Being Still

Shōrin-zu byōbu (The Pine Trees Screen) by Hasegawa Tōhaku. The empty space in this piece is considered to be as important as the trees depicted. Credits to Wikipedia.Shōrin-zu byōbu (The Pine Trees Screen) by Hasegawa Tōhaku. The empty space in this piece is considered to be as important as the trees depicted. Credits to Wikipedia.

During conversations, I like to reflect on what was said or think through what I’ll say next. This sometimes leads to pauses and silences. Some people find it awkward, most admire that I’m comfortable with silence.

The fact that I’ve been complimented by this suggests that it isn’t common. There’s the idea of awkward silences, where silence is seen negatively. There has to be constant chatter, constant activity. Instead of taking time to think, someone will speak whatever’s on their mind to fill the void. 

Western society seems to have this pervasive fear of stillness. We’d rather scroll on newsfeeds than feel bored. We’d rather listen to the newest pop album or a Joe Rogan podcast than listen to silence. We’d rather dance to loud music where we can’t even hear ourselves think than spend a night alone. As a society, we choose overstimulation, we choose productivity, we choose entertainment, rather than silence, emptiness, and solitude.

Hayao Miyazaki on the Meaning of Emptiness

Satsuki, Mei, and Totoro waiting at a bus stop in My Neighbor TotoroSatsuki, Mei, and Totoro waiting at a bus stop in My Neighbor Totoro

Eastern culture shares a different relationship with emptiness than its Western counterparts. This is seen through legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films. His films have a sort of gratuitous motion” where instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are. In a 2002 interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki comments on the importance of emptiness in his films:

We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.”

He clapped his hands three or four times. The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.

American filmmakers are afraid of silence”, says Miyazaki. They fear that the audience will get bored and get some popcorn. Thus, they create films that bombard the audience with non-stop action to keep them entertained”. This is in contrast to Miyazaki’s philosophy where pockets of stillness are essential. Similarly, pockets of stillness are essential in everyday life. 

Claude Debussy famously said, Music is the space between the notes.” This is as true for music as it is for life. However, our industrialist society ties our self-worth to our productivity. We have to make more money, learn new skills, and waste no time. Hence our culture’s fetishization of productivity porn and hustle culture. But we aren’t machines. We aren’t meant to produce around the clock. Emptiness, boredom serve a purpose. Through emptiness we experience silence. Through silence, we quiet the noise and distraction of our outer and inner world. And when our outer and inner worlds are silent, then we can think for ourselves. We become nonconformists, resisting the tyranny of the masses. And cease to become followers but become leaders instead.

Creating Pockets of Stillness

Western society is beginning to recognize the value of stillness with its recent fascination with mindfulness and meditation. This is a big step forward. Meditation trains us to be present and being present is key to cultivating pockets of stillness within our lives. 

Whether that be meditating, daydreaming, or riding a bike to nowhere this all has a purpose. Next time you’re dining out with a friend, be present, listen intently, and embrace silence. Next time you’re idle, resist the urge to pull out your phone and bask in the glory of the moment instead. Next Friday evening, don’t feel obliged to go out. A night in over a cup of tea can be just as enjoyable. 

The more we cultivate stillness, the more we’ll hear, see, and understand. That solitude doesn’t mean loneliness. That emptiness is plentiful. That silence sounds beautiful.

September 11, 2021

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