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The Challenge of Silence and the Unexpected Power It Holds

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Silence. True silence. How many of you have ever experienced it? For most of us who live in a hustle and bustle type of world, the idea of true silence sounds beautiful (no pun intended). What I’m about to share with you is my story with silence — the grace, the joy, and the terror of it. Getting truly quiet is much more difficult than you think.

A Noisy Life

True quiet is something I was previously totally unfamiliar with, and likely it’s the same for you. Let me paint you my typical day and see if you can relate.

I am full-time strength and conditioning coach at a university on the central coast of California. My weight room is a windowless 2,700-square foot space in the bowels of an old concrete building, and hundreds of athletes make their way through here every day. The nature of this place is rooted in noise. The crashing of bars, the ongoing talking that college kids insist on, and a stereo system that I challenge anywhere to compete with. We intentionally filled this “small” space with ten speakers, two of which are giant subwoofers that can rattle you nearly nauseous. And believe me when I tell you, we test that system every day.

When I go home, I return to a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a three-year-old. If you are a parent, you know what I am up against. Little kids demand almost around-the-clock entertainment and have near superpowers when it comes to chatter, squealing, and an unrelenting need to create noise with their toys and play. It’s almost miraculous what efficient noise-makers they are.

The Challenge of Silence

Cultivating Spirit

I have always been a person of faith, even as a young child. My walk with faith gained true momentum when I was in my early thirties when I started my Qigong studies. In six of the most transformative years of my life, I went from being a single guy who was just a coach, to a married father who was a coach, Chinese Medicine doctor, and Daoist Priest. My life went from rather boring to a life that didn’t have enough hours in the day.

Any of you who have actively pursued your faith know there is a considerable amount of transformation that must come through either prayer or meditation. It’s a nearly mandatory function of any path you might choose. I am a mutt of sorts, having influences from six different systems that frame my approach to my relationship with the Divine. But within all of those systems, the first steps are to dive into introspection, contemplation, and prayer. The deconstruction of the individual, the tempering of the ego, and the elimination of distraction are the vehicles for true transformation.

The hard part is, each of these mentioned activities requires a relative amount of solitude and silence — something it took me a long time to realize I was lacking.

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The First Time

My first true experience with genuine silence was on the Winter Solstice in 2013. My dear friend Michael Castrogiovani is a maintenance man at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, California, just south of Big Sur. He invited me to come up and spend the night, commune with the monks, and do some soul searching. One of the most profound things about this place is that at 8:00pm each night, a bell sounds and the entire property goes into something called Grand Silence. This is a mandatory no-talking time so that the monks and the retreatants can contemplate until sunrise.

Understand, Big Sur is on the coast of California and is one of the most magical places on earth. For those of you so inclined, the energy of this area is booming and clean. The hermitage is up a two-mile incline on the face of a cliff that overlooks the ocean. The views are like something out of a movie. From where I live in San Luis Obispo, California, the drive is beyond words — but something funny happens about 45 minutes from the hermitage. Your cell phone stops working. Yep, the closer you get to the property, the more you realize you are going off the grid.

The Big Sur coastline.

The Big Sur coastline.

Because Michael and I had, quietly, stayed so busy that night with our prayers and meditations, I didn’t realize the magnitude of what was happening to me. The land, those men, the church, the intention of the entire space, and the deafening silence rings you out like a sponge. When I drove down the mountain the following day, I experienced a purging beyond what I could previously imagine. Violently sick to my stomach, I nearly puked in my car in my rush to get home. It took me over a week to feel normal again. It wasn’t a bug or the flu — it was a shift.

A Stressful Second Visit

My second trip was the following Winter Solstice with my friend Chris White. Different than my first visit, we stayed two nights instead of one. The next unique thing was, we didn’t have access to my friend Michael until the second day. This meant we spent our entire first night in complete silence, alone. And the most peculiar thing happened to me. The lack of sound, of any kind, actually stressed me out. I became frantic. I remember being in my sleeping quarters, wide awake, in a near panic and not knowing why. As I tried to calm myself down, the need for noise of any kind became more and more apparent. I barely slept that night.

The second day and night were easier as I settled into the energy of the place. We got a full tour of the property, attended mass, and even got to play in a late night ping pong tournament on the outskirts of the property with some of the workers and one of the monks. The next morning, Chris and I drove home quietly and I began to realize a few things.

The most important takeaway was my need for noise. The ongoing sound in my life (including the white noise machine that I insist on sleeping with) was comforting. But was the noise doing anything for me? Were the ongoing crashes and loud music in my weight room along with unending noise my kids create creating a world for me where I’d become dependent on noise to feel calm? The sad answer to both questions was a resounding yes.

The fountain at the New Camaldoli Hermitage.

