one of my favorite programs and experiences in the studio. And—in retrospect—of course it was. Cheri knew who she was and what she was good at—and who she wasn’t and what she wasn’t good at—better than I did.

It’s still something of a mystery—and I want it to be—but the most useful thing I’ve learned to help me understand what I’m doing in the studio is something I learned from a Dzogchen lama. He said that part of his training as a lama was learning how to speak in such a way as to have sustenance for the three types of people present at any dharma talk.

The first type of person is the “student”—the ones taking notes. They’re seeking understanding and they’re focused on your words, so your words must be impeccable. The worst regret is to have confused or misled those who have come to you for instruction in good faith.

The second type of person is the “practitioner”—the ones sitting and breathing mindfully. What they’re looking for is not in your words—they’re watching the way you sit, the way you reach for your tea, the way you drink it, the way you put it down. They are watching you for clues in how to be in the world, so you must be impeccable in your behavior, moment to moment, and realize that once you take on the role of teacher, you are never off-stage.

The third type of person is what he called the “graduate.” Those are the ones who are no longer looking outside of themselves for anything—even ways to be. They would be just as happy anywhere but tonight they are present to support and share in the energy that a good teacher can deliver in these kinds of situations. Connecting mentally to these “graduates” in your audience will connect you to what you are really doing when you are talking to a room full of people. They remind you that the words are the surface of what you are doing. And that who is speaking—the physical and emotional and mental body the words are coming through—is the vehicle. But the most important thing you can be doing with both is pointing to the ever-present silence and what can only be communicated in silence.

The reason I say that’s the most useful thing I’ve learned about recording is that it’s made me realize that when something’s not working, I have three places to look. Is the problem in the words, in the ideas, in the presentation? Or is it in the body, in the breathing, in the voice? Or is it in the awareness present, the mindfulness, the quality of silence?

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