The fountain at the New Camaldoli Hermitage (photo courtesy of their website).

My Realization — and James

Somewhere along the way, I’d become addicted to noise. I allowed myself to adapt to the point where when I get true silence, I become stressed. It’s rather sad, as I reflect on it and here’s why. I am a devout man whose relationship with God and all that comes with that is at the top of my priorities. Being a priest myself, I understand and know the subtleties of the messages that are being gifted, the direction that is being downloaded, and the grace that is being bestowed on me. I have, though, effectively created an existence where those gifts are likely being missed because of the level of distraction in my day.

The Camaldolese men of Big Sur have taken very specific vows. Once they complete a three-year probationary period, their initial vows are taken and a life of the contemplative begins. They have given their lives to God and will spend every day forward living a life of poverty, chastity, and most importantly silence. Imagine attending mass five times a day. Imagine having complete and total silence as a mandatory part of your day for over ten hours. Imagine devoting your life to God and completely sacrificing your own worldly pleasures for a chance at total communion. Imagine living the exact same day over and over until your last breath. This is what they have agreed to do.

I am just returning from my most recent visit to the Hermitage. I went there for three reasons:

  1. My friend Michael is leaving the Hermitage to start a new path.
  2. For obvious reasons, I needed to go for a reset and to further my spiritual walk.
  3. I had a meeting with one of my favorite probationary monks, James.

James is a 34-year-old man who is in the third year of his time in Big Sur. He, Michael, and I were tasked to go around to all the buildings on the property to collect the garbage. The monk who is normally responsible for that was ill and we were helping get the job done. As we went from room to room, building to building, we worked in mostly silence. After about thirty minutes, we ended up in the church itself. On the backside of the building is one of the most beautiful rotundas you have ever seen.

The Healing Power of Silence

The rotunda at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, California.

The mass is moved into this area when it is time for Holy Communion. As we were walking through with heavy black bags of garbage over our shoulders, we entered the rotunda and James looked back at me and said, “Something for your spirit.” He then broke into song that was the most breathtaking thing I have ever heard. His voice mixed with the perfect acoustics of the space and made my jaw drop. He sang in four languages while the tears ran down my face.

James previously held a six-figure career in internet securities. He had a comfortable life, was climbing the corporate ladder, and was living what most of us would consider a charmed existence. He had everything he could have wanted — and then he ran into a verse in 1 Corinthians that changed his life.

Healing Power of Silence

Me and my friend James.

I asked him, “Why would a guy with a supportive family, a promising career, and admittedly no troubles with the ladies walk away from it all?” His response was, “Self-discipline.” 1 Corinthians, in James’ words, is about romantic relationships. When you enter into a relationship fractured, damaged, and not knowing yourself, that relationship is already put on uneven ground. James wants to make sure that he has done all of the self-work and cultivated himself to the point where he is either worthy of the woman he chooses or God. He is unsure where he will be in five years, but he knows that before he takes his vows — to a wife or to the cloth — he will be the most complete version of himself, whole and total.

I asked him what was the biggest advantage of being here for his proposed task and he simply said, “The silence.”

Get Quiet

We all have too much noise in our lives. The people in our space, the cell phone in our hands, our televisions, the music — you name it. We are a society of distracted people. For me, silence is a way of reconnecting with myself and with the Divine. The silence has her way with me and I always end up transformed, even if my exposure is short.

We are all making big decisions in our lives when it comes to business, relationships, and family. And these decisions are being handled by people who don’t have all of their faculties about them. How on earth can we expect to make sound, reliable decisions when we can barely string a thought together?

Find the time. Make the space. Turn off your phone, the television, and the radio. Tell your loved ones you are taking a break and make time to just be. It will be some of the most transformative time in your life.

 

Chris Holder
Chris Holder comes to The Whole Life Challenge with an incredibly diversified background. With over thirty years as an athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Chris is also a Daoist Priest and Medical Qigong Doctor.

Under the tutelage of legendary Kung Fu and Qigong Grand Master Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, Chris has been at the forefront of Qigong research at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. Dr. Holder has created a working laboratory within his strength program blending both eastern medical and spiritual practices with western scientific strength training protocols. Having concluded the first-of-its-kind Qigong/strength training study in the winter of 2015, Dr. Holder and his staff are preparing research on Qigong and the induction of flow states along with research investigating Qigong's impact on inflammation in high-level CrossFit athletes.

Known in many circles as a pioneer of kettlebell training at the college level, Chris, a Senior RKC, opened the door in the early 2000s to break the mold and monotony of the traditional methods of training college student-athletes. Having been mentored by some of the most recognizable gurus in the strength training world, Chris is an accomplished Olympic lifting coach, a fully decorated Z-Health Trainer, and a go-to expert on fixing issues with CrossFit competitors.

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